On the Secret Trail of Trash

By Elizabeth Royte

Little, Brown. 311 pp. $24.95

Remember those commercials in which Madge the friendly manicurist encouraged her customers to soften their hands by using her favorite soap? "Dishwashing liquid?" was each customer's invariable response. "You're soaking in it," Madge would say with a triumphant smile. Replace "dishwashing liquid" with "garbage," and you've got the theme of Elizabeth Royte's captivating new book. The skin-softening power of rubbish has yet to be established, but its ubiquity is beyond dispute.

When we're not literally soaking in trash (by bathing in the polluted water that flows from our taps), we're taking it in through our pores and lungs. Much of our intimacy with garbage stems from lax laws that allow industries to taint our streams and befoul our skies. But it is also true, as Royte makes clear, that we ordinary citizens play a substantial role in transforming the land of the free into the republic of rot. She cites figures from the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University showing that in 2003 every American generated 1.31 tons of garbage. Where did it all go? Less than 27 percent was recycled or composted; 7.7 percent was incinerated; and 65.6 percent was "buried in a hole in the ground."

For nearly 50 years, New York City, Royte's hometown, buried its trash in the largest such hole in the world, the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. The city buried "a peak of thirteen thousand tons a day from houses and apartments," according to Royte, "plus an additional thirteen thousand tons a day from commercial and institutional buildings." "For as long as state and federal environmental laws have existed, Fresh Kills had been violating them," Royte notes. When it closed in March 2001, it contained "2.9 billion cubic yards of trash (about the volume of 1,160 Pyramids of Cheops."

Royte's most recent book, The Tapir's Morning Bath, explored a tropical rainforest in Panama. In Garbage Land, she plunges into a mysterious world much closer to home. Curious about how New York handled its garbage after it closed Fresh Kills, she found that "from the moment my trash left my house and entered the public domain . . . it became terra incognita, forbidden fruit, a mystery that I lacked the talent or credentials to solve."

The action -- and putrefaction -- unfolds when she puts on her freelance reporter's hat and decides to follow the rubbish. "I knew that the city's garbage was now trucked far and wide," she writes, "but I didn't know exactly where my stuff went or what happened to it once it arrived." But even as she rides with garbagemen, sneaks into landfills and sits in on countless recycling roundtables, Royte never lets us forget that she is an ordinary citizen just like the rest of us, coping with the demands of marriage and motherhood while chasing her story. She meticulously charts her household's garbage management, earnestly sorting her recyclables while struggling to maintain a compost bin. "Every few days, I dumped my kitchen trash onto my daughter's blue plastic toboggan," she writes. "Picking through my trash felt subversive: it ran counter to the media message that household dirt should be whisked quickly into a compactor or garbage pail. . . . Composting my organic matter, reclaiming my own mess, was beginning to feel political." Her frequent returns to the many scenes in her tiny kitchen are never intrusive and help ground her expansive narrative in a way that keeps it fresh -- in a manner of speaking -- and accessible.

Accessibility is especially valuable in Garbage Land, because the information Royte relays quickly piles up as fast as the trash she relentlessly tracks. Some of the morsels she shares fall into the "who'd have thunk it?" category; others would fit comfortably in the next edition of Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

Among her cavalcade of facts: "While the fatality rate for all occupations is 4.7 deaths per 100,000 workers, garbage collectors die at a rate of 46 per 100,000. In fact, they're approximately three times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers or firefighters." "Depending on its burial context, a Granny Smith apple can biodegrade completely in two weeks or last several thousand years." "As late as 1892, a hundred thousand pigs roamed New York City's streets, feasting on scraps tossed out doors and windows by the working poor, who relied on these animals to convert waste into edible protein." "In 2001, American companies sent out seventeen billion" holiday catalogues, "fifty-nine for every man, woman, and child in the United States -- weighing a total of 7.2 billion pounds."

While mulling over these revelations, readers will discover that there are many ways to describe the cast-off materials and byproducts of our disposable society. Besides the conventional "stuff," "mess," "trash," "litter," "rubbish" and "refuse," Royte occasionally resorts to "feculence," "putrescible waste" and a four-letter word that rhymes with "spit." Then there are the quirky acronyms with which habitues of garbage and recycling circles pepper their speech. ONP means old newspapers; MOW is shorthand for mixed office waste; and OCC stands for old corrugated cardboard. None of these would wind up in a MRF (materials recovery facility, pronounced "murf"), the destination of recycled metal, glass and plastic.

In contrast, the designations for the pollutants deriving from waste mismanagement are totally devoid of quirk. Unsurprisingly, such poisons are plentiful in Garbage Land and generally burdened with less pronounceable names, which helps to endow them with the necessary malevolence. Furans, mercury, lead cadmium, polyvinyl chloride, trichloroethane, benzene and methyl ethyl ketone are among the caustic chemicals that Royte discusses.

As impressive as Royte's doggedness and investigative skill is the care she takes with language. In a book where facts and figures are so plentiful and ominous, felicitous phrasing can work like the proverbial spoonful of sugar. Above a vat in a recycling plant, Royte observes "a shroud of steam" that "obscured its contents until a sudden draft revealed a surface of bubbling brown scum: primordial paper soup." She describes a truckload of cardboard, loose paper and junk mail, newly dumped and entered into the recycling process, as a "mass with a million edges." The immense mounds at Fresh Kills are adorned with "waving fields of fescue." A pile of recycled metal is "a monadnock of shredded ferrous scrap." The prose in Garbage Land flows as if its author read each sentence aloud before committing it to print.

Ever the intrepid reporter, Royte even ventures into the pungent world of human waste disposal, an area that one zealous recycler calls "the realm of taboo." This chapter should not be read while eating. As Royte tells it, cities used to just chuck human excrement into the ocean. The Ocean Dumping Reform Act went into effect in 1991. Until then, Boston dumped 400,000 gallons of sludge into the ocean every day. New York dumped similar amounts.

So what do cities do with it now? They begin with a trick of language. "Somewhere between the treatment plant in Bay Ridge and a factory on the South Bronx waterfront," Royte writes, "my sewage was transformed, semantically, into 'biosolids.' "

In some cities, the newly labeled product is packaged and sold as fertilizer, sporting brand names such as Nu-Earth and Nitrohumus. Fifty-four percent of our waste is handled this way, according to Royte. "The rest is buried in landfills (28 percent), incinerated (17 percent) and 'surface disposed' without processing (1 percent)."

Her investigation of waste-transfer stations and raw sewage dewatering plants enables Royte to cast necessary light on environmental racism. She rightly condemns the practice of building such facilities mostly where poor, nonwhite citizens live. She cites a 1987 study's finding that "three out of every five African Americans or Hispanic Americans live in communities with one or more unregulated toxic-waste sites."

Royte reserves her greatest indignation for plastics, which are not biodegradable in any conventional sense. She laments, "It's estimated that Americans go through about a hundred billion polyethylene bags -- the ubiquitous eighteen-microns-thick grocery sacks that snag on branches, skip along on the breeze, clog sewers and storm drains, and burrow into ditches and dunes -- a year. . . . They persist in the environment for decades, if not centuries."

Royte discovers that alternatives, such as recyclable paperboard boxes, generate waste as well. "Which was preferable? The choices, like so many at the intersection of consumerism and environmental concern, were agonizing." The difficulty of making wise, meaningful decisions is a factor Royte often acknowledges in her praiseworthy book. But just as important as her admission that she doesn't have all the answers is her persuasive demonstration that no one does.

She leaves us with a foreboding premise that even the cynics she has encountered along the trail of trash may grudgingly agree with: "If we don't wake up and make the connection between our economy and the environment (which provides the resources to make all our stuff), the planet will eventually do it for us. And it won't be pretty." *

Jabari Asim is deputy editor of Book World.

Jose Gonzales, a loader operator, moves plastic containers sent in for recycling recently at Recycle America Alliance of Oklahoma City, July 1, 2004. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman/Paul B. Southerland)