Jeramey Jannene

Garbage Land – Book Review

By - Apr 17th, 2011 07:19 am
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Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte

I will admit, I was irrationally excited to read a book about garbage. My love for cities comes with an immense desire to understand what makes them tick. What we throw away, where it goes, and what are the impacts of such actions has always intrigued me. While occasionally a Public Works Committee meeting might offer a little insight into this, it’s nothing like being able to actually follow the contents of your bins to their ultimate destination.

Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte, is billed as a book about “the secret trail of trash”.  The author follows her waste streams from her Brooklyn home to their various destinations across the Northeast. This includes ride-alongs with “san men”, visits to metal scrappers, discussions with composters, tours of MRF plants (materials recovery facility), water treatment plants, and the Fresh Kills landfill.

Royte has a unique style of describing the person giving the tour in addition to the tour itself, which gives a more complete picture of who the people are that do work many of us would never dream of. While I can’t imagine how terrible the environments she encountered smelled at various points, the descriptions of people, as well as place, gave me a much greater understanding of the process rather than simply listing the steps in the process.

The book opened my eyes to the damage we’re doing to the environment, but it also instilled some hope for a better tomorrow.  Packaging our sludge as we do for Milogrante locally (and the book discusses) has its positives and negatives, but the negatives don’t have as much to do with the process as with what we as a society flush down the toilet. Harnessing methane from a local landfill to power our Milogranite production certainly is a positive step, and a way to come closer to closing the cycle.

Of personal interest to me, Garbage Land details the workings of the “bottle bill” in New York, and how it encourages recycling (states with bottle bills recycle beverage containers at a rate of 70-95% versus 37% for states without). A bottle bill would make sense in Wisconsin to help keep our cities clean, but given the state’s current political climate and who the author lays out are the typical opponents I wouldn’t bank on anything anytime soon.

The book reinforced my belief that recycling is something we should be investing in as a society. Hopefully the current budget proposal from Governor Walker to slash funding for recycling doesn’t stop cities from collecting recycling which keeps garbage out of landfills (and thereby allows cities to sell it instead of pay to get rid of it) and reduces our energy consumption (according to the book, the use of recycled materials uses 25% of the energy of virgin wood-pulping).

As the author stumbles upon at multiple points, the more of a market that can be created for recycled materials, the more we will see recycled. Ultimately though, if we want to reduce our waste, we shouldn’t purchase throw away goods in the first place.

Final rating? Garbage Land is worth you’re time if you’re interested in waste, recycling, or what makes a city function.

If you’re interested in getting a first hand look at a piece of the puzzle in Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Materials Recovery Facility offers tours.

Random Fun Fact from the Book: A metal scrapper in New Jersey collects $30,000.00 in change every year from cars they’re about to crush.

Categories: Book Reviews

5 thoughts on “Garbage Land – Book Review”

  1. Juli says:

    In the wake of Governor Walker’s proposed recycling cuts (apparently being restored as of this writing), I actually pondered if it was perhaps a good idea (albeit clearly naive my part on its face) if we embraced the cuts. However, my challenge would be to take the cuts as an opportunity to shift funds currently allocated to garbage collection toward an integrated waste management plan that incentivizes waste reduction and recycling over garbage. In other words, touch the sacrosanct municipal issue of garbage collection.

    While its blasphemous to suggest reducing garbage collection, managing waste better is not very technically challenging. Solutions exist and are already in practice. Just take a look at the Net Zero Waste policies in San Francisco. They already divert nearly 80% of their waste! This is not a dream, but reality in a big, complicated city right here in the great USA: http://www.sfenvironment.org/our_programs/overview.html?ssi=3

    Certainly, the shift to new municipal service infrastructure is challenging, not unlike the challenges faced in the realms of energy or transportation policy. And there are real costs. However, in the case of waste, existing infrastructure is actually readily adaptable to more progressive approaches. For example, our existing garbage trucks already adapt to pick-up recyclables. Additionally, the behavior changes that would be required by citizens are also already understood, being done in many households and businesses, and don’t cost more. In fact, waste reduction actually is proven to cost less. I am sure the book does a much better job developing these arguments than I could. At the risk of dramatically oversimplifying, I think, like most things, we lack leadership and political will. And probably some money.

    One specific item that seems to be low hanging fruit in Milwaukee is a personal pet peeve. We are demolishing hundreds of houses each year in the city. Construction waste makes up the largest part of the waste stream, yet we have not been able to do a better job of saving, salvaging, or at least recycling these materials. Most homes are still demolished and primarily landfilled. Surely we can get our heads together and find a better way. I would also like to see broader adoption of food waste composting city-wide, integrating compost practice into our growing urban agricultural efforts – creating a closed-loop regenerative system. This is happening now through private initiative, but public policy could really accelerate adoption.

    At the City of Milwaukee, we have an Office of Environmental Sustainability, a dedicated Recycling staff, a Department of Public Works, a Health Department, and a Department of Neighborhood Services and probably a bunch of other public servants scattered throughout the system working on services that inter-relate. So, in the absence of leadership from the top, how about infiltration from within? Here’s a call to any renegades across those departments – why don’t y’all get together over beers and figure out a way to subvert the dominant paradigm? I know you can do it. Net Zero Waste Milwaukee. The time has come.

  2. Fabal D'louieu says:

    Dudes – you need a form on your site for sending ideas and tipes!

    Anyway, un -related to the above. I have an idea for you:

    We need a movement to entice Kohl’s to move their HQ downtown. I propose a contest to design a hypothetical HQ building for them on some existing surface parking lot or park east land. Why not call it out? See what people come up with – require not just design, but also a financial package and business reasoning as to why downtown is better than wrecking a golf course in Menomenee Falls…. even if it’s futile, it would be fun to see what people come up with and send it to Kohls – just get their attention – ESPECIALLY the employees!

    What do you think?

  3. Fabal D'louieu says:

    Guys – I’m sorry, I can’t tell if posts are coming through here and there’s no contact form on the site.

    I have a huge idea for you – a contest to design a location and plan for Kohl’s corporate HQ in downtown Milwaukee. It may be a crazy, futile idea, but it well executed it could get quite a lot of attention – especially among employees – to see what could be possible, as opposed to building yet another awful office park in MenFalls. What do you think?

  4. Dave Reid says:

    @Fabal we have a contact us form, I think the link is in the footer but yeah we need to make it more visible… and sounds like an interesting idea…. thanks

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