Garbage Land – Book Review
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.