On Trash's Trail

Author Elizabeth Royte often wondered whether it was better for the environment to throw a tissue in the wastebasket or flush it down the toilet. Her curiosity about what happens to trash once it is placed on the curb led her to chronicle her garbage's lifecycle in the book, “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash.”

“I had long wondered where everything went and how things were actually recycled, what they turned into, if they turned into anything,” says Royte, who lives in Brooklyn. “I knew that New York's waste was going far and wide since Fresh Kills had closed.”

Writing about the waste industry was not completely foreign territory for Royte. About 10 years ago, she wrote a story for Harper's Magazine about landfill siting in West Virginia for New York's waste. Still, she was initially unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the waste industry.

Royte's book begins with her sitting on the kitchen floor of her brownstone, weighing and sorting her trash, while dealing with a sticky pen and uncooperative coffee grounds. She continues to do so over the course of a year, tracking the materials, including hazardous waste and recyclables, to their final destinations. Royte also makes some detours to spend time with workers from New York's Department of Sanitation and environmentalists.

Besides following her trash, Royte's visits to landfills, tipping stations and water treatment plants serve as a backdrop for the extensive research she conducted. The chapter on plastics, for instance, examines the politics and economics of bottle bills and the problems with recycling some plastics, in addition to detailing the operations at a recycling plant and at a materials recovery facility. And when Royte's garbage bag fills with holiday catalogs in December, she stops to examine recycling rates, excessive packaging and green groups that distribute credit cards made with polyvinylchloride.

As the book progresses, Royte begins to take more of an interest in the waste created during manufacturing and how consumers can be more conscious about their buying decisions. “I came around in a full circle to think more about upstream,” she says. “If you think it's bad in the dump, take a look upstream at how much waste is generated in manufacturing.”

By the end, Royte is tired of the garbage sorts and subsequent cleanups. Her outlook on the controlling waste changes as well. “The focus on individual action is misguided,” she says. “We need to look bigger and farther upstream, beyond ourselves.”

To read excerpts of the book, visit www.garbageland.us.