[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Garbarage Land': Trash Talk

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat Jul 9 15:49:01 UTC 2005

'Garbarage Land': Trash Talk
[First chapter appended.]

On the Secret Trail of Trash.
By Elizabeth Royte.
311 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $24.95.


Imagine a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that leaves you unable
to throw or flush something away without tracking precisely where it
goes. Not just from your indoor container to the curb or trunk line;
this affliction makes you unable to put your mind at rest unless you
follow your castoff into the truck, the transfer station, the
landfill, the scrap-metal shredder, the treatment tank.

Elizabeth Royte apparently has such a disorder, but rather than (or
perhaps in addition to) letting it ruin her life, she has turned it
into a likable chronicle of rubbish-realization, ''Garbarage Land: On
the Secret Trail of Trash.'' Hers is a journey that everyone should
take but few will. Put it in a class with how and where we get our
gasoline, our food, our bluejeans and sneakers: best not to know the
details, because not knowing allows you to not take responsibility.

Royte, whose previous book, ''The Tapir's Morning Bath,'' followed
researchers in the tropical rain forest, here follows an assortment of
garbarage collectors, recyclers and sewage treaters, beginning with the
men who pick up the stuff she leaves at her curb in Brooklyn on trash
day. The idea is to see how much damage she is personally doing in the
grand scheme of things and how she might minimize it; to get beyond
the easy plateau of environmental awareness (don't eat endangered
fish) and look at, well, the outflow. ''It wasn't fair, I reasoned, to
feel connected to the rest of the world only on the front end, to the
waving fields of grain and the sparkling mountain streams,'' she
writes. ''We needed to cop to a downstream connection as well.''

The resulting journey introduces her to a colorful collection of
characters: rabid composters, paranoid dump owners, starry-eyed
crusaders, even some levelheaded businessmen and -women. She
encounters a fair amount of colorful vernacular as well: ''Coney
Island whitefish'' (used condoms in the Gowanus Canal), ''disco rice''
(maggots), ''mongo'' (''trash'' that curbside collectors deem worth
saving -- televisions, microwaves, silk blouses, designer skirts).

Royte's quest to see where her discards end up hits a number of human
obstacles: in parts of the waste underworld, people don't want to talk
to her or let her view their landfills or plants. ''Why was it so hard
to look at garbarage?'' she laments at one point. ''To me, the secrecy
of waste managers -- which was surely based on an aversion to
accountability -- was only feeding the culture of shame that had come
to surround an ordinary fact of life: throwing things away.''

Royte may have subconsciously let this stonewalling affect her: when a
site does let her in for a look, she often seems to give it a free
pass; her writing loses its skeptical edge and begins to sound like a
report from a school field trip. Still, for the vast millions whose
knowledge of waste disposal ends at the trash can and the recycling
bin, any glimpse at all into this world is illuminating. Royte's
lively description of a beast called the Prolerizer, a giant
metal-crushing machine, makes you want to pay it a visit yourself:
''The Prolerizer has a 6,000-horsepower synchronous motor and enormous
blades that can convert whole cars to fist-sized chunks of scrap in 30
to 60 seconds. . . . Cars plummeted onto the shredder's spinning
rotor, which bristled with 32 bow-tie-shaped blades that weighed 300
pounds each. . . . They were 30 inches long, and though made of a
steel-manganese alloy, they lasted a mere 24 hours, such was the
ferocity of their labors.''

The deeper into trash and sewage Royte gets, the more discouraging the
picture becomes. Landfilled trash does not biodegrade into the ''rich,
moist brown humus'' of our guilt-free fantasies; it stews for
centuries, generating poisonous leachate. The whole problem of junked
computers and cellphones has barely reached public consciousness, even
though we're already knee-deep in electronic waste. And as for
recycling, some parts of the system seem to work, but the vagaries of
markets and the ever-changing array of plastics and mixed-material
containers make it hit-or-miss at best; it is in large part something
we do for our conscience, not our planet. Some recycling is merely a
delaying tactic (mixed plastic, for instance, can be reused only once,
as plastic wood or some such), and some is downright harmful (with
plastic again the main culprit) because of the toxic substances the
process produces. Hard-core enviro-types actually oppose
plastic-recycling programs, Royte says, because they foster the
belief, held even among those who fancy themselves eco-conscious, that
it's all right to swig that all-natural spring water out of a plastic
bottle. The true ideal, in this formulation, should be ''closed-loop
recycling,'' where no new materials are coming into the system and no
waste is being generated.

NONE of this is news to those versed in garbology and environmental
advocacy, but Royte is not writing for them. She is aiming for a more
general public, and a strength of ''Garbarage Land'' is that it doesn't
get too preachy and is full of humor and self-deprecation. Here, for
instance, is what Royte says about finding a mouse in her home
composter: ''The E.P.A. has a regulation, called 40 CFR, Part 503.33,
concerning 'vector attraction reduction' in soil enhancements.
Obviously, I was out of compliance.'' And here is how she describes
her encounter with a fertilizer made from septic sludge: ''I shook
some Granulite onto my hand, just to see what holding someone else's
highly processed feces felt like. It was no worse than handling raw
meat, in the sense that it was so recently part of a living
organism.'' She remains casual and scold-free even when she works her
way around to the notion that the main thing any of us can do to
reduce the waste stream is to buy less stuff.

''Garbarage Land,'' though, does have a fundamental bias, one that Royte
never confronts: her jumping-off point seems to be the idea that our
best, highest use as human beings is to keep our ''garbarage footprint''
to a minimum. That is a value judgment, because minimizing waste --
sorting trash, composting, cooking from scratch rather than relying on
dinners in microwaveable dishes -- takes time, and time is a currency.
Royte sounds smart; it's hard for the reader not to wonder what else
she might have done with all those hours she spent washing out her
used yogurt containers.

Neil Genzlinger is a staff editor at The New York Times.


First chapter of 'Garbarage Land'


The Dream of Zero Waste

I had been touring San Francisco's garbarage infrastructure for two days
now - prowling around the city's transfer station, poking into its
curbside bins, and following its garbarage trucks. My hosts were Bob
Besso, who worked for Norcal, the private company with which the city
contracted to pick up refuse, and Robert Haley, from the Department of
the Environment. Dressed in blue jeans and sneakers, Besso had the
lankiness of a marathon runner. He was in his fifties, and he'd worked
in recycling for decades. His and Haley's easy-going attitude, and
their penchant for plain speaking, were diametrically opposed to the
formal inscrutability of New York's sanitation operatives. The best
part of hanging around Besso was his competitive streak: both he and
Haley were walking poster children for Zero Waste. Who could throw out
less? Who had more radically altered their lifestyle to leave a
smaller human stain?

The Zero Waste concept was a growing global phenomenon. Much of
Australia had committed to achieving the goal in 2010, and resolutions
had been passed in New Zealand, Toronto, twelve Asia-Pacific nations,
Ireland, Scotland, the Haut-Rhin Department in the Alsace region of
France, and several California counties. So far, no community had
reached this nirvana, a condition perfected only by nature. For humans
to achieve zero waste, went the rhetoric, would require not only
maximizing recycling and composting, but also minimizing waste,
reducing consumption, ending subsidies for waste, and ensuring that
products were designed to be either reused, repaired, or recycled back
into nature or the marketplace. Zero Waste, said Peter Montague,
director of the Environmental Research Foundation, had the potential
to "motivate people to change their life styles, demand new products,
and insist that corporations and governments behave in new ways."

I didn't take Zero Waste literally. I considered it a guiding
principle, a rallying cry for green idealists. I understood its
intensive recycling component, but what about goods that simply could
not be recycled? Over lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant, I learned that
Zero Waste wasn't just rhetoric to Haley. "I don't have a trash can at
work," he said. On his desk sat a grapefruit sized ball of used
staples - ferrous scrap that he couldn't bear to throw out. "If I'm
going to be a leader in Zero Waste I have to live the life," he said.
I asked what affect this had on domestic harmony. "My partner is 99.9
percent with me," he said, nodding enthusiastically.

"What's the one-tenth-of-a-percent problem?"

"She draws the line at twist ties."

"Well you know you could strip the paper from the wires and -" I
interrupted myself. Haley already knew how to recycle a twist-tie. At
home, he was diverting 95 percent of his waste from the landfill. The
5 percent he threw out was "manufactured goods" - recently some
beyond-repair leather shoes. Worn out sneakers, of course, were mailed
to Nike, which shreds rubber and foam into flooring for gyms. The
company accepts non-Nike footwear too, and is also trying to tan
leather without questionable toxins and developing shoes made of a new
rubber compound that doubled as a biological nutrient - something that
could be harmlessly returned to nature. This would be quite an
improvement, since according to designer William McDonough
conventional rubber soles are stabilized with lead that degrades into
the atmosphere and soil as the shoe is worn. Rain sluices this lead
dust into sewers, and thence into sludge bound for agricultural
fields. According to the National Park Service, which has more than a
passing interest in manmade stuff that lies around on the ground,
leather shoes abandoned in the backcountry last up to fifty years (if
they aren't eaten, one presumes), and rubber boot soles go another

McDonough's 206-page book, Cradle to Cradle, was printed on "paper"
made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers. The pages are smooth,
and waterproof, and the whole thing is theoretically recyclable into
other "paper" products. The book weighs one pound, four ounces. A book
of comparable length printed on paper made from trees weighs an entire
pound less. "What do you think of that?" I asked Haley. He nearly spit
out his mouthful of curried vegetables. "McDonough's book will be
landfilled! I'd rather cut down a tree!"

To Haley and Bob Besso, landfilling was the ultimate evidence of
failure. Avoiding the hole in the ground-which in San Francisco's case
was owned by Waste Management, Norcal's archenemy-had become a game to
them, albeit a game with serious consequences. Haley didn't use his
paper napkin at the restaurant, and he scraped the last bit of curry
from his plate. But we all knew there was waste behind his meal - in
the kitchen, on the farm, in the factory that made the boxes in which
his bok choy had been carted to San Francisco.

I wondered if Zero Waste really meant anything, considering the limits
of our recycling capability and our reluctance to alter our
lifestyles. It was as dreamy an idea as cars that ran on water. And
just as appealing to industry, too. "Zero Waste is a sexy way to talk
about garbarage," Haley said. "It gets people excited." I considered
that for a moment. Could we solve our garbarage problems by making
garbarage sexy?

Seeing how little I could throw out was fun for me, if not exactly
sexy. I'd gotten caught up in the game, back home with my kitchen
scale and Lucy's blue toboggan. I recorded my weights in a little
book, I crunched my numbers, and I measured my success by how many
days it took to fill a plastic grocery sack.

In the months to come, I'd find people who neither lived nor worked in
the Bay Area who were having fun (if not sexy fun) with garbarage
reduction. Shaun Stenshol, president of Maui Recycling Service, had
toyed with the idea of decreeing a Plastic Free Month, but ultimately
deemed such a test too easy. Instead, he issued a Zero Waste
Challenge. Over the course of four weeks, Maui residents and biodiesel
users Bob and Camille Armantrout produced eighty-six pounds of waste,
of which all but four (mostly dairy containers and Styrofoam from a
new scanner) was recyclable. Alarmed to note that 35 percent of their
weight was beer bottles, which they recycled, the Armantrouts vowed to
improve. Bob ordered beer-making equipment to help reduce the amount
of glass they generated, and Camille promised to start making her own
yogurt. Despite these efforts, the Armantrouts didn't win the
Challenge. The winner of the contest, as so often happens, was its
inventor. All on his own, Stenshol had produced an even one hundred
pounds of waste, of which he recycled ninety-nine pounds.

Fresh Kills Landfill


One of my favorite expeditions while researching Garbarage Land, though
this part of the story didn't make it into the book, was kayaking
around the Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island, with Carl Alderson,
a coastal restoration specialist who works for the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration. After a delightful paddle around the
dump, Alderson and I narrowly escaped arrest by a sanitation cop only
to end up in very shallow water with the tide going out.

... For several yards we poled and pried, but soon the kayak was stuck
for good. Our car was parked a half mile up Main Creek, but the creek
had turned into a mere trickle of brown water. Alderson seemed
strangely optimistic. He checked the time on his cell phone and
started muttering to himself about the tide. "Okay," he said. "We can
wait four hours till it turns, or try again to get upstream, or we can
roll over the mud to the edge." The edge, a field of waving Spartina
patens, was about 60 feet away.

"How deep is the mud?"

"Over your waist."

I thought about that. "Have you done it before?"

"Oh yeah. You've just got to keep from panicking. It's like

Alderson was standing in the stern, wind-milling his arms to generate
warmth. My feet were ice blocks. "Is that the wind?" he said, his
voice rising, hair fluttering heroically. "It's pushing the water back
in!" It was the wind, but it wasn't delivering any more water. The
afternoon was just getting colder and more dismal. At least the snow
had stopped.

Opening his cell phone, Alderson dialed the office of the William T.
Davis Wildlife Refuge, where we'd picked up the kayak. "Hey, Linda.
Could you do me a favor and check today's tide chart?" He paused.
"Uh-huh, you sure of that? Okay, thanks." With a look of resignation,
Alderson snapped the phone shut. He had another plan. "There's a bunch
of pallets in the refuge greenhouse, maybe we can get Sam and Nate to
bring them down and make a path over the mud." It seemed a little
hare-brained to me - we'd need about fifty pallets - but I liked the
idea of involving others.

Alderson slapped the mudflat with his paddle. It quaked. The mud
didn't look particularly ominous in the fading light, but I knew it
was roiling with life, with the stuff that feeds the marsh's birds,
fish, and mammals. There were marine worms down there, some of them
voracious predators more than five inches long, and lugworms and
clamworms that ate algae or detritus extracted from the sand. These
organisms were tough, able to withstand a half-day of submersion, a
half-day of drought, baths of incoming salt water and rinses of
sewage- and leachate-tainted fresh. Alderson advised his assistants to
avoid touching the mud or water. A woman planting cord grass for him
once fell in up to her baseball cap and emerged with a mysterious skin
condition he called "full-body pink eye."

"How deep did you say the mud is?" I asked Alderson for the second
time in twenty minutes.

"You can't tell," he said. "It seems bottomless. The silt and organic
layering have been going on for millennia. I've watched a few people
go down in chest waders. It's scary to watch someone sink deeper in
muck and further in panic. I've dragged a few frightened folks out in
my day."

That shut me up. As we waited for Sam and Nate, I thought about how
this landscape had changed. In the Paleo-Indian period, between 10,000
BC and 8,000 BC, the western side of Staten Island was a much higher
and dryer place. We know that Lenape Indians occupied the area because
they left their tools and high middens of clam and oyster shells
behind. Sometime between 8,000 and 1,000 BC, rising sea levels created
vast swamps on the western side of the island, at which time Lenape
settlements became larger and more permanent. Eventually, Europeans
would grow salt hay in these marshes, and it would become Staten
Island's largest cash crop. Just two hundred years ago, before the
hydrology of the swamps had been altered, both Richmond and Main
Creeks were navigable for more than a mile. Today, the island's
biggest export was garbaragey.

With a low whine, a golf cart kitted out with a forklift emerged from
the dun-colored reeds. While Sam and Nate - vague figures in dark
clothes-struggled with the pallets, Alderson lounged like a beer
drinker in a lawn chair and offered encouraging suggestions. "Not too
far apart, boys." They grunted. "So did you know we all passed the
navigation course?"

"Yeah, Carl," said Sam, with no affect. "But when are they teaching
the course about tides?"

Alderson laughed, his eyes crinkling. "I guess that's next," he said.

Sam dropped the pallets onto the mud, then went back to the greenhouse
for more. When the makeshift dock stretched twenty feet, Nate, a burly
young man in chest waders, went to the end and strapped on a pair of
mud shoes. These resembled snowshoes but were made of webbed rubber
that collapses when the foot is lifted and spreads out, like a heron's
foot, when it's plopped down. With his thick beard and rubber
clothing, Nate looked like a vulcanized hero from the underworld. He
trudged toward us in a hulking manner. In his hand was a length of
frayed rope. If he had a plan, no one knew it. I watched with growing
fascination as he drew nearer-slop, slop, slop. Alderson sat still. I
sat still. Nate reached the boat, still silent. Now he tied his line
to our bow cleat, turned around, and heaved the boat forward and up
the sloping mudflat.

"Wow," I said. Alderson nodded at me and smiled. Barehanded and
coatless, Nate hauled on the line again and again. "Shouldn't we get
out?" I asked Alderson. "Nope," he answered. Apparently, there was
just enough water in the mud to lubricate our passage. It dawned on me
that Alderson and the boys had been through this routine before, in
exactly these positions. . . .

More information about the paleopsych mailing list