Thursday, September 15, 2011

Elizabeth Royte Explores Her Trash and Yours

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in August 2005)

Three years ago, writer Elizabeth Royte started investigating where the trash she and her family threw out from their New York City apartment went. Royte followed the local garbage trucks to their depot, flew to San Francisco and met with recycling activists and went to a New Jersey scrapyard where a massive machine reduces cars to five-inch steel “meatballs.”

From her many travels, Royte has created “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash”(Little, Brown, $25), a sophisticated and witty trek through the garbage dumps and sewage treatment plants of America. Royte explores the fact that the average American produces more than 1,000 pounds of consumer trash a year, with much of it going into landfills, where our batteries and food preservatives leach into the soil.

Along the way, Royte canoes through a canal full of floating trash, sneaks into a landfill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and examines the benefits and costs of recycling. With her sharp prose, Royte is evenhanded in dealing with solutions to the mountains of America’s trash. She offers the hopeful idea that Americans can use their consumer muscle to decrease the use of virgin raw materials and proposes the heretical concept (gasp!) that Americans should buy and consume less. In tracking her own trash, Royte has constructed a quirky, often humorous look at America’s garbage question.

Royte, 45, was raised in Boston, is the author of “The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Amazon Rain Forest” and lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn. Royte spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley in New York City.

Q. How did your trash odyssey start?

A. It was the first time that I paddled the (heavily polluted) Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and I noticed trash floating around. There was organic waste, hazardous waste and sewage. It was a microcosm of the things I got rid of everyday. It started me thinking about where my trash went and what effect it might have on other people.

The book started on my kitchen floor, taking my trash and dumping it out on my daughter’s blue toboggan. I wrote down everything that was in there and weighed it, for everything in the trash world goes by weight. There were four streams--recyclable containers, household hazardous waste, organic waste and putrescable (rotten, landfill-bound) waste. Then I added the fifth stream, the sewage stream.

Q. Getting in touch with the trash people was difficult. Why?

A. People in the garbage industry didn’t return phone calls. They put me off, they blew me off, they hung up on me. The waste world is pretty secretive. Some of it may be trade secrets, but they have gotten pretty bad press.

Q. Did you find yourself becoming obsessed with your own trash?

A. I wasn’t obsessed with garbage when I started, but I was trying with my own trash to divert as much as I could from the landfills. I believe in recycling and it is a very important thing, but there are more important environmental issues, like what you drive and whether you eat meat. In terms of waste, I think there has to be a focus on redesigning products for recycling, reuse and repair. The corporations should be responsible for the goods they are putting out and should design things that can be taken back at the end of their useful life. These products should be less toxic and swaddled in less packaging.

The solid waste you and I throw out, the municipal waste, is only two percent of landfill content. For every barrel of waste you put out on the curb there are 71 barrels of industrial waste being made. We recycle only 20 percent of plastic and only 10 percent of water bottles.

Q. In your “Hammer of the Gods” chapter you go to a scrap yard in Jersey City, where old autos are chopped up by a massive, smoke-belching machine called the “Prolerizer.” What was the experience like?

A. I knew that the scrap metal market was strong, but I didn’t know where the metals went. The Prolerizer was a sensory delight. You could feel this thudding in your feet as each car hit the whirling blades of the machine. The sound on the back end was the tinkle tinkle of auto glass falling on the metal auto parts. There are problems with smashing up cars, toxic substances like brake fluids. Cars have computers in them now, and they make their own piles of waste, auto fluff, another toxic problem.

Q. You hung out with New York City sanitation workers, known as “san men” regardless of their sex. What was their job like?

A. They move 10,000 pounds of trash per day per person. The job is very dangerous, more than you might think. People throw out glass and other sharp objects. San men get jabbed with needles and cars whizz by them on narrow streets. The trash is endless. I don’t think they are bothered by a sense of futility by it. There isn’t a lot of existential thinking among the san men I’ve met.

Q. How did your research affect your own trash?

A. I quantified my garbage for 10 months, recycled and composted it. I got it down to three-and-a-half ounces a week. I changed my buying habits. This book shouldn’t leave people in despair. People can think about what kind of trash something will become before they buy it. They can think about whether an item they are buying could be passed on to someone else, if it is recyclable and will it be toxic in a landfill? people’s buying decisions do have an impact. Companies like Heinz and Kraft have added organic food lines. That is a direct response to consumers wanting organic food. Office Depot’s sales of recycled paper are up 65 percent. You have to show there is a demand for these products.

As consumers, we have some effect on waste issues, but the government has to step in. They could do away with subsidies for extracting virgin materials, which would give recycling a level playing field.

I didn’t know anything about garbage when I started out I didn’t know that garbage was so harmful in landfills and incinerators. The studies I used were not from environmental fringe groups but from established organizations like the National Resources Defense Council. I tried and tried to get the waste industry side of the story, but most people wouldn’t talk to me.

Q. How do you deal with your trash now?

A. I’ve stopped weighing my trash and I do the recycling that the average New Yorker does. I got tired of my apartment looking like a waste transfer station. I still believe individual responsibility is in important, but we have to let providers and manufacturers know that we want better choices (in dealing with trash).

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