Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte (Little Brown/H.B. Fenn), 304 pages, $33.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Funny how a book on human refuse can make you nostalgic for a time when pigs roamed the streets lapping up our slops. This was the case in New York City not much more than a century ago, when sanitation had nothing to do with beefy guys in trucks, but with thousands of roving swine.
Now it's a little bit of front-yard composting here, some curbside recycling there, but mostly just tons and tons of trash compacted and trucked to landfills in rural Pennsylvania, West Virginia and beyond.
In Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte tackles a subject that's as complex as it is fetid. Where does our trash go? Looking for the answer to that seemingly simple question leads her on a tour of waste disposal centres in Brooklyn, to Staten Island's defunct Fresh Kills landfill and into western Pennsylvania, where she finds it's a lot harder than you might think to look at garbage.
What works about Garbage Land is Royte's big-picture approach. She interviews New York sanitation workers who sweat through three T-shirts on a summer day, and a Manhattan policy wonk who doesn't do anything so hands-on as composting but gets giddy over the prospect of anaerobic food digesters. My favourite is the humourless Lower East Side eco freak who corrects the author every time she says "garbage."
There's some great reporting here, and interesting tidbits that should be common knowledge. For instance, trash collection in the U.S. is a $57-billion industry. Thirty-five per cent of garbage is packaging. And depending on how it's buried, an apple can biodegrade in two weeks or endure for thousands of years. Who knew?
Royte takes a simple, smelly idea and blows it up large. She's conveyed some of the wonkier debates over waste management while bringing out the human side of a story most humans would prefer to ignore.