Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book Review: Garbage Land

Book Review: “Garbage Land” By Elizabeth Royte, 2005 –

They don’t call it muckraking for nothing. The rebirth of muckraking has finally gotten around to the actual muck – garbage, that is, the dark side of our throw-away society. This book accompanies “Gone Tomorrow – The Hidden Life of Garbage” by Heather Rogers, also published in 2005. Both female, Royte and Rogers both live in Brooklyn, New York. So you know something odd is going on in Park Slope.

Garbage is our dirty little secret. No one wants to think about it much. Everyone wants to put it in a bag or some public bin, or flush or rinse it away, and ‘end of story.’ People don’t want to face garbage any more than meat eaters want to visit a slaughterhouse, or war supporters want to actually enlist, or people in love with nature want to bicycle to work or mow their lawns with push-mowers. Well, Royte did. She took her garbage apart, week by week, weighing it for nearly a year, listing what was in it each week … down to the twist ties, ignoring only the tissues. Then she tried to follow each thread of the bag down to its final resting place, and most everything going into the drain and toilet. Perhaps the fascination with garbage in Brooklyn is the result of it’s proximity to “Fresh Kills” landfill on Staten Island, the biggest landfill in the world at 2200 acres, now closed. (A ‘kille’ is Dutch for a riverbed or water channel…) Whatever the reason, we are fortunate someone did it so we don’t have to …

The main point of the book is to investigate how we can recycle or reuse what we throw out, given the limitations of the physical world. It is written in the first person, and we meet the various actors at the landfills, recycling facilities, sewage plants, wastewater treatment plants, incinerators, on the garbage trucks, and in the planning offices, all from a New York perspective. Royte is inspired to investigate garbage by a visit to the Gowanus canal, at the foot of Brooklyn, 1.3 miles of ‘water’ full of the detritus of modern ‘civilization,’ including guns and mob bodies, lined with fuel and cement factories, an old marine transfer station for garbage and an asphalt plant that used to recycle glass. New York resident throw out 4.5 pounds of waste a day, an increase of 1.8 pounds over 45 years. The national waste stream has tripled since 1960. Each American throws out 1.31 tons of waste a year – 30% is recycled/composted; 13% burnt, and 57% buried in a hole in the ground. And this is the average across municipalities, so a San Francisco and a Birmingham Alabama could be on different ends of the spectrum.

What Royte saved for later was that only 3% of all waste is generated by individuals – the rest is generated by industrial and corporate activity. So is there a point in recycling this tiny amount when the lords of garbage are the real targets? However, the pound of junk (or that nice computer) in your house is related to tons of waste back at the factory, as the consumer is the target of it all. Purchasing feeds production, so if you buy something, it directly relates backward to the large virgin waste pile, and forward to the eventual disposal of the used product. If individuals have recycled, or limited waste by not buying in the first place, they gain, among other things, a moral ability to ask massive producers and polluters to do it too. In this, the population ends up being ahead of the corporations, as usual.

Throw-away products were marketed from the 20s to the 60s as modern and clean, while it was implied that reusing things was dirty and lower-class. The 20th century saw the disappearance of rag men, bone collectors (from meat), the banning of horses in the cities, and civil limitations on various scavengers of glass, metal and paper. Instead, all went to be dumped in the ocean or in pits. The return of ‘can men’ is actually a sign that recycling is profitable again.


Royte points out the environmental racism inherent in much trash collection. Transfer stations are located in poor neighborhoods in New York, so noise and pollution follow in those neighborhoods. From the marine transfer stations, everything was barged by water to Staten Island. The old garbage now interned in Fresh Kills is hidden away under vast high mounds covered with brown grasses, surrounded by slowly developing marsh fauna, underlain with various liners, gases like methane and liquid wastes vented as they come out of the mounds, then treated or used as fuel. It is supposedly a model landfill. The problem is, plastic liners and covers break. Dry waste lasts almost forever, while wet waste still leaches for a long time. Fresh Kills is a bit of both, given it is in a former marsh. The EPA only requires a landfill to be monitored for 30 years, and Royte contends that landfills have more problems the older they get, which only makes sense. Fully wet landfills are called ‘bio-reactors’ and are being tested in California…though the problem is, of course, the toxic leachate and methane made up of nail polish, diapers, battery acid, cleaners, plastics etc. doesn’t stop emitting for years.

Royte has a nice story about how the mob was pushed out of the trash-hauling business in New York by Guiliani, because of their almost extortionate prices and low quality. In their place came the corporate mega-haulers – Waste Management, IESI and Allied/BFI. Those companies initially had lower rates, but now have topped the mob in price and in quality. I.E., the corporate mob.

Royte followed her ‘new’ garbage to a large new landfill in Pennsylvania. It was trucked all the way from New York City, at $257 a ton in 2002 disposal fees, to private contractors who run these landfills. They would not let Royte see their Pennsylvania landfill except from an approved area. When blocked at every turn, she hides, hops over a fence and then loses her nerve over being discovered, in attempting to climb the high hill to look at the active ‘face’ – where the garbage is being layered by massive graders.


Usually, one of the touchiest parts of garbage is the organics, and so Royte looks into what is to be done with food and other organic wastes. She starts collecting her coffee grounds, banana peels and eggshells in a can on the counter, then gives it to the gardeners downstairs. Park Slope itself got a 41% composting rate in a pilot project for composting at Fresh Kills, a project ended due to budget cuts. (What else?) Garden waste and kitchen waste combine to form compost, activated by worms or biological activators. Unfortunately, not only is mass meat eating unsustainable environmentally, it cannot be composted.

Municipal composting is gaining strength, going from over 651 communities in 1989 to 3,227 in 2002. Minneapolis is also considering it. Los Angeles mixes yard waste with wastewater sludge 'biosolids' to make “TOPGRO,” a fertilizer, so two kind of recycling are being done at one time. In one month Royte got rid of 26 pounds of waste into her composting system, thus freeing the landfill of that much weight, and reusing the nutrients. The EPA thinks 67% of household waste could be composted, but this seems a high number.


Madison, WI was the first city to start a recycling program, collecting paper in 1967. Marblehead, MA added bottles and cans in 1973, inspired by Earth Day. New York started with paper recycling only in 1986, and still makes money on the program. Royte visited a paper recycling plant on Staten Island, processing 180,000 tons of corrugated liners out of the ‘urban forest.’ Recycling paper saves thousands of trees a day, saves oil and water, uses less electricity than ‘virgin’ paper processing, and keeps massive amounts of paper out of the landfills. However, paper cannot be eternally recycled, and starts to break down after several gor-ounds. Royte tried to get her book printed on recycled paper (like the Harry Potter series) but her publisher, Time-Warner, said ‘no.’ (!)

She next visits a metal recycling facility in Jersey City. Metal appliance recycling has included enough metal in one year to make 189 stadiums for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Recycling saves iron ore, coal and limestone. Recycling aluminum generates huge savings in bauxite ore, crude oil, coke, ash, pitch and lime, along with cutting energy use and pollution by 94%. These are incredible gains. At the center of this story is the “Prolerizer," used in one New York metal recyling plant. It is a massive 6,000 horsepower chopper with 32 giant steel-maganese blades that can cut up any amount of metal in seconds. And yet, most metal in the U.S. is not recycled.


You know that eye-burning chemical you put in your drain to break c logs? Yes, that. And the can it came in? Royte tackles hazardous wastes like batteries, paint, electronics, etc. Some is incinerated, others are just put in the landfill (alkaline batteries still contain traces of mercury, but now are thought not to be hazardous…!) Coal fired plants burning mercury-containing waste (PC boards, batteries, thermostats, fluorescent lights, gauges etc.) contribute 2/3rds of the poisonous mercury in the atmosphere.

Royte finally found her well-hidden Brooklyn hazardous waste site, and discovers the batteries, fluorescents, paint and thermostats all get recycled by various private companies – sometimes. The rest is stuck in the landfill in black sacks. Right now, electronic waste is accumulating three times faster than any other kind. The criminal cell phone companies manufacture throw-away phones full of toxic metals. The computer industry is fully on-board with planned obsolescence. Only recently has Best Buy begun to take in electronic waste for recycling. Some computers get recycled domestically, and others get sent to third world countries so Indian children can go through mounds of computer monitors for parts. Some states ban e-waste from landfills. Europe makes the producers of the waste, the electronics companies, responsible for their waste product. Now Maine is joining Europe in passing laws to the same effect. CDs, videotapes, ink cartridges, cell phones – all can be recycled, but the economies of scale do not make this very ‘affordable’ in a capitalist economy.


I have one word for you, boy … “Plastics.” Recycled plastic levels are down in the last few years, from a high of 39.7% 12 years ago, to 19.2% in 2002. And the people that drink water in plastic bottles are worse recyclers than pop drinkers. If the recycling rate had continued, 6.2 million barrels of crude could have been saved, and a million tons of greenhouse gases avoided. But no. Most people drink this stuff ‘on the go’ so they also throw away the stuff ‘on the go.’ 40 million plastic bottles get thrown away per day.

Get a metal bottle and fill it with tap water. Period.

Royte visits a plastic recycler that turns yogurt cups into seawalls and lumber, or ships it overseas to be made into clothing. Uniformly, recycling plants pay poorly, have a non-white, low-wage workforce, and are low tech, grimy operations. New York has now halted plastic recycling. Grocery stores oppose bottle bills, as do the whole can, container and bottle industries. Coke and Pepsi claim they are going to use recycled plastic in their bottles and they haven’t done it yet. Much content ends up in China or other low-wage / low environmental regulation countries. There are two main problems with plastics – they are of such variable content as to make recycling difficult, and they never go away. Never. The chemical composition alone in incinerators or landfills provides a toxic discharge for many years. 500 square miles of the north Pacific contain a floating sea of plastic waste, eaten by fish and birds. In 2002 a researcher in this ‘dead zone’ reported finding 10 pounds of plastic for every 1 pound of zooplankton.

The real answer to plastic is that it will, A, become so expensive as to disappear, due to peak oil; B, people will stop buying things made out of it; C, it will be realized that it is non-sustainable and toxic, so that it will be banned completely, or all 3. It will only be used for limited, very specific and high tech uses. That is the future of plastics.


The last thing that Royte talks about is human and animal waste. Grease recyclers wouldn’t talk to her, so she had to investigate something else. Royte mediates on this issue while looking at a full disposable diaper left at her home by visitors. You’ve been there. Into the garbage, along with the dozens of doggie poo bags and kitty litter, and on to the landfill it goes! Royte follows her waste pipes downhill to the wastewater treatment plant, in Owl’s Head, on the southern tip of Brooklyn. In heavy rains, the waste runs right into the harbor. Small towns and municipalities put waste directly into the streams and rivers, as many still do in Minnesota, according to a recent Star-Tribune series. New York itself pumped sludge directly into the ocean until 1985, when the oyster beds died and the fish got sick. Only in 1992 did the last load of New York sludge go into the ocean. Some larger municipalities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Houston remake it into fertilizer that is sold to farmers or ranchers. In New York, “biosolids” like this are shipped to a plant in the South Bronx. However, thier saftety as actual fertilizer is questionable, as application has to be 'very careful.' Individuals have started to use low water, grey water or no water toilets. Some people are composting human manure outside their homes.


The goal of most environmental activists is zero waste, and while this seems unfeasible, it is amazing how much waste could be reduced if it was tackled on a society-wide basis. Germany, for instance, assumes the recyling of everything - exactly the opposite to the U.S.. Waste can be prevented in the first place by production and packaging controls. Of course, that would mean capitalism would probably have to end in its present form, or ANY form, as this would require a more planned economy. In addition, it would require a social effort not seen since World War II, something that our rulers are loathe to see. A divided and difused population is what they prefer. That is the lurking danger for the capitalist class behind the idea of the natural limits of the world. The proletariat seems to have had a slow half-century in the U.S., but nature itself is making it’s own statement, working class or no working class.

---and I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, June 19, 2008

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