Book Review: Garbage Land

>> Thursday, October 16, 2008

Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
Elizabeth Royte

Garbage? Seriously?

The subject of this book makes it sound like it's going to be boring. The author decides to dig through her trash every week, meticulously weighing and organizing each and every item she throws out. Then she follows her trash after it has left her home, visiting the landfill, several recycling plants, and even the sewage treatment plant. Sounds really, really boring...

Unfortunately, it's not boring at all, so you have absolutely no excuse not to read this book. In fact, this book was so eye-opening that I would love to give a chapter by chapter synopsis, quoting all of the most interesting passages. But then you wouldn't read this book, and you really need to read this book.

I expected to be totally disgusted with the waste management in this country, and in some cases I was (we are our absolutely dealing with sewage in the wrong way!), but I was surprised to find some good points about our waste management system as well. Modern landfills have their problems, but they are not as bad as I thought, and the solutions are not always as good as I expected them to be. Recycling has its own issues, specifically that there isn't a huge market in the U.S. for recycled goods, so a lot of the products we try to recycle end up being shipped to developing nations that have fewer environmental protection laws. This is a big problem when there are toxic substances involved, such as when recycling technology like cell phones and computers.

Creating a market for recycled products would be one step to solving the problem, and a pretty easy step that most consumers can have a hand in. (Remember that recycled toilet paper I was talking about last week?) The harder step, and the one Royte thinks is most important and would have the greatest impact, would be to buy less. For every product we buy, there is a huge amount of manufacturing waste that we never think about. According to one statistic she cites, "for every 100 pounds of product that's made, 3200 pounds of waste are generated."

The biggest eye-opener that I took from this book was an awareness of how little an effect my trash has on the overall big picture. Royte cites a statistic from the EPA stating that municipal waste makes up only 2% of the total waste in this country. The other 98% of waste comes from industries! Here I am recycling my butt off while industries are making minimal effort to reduce their waste. They contaminate our water, fill our products with toxic chemicals, make crappy products that don't last, encourage us to buy disposables, and then expect us to clean up after them.

That just doesn't make sense.

Plus, every time Royte mentioned a developing technology or innovation that seemed like a good solution to some problem with waste management, she would follow it up by saying something like, "This idea cannot compete with the old way because of huge government subsidies to the XYZ industry" or "The lobbyists for the XYZ industry have fought against this action."

It's like they have no conscience.

I imagine them sitting around in a big board meeting:

Board: "We have decided to build our new factories overseas where we can pollute as much as we want to, hire children to work in unsafe conditions, and make them work long hours for almost no pay. This will save us mucho dinero."

Loner Bob: "Um, I don't think that sounds very ethical."

Board: "Bob, this is not ethics. This is business."

Loner Bob: "But-"

Board: "Bob, you liked that big fat bonus you got last year, didn't you?"

Loner Bob: "Yes..."

Board: "Then keep your mouth shut. This is the way things are done."

I feel frustrated and angry, and I also feel like there's not much I can do about it.


ChicChick February 13, 2009 at 7:22 PM  

Oh, that book is on my wish list! It does sound good, though I'm afraid it might leave me feeling frustrated and discouraged too. Glad to hear that you enjoyed it overall.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper February 13, 2009 at 10:23 PM  

ChicChick - This book definitely changed how I view garbage. And although I felt frustrated when I read it, it really pushed me to try to reduce my family's waste.

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