The Great Garbage Tour may sound like a grunge music extravaganza, but it’s actually the author following her “rejectamenta” to its logical end.
Who hasn’t wondered about where our colossal amount of garbage goes? Journalist Royte (The Tapir’s Morning Bath, 2001) wants to find answers: How does recycling work? Where, when we flush the toilet, does its cargo go? And what happens to all the plain old putrescence we create? The U.S. produces 369 million tons of garbage a year, or 1.3 tons per person, annually. Happily, 27% of it is recycled or composted, while nearly 8% is incinerated, and a godawful 65% goes into the ground. It’s not surprising that for years “garbage has changed hands through cronyism and favors, and landed on the backs of disenfranchised,” usually in great landfills that bring dollars to destitute communities, along with health and standard-of-living problems. These landfills are aptly named “brownfields,” with their attendant groundwater contamination, litter, leachate and scavenging birds, all guarded like strategic targets for whatever secrets they hold. Only 100 years ago, 100,000 pigs cleaned New York City’s streets of the organic wastes casually thrown there, but now the pigs—which created their own organic wastes, it must be said—are gone, and our wastes are different, consisting of more paper, more glass, more plastic. The last will prove to be the real bugaboo. It can be recycled to a point, but then degradation simply turns it into landfill material. Paper, in particular, Royte shows, doesn’t get the attention it deserves: only 19% gets recycled, despite its clear economic value. You may not even want to know about the sludge farm experiments, where concentrated fecal material has created the ultimate of brownfields. While there are obvious ways to cope with waste—Royte clearly outlines them—the biggest problem is mindset: we’re accustomed to the ease of the toss.
Royte is a natural storyteller and skillful natural historian. Few others could have pulled off turning our feculence into fascination.