Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Garbage Land

Author: Elizabeth Royte
Published: 2005

Something about books about garbage seems to inspire sub-titles. Or perhaps it is just a feature of non-fiction. This book uses "On The Secret Trail of Trash". With it, I seem to be mining, chronologically at least, a wealth of trashy information.

Royte uses (or perhaps better is recycles - did I use that joke already?) Rubbish!* and Waste and Want for sources, as well as the ever present EPA statistics. Better, she gets her hands dirty, following the path each of her waste/recycle streams take. Royte pals along with the san men (term used by the sanitation workers she meets), harrasses corporate waste flacks, visits various recycling companies, and even follows (above ground) the waste pipes to sludge treatment plants.

Just when all this information has me in a mixed state of fired-up-mad and deeply-depressed, Royte flips it all over by reminding readers that municipal solid waste (MSW) makes up only two percent of all trash generated in the United States. Add in a few notes about how recycling may only be making us feel good about all the consumption we do and I'm ready to throw in the towel, almost.

Perhaps the most enlightening fact! is that "... for every 100 pounds of product that's made -- product that hits the store shelves -- at least 3,200 hundred pounds of waste are generated. ... In other words, we throw out stuff just to make the stuff we throw out." p. 239

Kind of makes the whole issue of pounds per person per day (and the supposed increase thereof) rather moot. The book does add fuel to the fire on my opinion of the EPA. Sure, they try and protect the public, but they are also influenced by business. Emphasis is on recycling and reuse. The links on reduction are much more about source reduction of packaging. The only nod towards actually buying less is a link to an outside website, use-less-stuff.

What I took away from this:
- Reduction is much, much better than reuse and recycle.
- Plastic is evil.
- Don't sweat it if the occasional yogurt cup finds its way to the trash can. Or if the odd plastic bag is foisted on you.

*At one point, Royte mentions William Rathje's statistic on the leachate from the Fresh Kills landfill to NY's director of landfill engineering: "Instantly, Gleason turned apoplectic. 'What he did is ... he made it up! It's not a statistic. Rathje studies trash in Arizona!'" p. 95 I guess the book hit a nerve for some people.

! Most depressing was the curtain being lifted on the 'Crying Indian'. The famous commercial was burned into my brain in my youth in the 1970's. That was the spirit of the time, Keep America Beautiful (KAB), clean air and water, recycling, etc. However, KAB was created by beverage and packaging companies. The comercial is clever slight-of-hand to push responsibility from the creators of one-time-use products and and packaging materials onto the users of those products (i.e. those terrible litterbugs). And the Native American in the commercial was really a Sicilian American named Espera DeCorti.


Anonymous said...

I just thought of that crying Indian from the 70s the other day during my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian (http://www.nmai.si.edu/). I didn't find any mention of him in the museum, it's just that I automatically made the association - I guess that image is burned into my "child of the 70s" mind as well. I guess the packaging industry's strategy worked, or else I just watched way too much TV!


Todd Wheeler said...

Just when I think I know the real version of U.S. history, when I think I can't be surprised by the cynical manipulation of power, something comes to light like a punch to the gut.

Yeah, Walter, back in the day when there were only 3 or 4 channels. ;-) I remember the poster contest in grade school. I can't say it was definitely KAB sponsored but certainly the age where the littering/consumers were the focus as much or more so than polluting industries.