July 12, 2005

New York Author Trails Her Trash in ‘Garbage Land’

NEW YORK -- Author Elizabeth Royte went on a yearlong pilgrimage to "Garbage Land," trekking through landfills, paddling through trash-filled waters and smelling sewage treatment plants -- all just to find out what happens to the things that people throw away.

Inspired by environmental campaigns, Royte started in her Brooklyn home, tracking the path of everything from recycled paper to discarded computer parts and the septic sludge she flushed down the toilet. She chronicled her quest in the book "Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash," (Little, Brown) which was to hit stores on Wednesday.

"I thought this would be a fun adventure," the 45-year-old science writer and journalist told Reuters. "I didn't really understand how hazardous, dangerous or polluting what we threw out was to other people far and wide."

Royte had a lot of material to work with. She says Americans generate an average of 1.31 tons of garbage per person each year. Just under 27 percent of that is recycled or composted, 7.7 percent incinerated and 65.6 percent buried in the ground.

While on her trash tour Royte met recycling enthusiasts, sanitation workers, scrap yard operators and a man who advocated recycling feces. She went to landfills, water treatment plants, scrap yards and trash barges, where she picked up colorful slang like "disco rice" (maggots), "mongo" (valuable trash sanitation men save) and "Coney Island whitefish" (used condoms found in a canal).


Another thing Royte discovered was that refuse collection is among the most dangerous occupations in America. There are 46 deaths per 100,000 garbage collectors, compared to an average fatality rate for all occupations of 4.7 per 100,000 workers.

Though she was welcomed by some plant operators and sanitation workers willing to help in her research, Royte also ran into some opposition. Denied access to a landfill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, she had to sneak into the restricted area.

"I was bent on getting in," she said. "I had this idea that I had to go up and walk over all these mounds to get to where they were dumping my stuff."

Seeking a closer look at New York City's Fresh Kills landfill, which became the world's largest dump in 1986 but was closed in 2001, Royte once maneuvered a kayak around a floating obstacle course of trash bobbing in the water.

Royte also came across a type of fertilizer called Granulite made from septic sludge. Smelling it and handling it was "no worse than handling raw meat," she said.

As she rode the subway home after one visit to a waste facility, a number of riders couldn't help but notice her stench. With the rancid odor embedded in her hair and clothing, she said she was transformed into a virtual stink bomb.

"People just moved away from me," Royte said. "It was really, really bad and I couldn't wait to get out of the train. I was lucky it wasn't rush hour."

Royte said one of the most surprising things she learned was that municipal waste, including home and business trash, makes up only 2 percent of total U.S. waste. The rest, some 12 billion tons a year, is mostly nonhazardous industrial waste, plus mining, agriculture and hazardous waste.

Still she was determined to do what she could so she cut her daily trash output below the national average and stopped buying individually wrapped items in favor of bulk products, reducing the amount of packaging.

"We need to buy less and make better buying decisions," she said. "We're going to have to rethink how we deal with trash because so many things we throw out, we could reuse."