Follow the Refuse

The book is predicated on Royte’s impulse to follow her own personal waste–her trash, her recyclables, her own individual biological by-products, her contribution to the approximately 232 million tons of municipal solid waste (the EPA, 2003) that’s produced in America–to their final resting places. Royte’s various explorations do seem to fit a certain pattern: encounters with various people who live la vida garbage; the forbidding realization that almost everything in the waste disposal process, from the dog peed-upon trash bag on our sidewalks to the combustible landfills to the large municipal composting operations, involves materials, locations, and most especially odors that make most of us feel something between icky and twitchy; and finally the dismal realization that whatever we think we’re doing with our waste products, the processes are less neat, less tidy, less sanitary, and less sound than we think.

Now, very little of what Royte reports in this book may come as news to attentive waste policy experts, no doubt many of whom are readers of this magazine. But to the reader who considers himself a waste management expert if he can remember what days are trash days (me), the book is full of revelations. Nothing appears to work the way we’d like it to. Though landfills cost $210,000 an acre to build, they aren’t a permanent answer. The plastic liners that separate the tons of trash from Mother Earth are susceptible to cracking, and one day all the terrible chemicals that lurk in the residue of household cleaners and hair dye and disposable batteries will seep into the ground and then into the water supply and then into mother’s milk. (Yes, babies will be drinking Windex and Prell!)

Cities can build huge sewage treatment plants, but the old sewer drain systems can be easily overwhelmed, and during big rain storms, as much as 40 percent of a city’s sewage can roll untreated into the sea. Recycling programs, at least according to some experts, are nothing more than a palliative, making people feel as if they’re doing something about the environment when they ultimately in fact have little effect.

During the course of this dispiriting trek, Royte manages to communicate an enthusiasm for her subject that, if not quite contagious, at least ensures that we’re being led by a companionable and often plucky narrator. Part of Royte’s charm is her eye for the telling footnote and interesting aside. She notes that Iron Eyes Cody, who as “The Crying Indian” shed a tear at a polluted landscape in an iconic Keep America Beautiful commercial in 1971, was actually a Sicilian American named Espera DeCorti. She mentions that the average American elementary school student throws away three and a half ounces of edible food a day. She shares her delight at the safety posters at one plant, one of which drily reads, “Keep in mind: a truck on fire causes low productivity.” She points out that mob involvement in waste management in New York drove costs up–after federal prosecutions smashed the Mafia’s stranglehold on trash removal, the World Trade Center’s annual carting bill fell from $3 million to $500,000–but eliminating the mob hasn’t brought costs down. Mob haulers have been replaced by large corporations (Big Mess, perhaps?), who are just as expensive. “The only difference between the majors and the boys,” Royte quotes one private carter in New York, “is that the majors don’t actually kill you.” She quietly notes that the advice doctors routinely give to patients–to flush unused or expired prescription pills down the toilet–now has biologists studying the effects of so many birth control pills, steroids, antibiotics, and tranquilizers on aquatic wildlife. Want to know why our arsenal of antibiotics will one day prove ineffective to some bird flu flying out of Vietnam? It might be because we’ve eaten too much Chicken of the Sea.

In a counterpoint to her excursions through America’s vast waste removal systems, Royte reports on her personal efforts to eliminate, recycle, and reuse the waste which she and her family produce. It gets a little obsessive-compulsive at times, but it’s interesting to see the lengths she and other even further committed Zero Waste advocates, who repurpose their shower water and hook up special toilets to turn their poop into fertilizer, are willing to go. At one point, she seems dismayed at having to throw away a Fuzzy Flower Maker, a hard plastic toy someone had given her daughter that she no longer had any use for. Surely, it must be possible to be a good citizen of the planet and let children have their Fuzzy Flower Makers. I, for one, think it’s a better world that doesn’t require children to play with pine cones.

But maybe not. If we let Royte’s daughter have her toys, we’ll have to let 300 million other Americans have theirs. (But only Americans. Royte quotes the finding of biologist Edwin O. Wilson that if the rest of the world consumed at our levels, we’d require the resources of four more Earths.) The crushing conclusion of Royte’s book is that we are a sinfully wasteful society, that we spend fortunes on materials and processes to create goods that ultimately require us to spend additional fortunes not to throw entirely away, with often the briefest interregnums of usefulness in between.

It’s tremendously fun to live in a consumerist society, where the rich can casually toss away yesterday’s minerals-laden electronic gadget in favor of today’s, and where even the poor can afford ornaments and distractions. But it’s sobering to think that everything from iMacs to crack vials will still be sitting around a thousand years from now, along with disposable diapers and two liter containers now emptied of their Caffeine-Free Diet Cherry whatever. The perfect metaphor for our situation is captured in the tale Royte tells of a metals scrap yard where employees used to scrounge for coins that fell out of cars heading for a shredder. Although that activity netted the company $30,000 a year, they recently stopped because the sum didn’t justify the labor that went into it. That’s it in a nutshell: We’re throwing away money.

I once saw a New England sampler, expressing a Yankee credo: Use it up/ Wear it out/ Make do/ Do without. In our wealth, we laugh at the foolish penny-pinching thriftiness of that advice. But ultimately, if we really wanted to do something for the environment, we would take those words to heart, and just buy less stuff.

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.