If all the books and articles about garbage ended up discarded, they would create a significant burden at a landfill. I am reading...
“Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage”
by Heather Rogers
New Press, 224 pp., $23.95
“Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash”
by Elizabeth Royte
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Little, Brown, 311 pp., $24.95
If all the books and articles about garbage ended up discarded, they would create a significant burden at a landfill.
I am reading “Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage” as an unfinished book, what often is called a “bound galley.” When I finish the galley, I will place it in a recycling bin two miles from my home. Maybe the paper used to create the bound galley actually will end up as part of another book.
But as author Heather Rogers documents, even waste intended for recycling by environmentally minded consumers often ends up buried in a local landfill, a landfill in some distant domestic locale, burned in a giant incinerator or shipped over the ocean to another nation.
The author of “Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage” will read at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St. in Seattle. Free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).
In other words, the state of garbage generation and disposal is a mess. Rogers is not the first writer to explain the mess, nor will she be the last. Because of my environmental mindedness, I have read previous books and lots of articles about garbage. Rogers’ book is mostly a rehash, although a worthy one. Her choices of secondary material are wise, her original research seems reliable, her organization of the material is easy to follow (partly historical-chronological, partly thematic) and her writing is compelling.
Waste from businesses dominates the garbage mess, but Rogers decided to focus on household waste because she believes most readers will relate to that emphasis better, since they generate such waste almost every waking hour. But any partial solutions to the garbage mess must come from manufacturers as much as consumers — manufacturers who cut back on packaging, who reduce dependence on plastics that take hundreds of years to disintegrate after burial in a landfill, who use nonplastic materials that degrade more quickly after being discarded, who retool their plants to use recycled raw goods.
Lots of people who read books like “Gone Tomorrow,” myself included, are too divorced from the realities of garbage disposal to show alarm. The often poorly paid women and men who pick up the garbage from residential curbsides, who handle it at landfills and incinerators amidst nearly unbearable stench, who pilot the waterborne vessels that send it to India or China (where the discarded items might have been manufactured in the first place) — they know what so many of us do not. But those laborers tend to keep quiet about the mess, because they need their paychecks from the increasingly corporatized, multinational trash companies that hire and fire.
Elizabeth Royte’s book contains quite a bit of the same overall information as Rogers’ book. That is understandable — they read some of the same body of work and talked to representatives from the same trash companies. Royte’s approach to producing a book about garbage is quite distinct from Rogers’, however. Rogers rarely inserts herself into the book, and provides extensive scholarly source notes. Journalist Royte has written a more personal book, with only the barest of source notes, as she follows her own trash from her Brooklyn home to its smelly resting place.
During her individually guided instruction, Royte learns answers to questions that have lodged in her mind over the years. (Is it more environmentally sound to flush a tissue down the toilet or throw it in the bathroom garbage can?) and vows to change her habits whenever practical. Royte’s book introduces readers to colorful characters, wondrous landfill technology and environmentally depressing conclusions through a writing style that includes self-deprecation and laugh-out-loud scenes.
But, as both books make clear, only an unlikely revolution in production or consumption will prevent garbage from overtaking the inherent cleanliness of nature, as future generations suffer the illnesses and deaths that too much trash will cause.
Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Critics Book Circle. He lives in Columbia, Mo.