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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

Garbage land by Elizabeth Royte


I finished this book in June 2023. I recommend this book 5/10.

This book will give you a whole new view on recycling and our waste problem. If we continue to do what we do now, we'll never escape our own mess.

Get your copy here.

My notes and thoughts:

  • P44. Since Fresh Kills closed, almost all the city's waste has been trucked from transfer stations to out-of-state landfills and incinerators. According to Keith Kloor, reporting for City Limits, it takes about 450 tractor-trailer trucks to complete this task each day, burning roughly 33,700 gallons of diesel fuel. The combined round trips add up to 135,000 miles. An additional 150 packer trucks, carrying about fifteen hundred tons of waste a day, make shorter trips to three incinerators in New Jersey and Long Island. The trucks wear down city streets and outlying highways, and their emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and other pollutants contribute to elevated asthma and cancer rates, acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming. The cost of shuttling city garbage around the boroughs and out of state is not cheap. In tolls alone, the city spent $2.25 million in 2002. Trucking and tipping fees cost another $248 million. Including the hiring of three hundred additional drivers to relay full trucks to transfer stations, the city spent $257 to dispose of each ton of trash in 2002, a 40 percent increase over the 1996 cost.

  • P72. "There was a lot of consolidation after Giuliani ran the mob out," Robert Lange of DSNY's Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse, and Recycling, told me. " And lots of buyouts, and now we have a monopolistic system and skyrocketing costs to export garbage." Between 1996 and 2002, the Department of Sanitation budget nearly doubled, from $631 million to about $1 billion.

  • P76. Two years passed, and IESI petitioned Lower Saucon Township for permission to expand its daily take from 750 tons to a maximum of 1,800. To sweeten the deal, the company offered two thousand-dollar scholarships to local high school students. Asked at a town hearing what would prevent someone from trying to hide hazardous waste in the bottom of a garbage truck, IESI's consulting engineer answered, "Probably your conscience."

  • P109. Not counting yard waste, my little family was soon dumping an average of 2.18 pounds of organic matter into the compost bin every two and a half days. The weight was mostly coffee grounds; the rest was potato peels, onion skins, and the bread crusts my daughter refuses to eat. (According to the Garbage Project, the average elementary school student throws away three and a half ounces of edible food a day. Over the course of a month, that's equivalent in weight to about three hundred Big Mac foam clamshells, at .233 of an ounce each, to put things in perspective.)

  • P138. "Is it better for the environment to dispose of toilet paper in the garbage or in the toilet?" It was a question I had asked myself for years every time I blew my nose. Herkowitz had answered: "It is both practically desirable and ecologically superior to flush it down the toilet." Sewage treatment plans decompose both organic waste and the cellulose of toilet paper, he said, but landfill microbial activity would generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. No matter where it ends up, though, the big ecological problem with toilet paper, Hershkowitz pointed out, is that companies produce it from virgin wood instead of recycled paper.

  • P264. When the MRF had first opened a few months earlier, workers separated plastics numbered one through seven. Now they focused on just two categories: PET and everything else. I asked the manager if he had to reconfigure a lot of equipment when the object of desire switched from HDPE, for example, LDPE, "Nope," he said. "We just tell the people on the line to do it." Thirty-eight million dollars, I thought, and it still comes down to that.

  • P293. What about in fifty or a hundred years: what will the garbage landscape look like then? Already, the stuff we set on the curb is circling back to bite us. We burn our electronic waste, and its chemical fallout shows up in the breast milk of Eskimos, and in the flesh of animals we eat. We bury our household waste, and poisons rise into our air and leach into our waterways. We can recycle and compost as much as we want, but if the total waste stream continues to grow—and it is growing, whether in places where recycling is on steroids, like Seattle, or in places where recycling is anemic, like the entire state of Mississippi—we'll never escape our own mess.

  • Q&A. What did you learn that shocked you the most?

    • I learned that for every barrel of trash you set on the curb, there are 71 barrels of waste generated upstream; in manufacturing, all this stuff you bought, used for just a short amount of time, and then consigned to the dump. Municipal solid waste is only 2 percent of the entire U.S. waste stream: the rest is manufacturing waste, agricultural waste, mining waste, construction and demolition debris, and other rarefied categories. But that 98 percent isn't unrelated to the two: it's all the waste that goes into the products and processes that keep us alive and happy.


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