Garbage Land

<i>Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash</i>, By Elizabeth Royte. <i>Little, Brown. $24.95.</i> <p><p> Exploring how our unwanted stuff keeps disappearing.

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Recently, a new class of muckrakers has investigated the hidden infrastructures that provide us with the things we want—from fast food to fossil fuels. With Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte reverses the formula, shrewdly exposing the mechanisms by which “our unwanted stuff keeps disappearing.” That is, she rakes actual muck. She begins by cataloguing her kitchen garbage, and then sets out to follow all her refuse, from Brooklyn to beyond. We’re talking compost, recyclables, and even crap. They all wind up somewhere, and Royte scrutinizes their journeys with a sharp eye and a pinched nose.

Tracking trash—even your own—is not easy. Royte initially has to sneak around New York’s Fresh Kills landfill in a kayak, and no one will tell her where old battery acid goes. We’ve built up bureaucracies to allow us to keep throwing stuff out without thinking too hard about where it ends up. For years, New York’s sewage was exported to a “sludge farm” in a tiny, working-class Texas town.

But Royte accepts some of the prickly realities of the trash-disassembly line. After all, not everyone can cultivate composting wetlands under their bathroom, like one eager environmentalist she meets. And while more Americans now recycle than vote, municipal waste accounts for only 2 percent of the country’s total refuse in the first place. Our national garbage problem is really an industrial one: Making 1 pound of sellable product generates 32 pounds of waste.

Ultimately, waste is an ideological dilemma, a problem of consumption. It’s the stinky corollary to a world where we constantly choose between “one overpackaged, poorly made product and another.” The solution, Royte argues, is to start dealing with trash preemptively, recognizing it in all its many-colored, sweet-smelling disguises.

Dear Reader,

This feels like the most important fundraising drive since I've been CEO of Mother Jones, with staggeringly high stakes and so much uncertainty. In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," I try to unpack the reality we all face and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support Mother Jones’ nonprofit journalism: We need to raise $400,000 to help cover the vital reporting projects we have planned, and right now is no time to pull back.

Monika Bauerlein, CEO, Mother Jones

Dear Reader,

This feels like the most important fundraising drive since I've been CEO of Mother Jones, with staggeringly high stakes and so much uncertainty. In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," I try to unpack the reality we all face and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support Mother Jones’ nonprofit journalism: We need to raise $400,000 to help cover the vital reporting projects we have planned, and right now is no time to pull back.

Monika Bauerlein, CEO, Mother Jones

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate