"They sure weren't."
"But this book started just with my curiosity about where stuff went. I think everyone has that curiosity, but maybe it's because people were so unwilling to help me that it got my hackles up. I'm a curious person and a stubborn person. The more they said 'no,' the more I had to keep pushing to find out where everything was going."
The Sunday New York Times wrote, about Garbage Land: "Imagine a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that leaves you unable to throw or flush something away without tracking precisely where it goes. Not just from your indoor container to the curb or trunk line; this affliction makes you unable to put your mind at rest unless you follow your castoff into the truck, the transfer station, the landfill, the scrap-metal shredder, the treatment tank.
"Elizabeth Royte apparently has such a disorder, but rather than (or perhaps in addition to) letting it ruin her life, she has turned it into a likable chronicle of rubbish-realization.... Hers is a journey that everyone should take but few will."
I asked Ms. Royte what she made of the Times ' reading of her as afflicted with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She laughed a lot and loudly. "I'm really not obsessed with garbage. I'm not a person who fretted about landfills filling up. I had a lot of other environmental concerns, but garbage and recycling was not one of them. I'm still not obsessed with garbage, but I do care a lot about where things go and think things could be a lot different and a lot better.
"I was interested because no one could tell me at first. So it got even more mysterious. Like, people would give you a partial answer and that just made me mad. You know, they'd say, 'Oh, we recycle it.' And you'd say, 'Well, what is it recycled into, and where is it done?' No one had the whole picture because the waste business is so segmented, and it's in public hands, and it's in private hands, and then it changes hands and the rules change."
"How did you get interested in garbage?"
"It started because I was actively looking for a book subject, and, as I said, I usually write about plants and the environment, but I used to travel a lot to report those stories. And now that I had Lucy, our three-year-old, I didn't want to go away.
"So I had to do something in New York. I was going around to universities and talks and readings and talking to scientists. I met a woman at Columbia University who was studying the city's coffee footprint, and I was intrigued by the sound of that. What is a coffee footprint?
"Well, she was figuring out how much land and water it took to grow the beans that came to New York and turned into our coffee. And also how much paper and water and trees and energy and water it took to make the cups that we drink the coffee in.
"So I got interested in the idea of an ecological footprint and realized that it also includes the surface area it takes to assimilate waste. This was the germ of my idea, that the city had a garbage footprint, that we were eight million people in a very small place and had no place nearby to put our garbage.
"So that was the germ of the idea that I could look at the city's garbage footprint. And as I say in the book, I also was mildly curious about where things went. I always wondered where to put a tissue after I blew my nose, whether it should go into the trash can or in the toilet, and where it would have the least environmental impact. So that's how I got interested in garbage."
"People have such distaste for garbage, or for offal. I think that behind this distaste dwells our fear of death and disintegration."
Ms. Royte did not disagree. In her chapter rather ominously titled "Dark Angels of Detritus," she quotes from a 1993 essay by Italo Calvino. In this essay, Calvino wrote about his daily transfer of trash from the kitchen to a street-side container. "Through this daily gesture I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough of chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely [without residues] with what I am and have."
"I thought," said Ms. Royte, "about the death of the things that we confined to the landfills. And there's a sadness to it, seeing these things laying there. When I went to Barren Island and saw all these leather shoes that had been worn in the '20s and the '30s, it made me sadder than seeing anything else, and I'm not exactly sure why. You can see that these shoes and boots were worn nearly to death. The people whose shoes were lying around Barren Island, maybe their wearers had long and healthy lives, but it's just sad somehow to see these twisted little shoes. You know, men's shoes, women's shoes, babies' shoes, lying there with the water lapping at them. It just makes you think about what a short time we're here for and what a mess we're leaving behind. And how long this stuff is going to linger."
"What will linger the longest?"
"Glass. Because it's heavy to transport, and the stuff that goes into making it, silica and sand, are abundant. There's not a lot of motivation to keep the stuff cycling. Although it saves a lot of energy to make new glass from old glass. You don't have to heat it up nearly as much. So it is an energy saver. But if you don't have a place to use the glass nearby, then you're in trouble because you've got to pay to ship it."
"How do you feel about home recycling?"