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Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte. Little, Brown and Company, 2005; 311 pages; $24.95.


Into our trash cans go dead batteries, dirty diapers, bygone burritos, broken toys, tattered socks, eight-track cassettes, scratched CDs, banana peels.... But where do these things go next? In a country that consumes and then casts off more and more, what actually happens to the things we throw away? Garbage Land, science writer Elizabeth Royte leads us on the wild adventure that begins once our trash hits the bottom of the can. Along the way, we meet an odor chemist who explains why trash smells so bad; garbage fairies and recycling gurus; neighbors of massive waste dumps; CEOs making fortunes by encouraging waste or encouraging recycling -- often both at the same time; scientists trying to revive our most polluted places; fertilizer fanatics and adventurers who kayak amid sewage; paper people, steel people, aluminum people, plastic people, and even a guy who swears by recycling human waste. With a wink and a nod and a tightly clasped nose, Royte takes us on a bizarre cultural tour through slime, stench, and heat -- in other words, through the back end of our ever more super-sized lifestyles. By showing us what happens to the things we've "disposed of," Royte reminds us that our decisions about consumption and waste have a very real impact -- and that unless we undertake radical change, the garbage we create will always be with us: in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we consume.


From Publishers Weekly: Where does it all go? Most of us are content to shrug off the details [of our garbage] -- as long as it's out of sight (and smell). Not so journalist Royte, whose book in some ways (including its title) echoes Fast Food Nation. That McDonald's is more immediately engaging a subject doesn't make, say, the massive, defunct Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, N.Y., any less compelling. Royte nicely balances autobiographical elements (where does her Fig Newtons carton end up, anyway?), interviews and fieldwork with more technical research.

From Booklist: A visit to the filthy Gowanus Canal near her Brooklyn home got Royte thinking about garbage. What exactly does her family throw out each day? Who carries it away, where is it taken, how is it processed? To find out, she catalogs her daily household garbage and tracks her trash to garbage transit stations, landfills, and recycling plants. Royte's nervy and unprecedented journey through the land of garbage is fascinating, appalling, and...downright entertaining.... What her staggering exposé tells us is that as the quantity, variety, and toxicity of our garbage increases, we must, like nature, evolve ways to reclaim and reuse everything we make.


Elizabeth Royte has written for the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, and The New Yorker. She was the recipient of an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship in 1999. She lives in Brooklyn.


Elizabeth Royte was born in Boston in 1960. On the morning we talked, she told me, "I grew up outside Boston and went to Bard College and took a B.A. in literature, and then I moved to New York and started working at magazines. I've been a serious magazine writer since about 1985. I finally got around to writing my first book, The Tapir's Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest, in 2001." To my remark that I liked the title, Ms. Royte said, "It's a little hard for people to relate to. I didn't come up with that, my editor did. And I'm not sure it was a great idea to go with that. People don't know how to say tapir or they don't know what it is. Once you read the book it makes a little bit of sense what the title is, but it's mysterious until you get to that part of the book, but anyway."

"Did your parents read?"

"Well, The New Yorker wasn't in the house growing up. My father is a psychologist, and I don't think they were fiction readers. We used the library a lot. Reading was encouraged. I read a great deal of the time, and we learned to read very early. And my mom, she was always reading early childhood education stuff. She was a teacher. So they weren't reading great literature. I mean, we had great literature around the house, but I don't remember my mom sitting around reading Hemingway or anything like that."

"When did you decide that you wanted to write?"

"When I came to New York, I worked at magazines and thought that I wanted to be an editor. And I worked at The Nation and learned the important skills of copy editing and fact checking. And then when I worked at Conde Nast , as an editorial assistant, and then moved to another magazine and was actually assigning and editing stories as a junior editor and when the magazine folded, my boyfriend, who's now my husband -- he's a freelance writer -- urged me not to try and find another job but to try to be freelance. I started book reviews, just sort of for fun, and it didn't pay very well, as you know, but I started doing them. I also kept looking for an editing job. But people offered me writing jobs instead. So that launched my freelance career. I haven't really had a job since then. So I never really consciously said, 'I want to be a writer.'

"I tried writing fiction in college, and I was terrible at it. Now, though, I'm so wedded to nonfiction I don't think that I could really make anything up. I don't have that much imagination. Like most writers, I have a lot of curiosity about the natural world. This book about garbage was a complete departure for me. I'm used to writing about science and the environment. And talking to people who are happy to talk to me about their work and proud of their work. And excited about the natural world. That's why I like writing about scientists or people who can explain the natural world to me. Writing a garbage book was completely unlike anything I've ever done. It's all about dead stuff, and I had to deal with people who weren't happy to talk about their work."

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