An Interview with Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land
Why write about garbage?
Ive always wondered whether it was better, environmentally speaking, to
throw a used tissue in the toilet or in the trash. And like a lot of people, I
wondered where things went, and what became of them, after I threw them 'away.'
So I started keeping track of my trash, quantifying itto learn exactly what I
was rejecting. Then I began traveling with my trash. As I learned how far my
garbage footprint spread, I tried my utmost to leave a smaller human stain. The
tissue, by the way, should go in the toilet. But dont flush till you must!
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?
That municipal solid waste the stuff that comes from you and me, plus the
stuff that comes from institutions and businesses makes up only two percent of
the total U.S. waste stream. The remainder, some 12 billion tons a year, is
mostly nonhazardous industrial waste, plus mining, agricultural, and hazardous
What were some of the most difficult roadblocks to researching Garbage Land?
It was hard getting just about anyone to answer my phone calls, let alone show
me around their landfill. The waste world is insular, and it seems to be
particularly suspicious of freelance writers.
What changes can we make in our personal buying habits to cut down on the
amount of garbage that were accumulating?
Buy less new stuff. When you do buy, consider what kind of trash something
will eventually make: is the product and its packaging reusable or recyclable?
Will it soon break or become obsolete? Can you repair it? Is it toxic? If youre
talking about food or household products, can you buy them in larger sizes to
reduce the amount of packaging per use?
Is recycling worth it?
Making goods from recycled materials, instead of virgin, saves energy, creates
less pollution, and cuts down on the extraction of trees, minerals, and fossil
fuels. But individual recycling isnt going to turn things around until more
manufacturers use recycled materials, more consumers buy recycled goods, and
designers make products that can be more easily recycled. Producers must take
environmental and social responsibility for their goods both before they reach
consumers, and after.
Paper or Plastic?
If your grocery store takes back plastic bags and actually recycles them into a
useful product, go with plastic its lighter to transport. If you recycle
paper, go with that. But dont sweat it: the bags come out nearly equal in
lifecycle analyses. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which makes
exhaustive studies of consumers environmental impacts, the issues that have the
biggest impact on planetary health are transportation, housing, and meat eating.