Excerpt from Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Garbage Land

On the Secret Trail of Trash

by Elizabeth Royte

Garbage Land
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2005, 320 pages
    Aug 2006, 336 pages

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When their truck was full, at around ten-thirty, Murphy dropped Sullivan at the garage, then rumbled over the Gowanus and pulled into the courtyard of the IESI transfer station, a white-painted brick building at the corner of Bush and Court Streets, in Red Hook. The drill here was simple: weigh your truck, then pull around to the tipping floor, back in, and pull the lever to dump. If the men had loaded their truck properly, the ejected garbage would extend six to eight feet in a supercompressed bolus before dropping to the ground. Garbage that simply spilled out was poorly packed or indicated that the truck hadn't been full. The quality of the dump was known as "the turd factor." According to one designer of packer trucks, "The driver can learn from experience by observing the turd factor and know just how much trash he can put in the truck per trip. If he gets a good turd on every trip to the landfill, that's a good day." Judging by the conformation of today's load, Murphy and Sullivan had done well. The morning's labors—twenty thousand pounds collected in less than four hours—now lay in a heap, indistinguishable from the heaps dumped before or after. Without a backward glance at what he'd deposited, Murphy put the truck in forward gear.

Integrated Environmental Services Incorporated was founded in 1995 and had grown by acquisitions, gobbling sometimes as many as a hundred companies a year. It bought this facility from Waste Management in 1999. By 2003, IESI was the tenth-largest solid waste company in the nation. In New York it was the third largest, after Waste Management and Allied Waste.

I pedaled down to the Court Street station a few days after going out with Sullivan and Murphy, hoping to speak with the plant manager. The doors on the bays were closed, and no one was about. I saw no trucks, and I smelled no garbage. If you didn't know what went on inside this building, you wouldn't, on a cold and slow autumn day, be able to guess. I rode around the neighborhood, noting that it was zoned for industry. Then I turned a corner, from Bush onto—just coincidentally—Clinton, and now the multiple towers of the Red Hook housing projects, home to eleven thousand mostly low-income residents, rose before me.

Garbage follows a strict class topography. It concentrates on the margins, and it tumbles downhill to settle in places of least resistance, among the poor and the disenfranchised. The Gold Coast of Manhattan's Upper East Side produces far more waste than the neighborhood of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, but city officials have never tried to site an incinerator on Park Avenue, as they did in Williamsburg. Similarly, landfills have no place within the city limits of Grosse Point, Beverly Hills, or Palm Beach. Across the nation and around the world, trash is dumped, metaphorically, upon trash.

Of course, there are, in this era of modern landfills, plenty of communities that say yes to trash, even to trash generated far, far away. The inducement is cash—or its in-kind equivalent. Tullytown, Pennsylvania, population 2,200, has raked in $48 million over the last fifteen years in exchange for burying fifteen million tons of trash, mostly from New York and New Jersey. Literally, this is the town that garbage built: waste paid for its town hall, half the police force, the new fire truck, the marine rescue boat, playground, trees, sidewalks, lampposts, and fireworks. (Towns that agree to host dumps invariably get free garbage pickup, too.) The town of Taylor, Pennsylvania, receives a minimum of $1.5 million a year from the Alliance landfill for hosting a five-thousand-ton-per-day landfill, in addition to a one-time lump sum of $900,000, which paid for a new library and a senior center.

From Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte. Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Royte. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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