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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Watching for dog shit along the curb, Sullivan rolled one plastic bin to the street and Murphy grabbed two others. They looked heavy—I knew they were about three-quarters full—but the men hoisted them to the hopper's edge without apparent effort. A small plastic grocery sack puffed with refuse, possibly mine, tumbled into the street. My heart almost stopped. Murphy swooped down upon it, tossing the tiny package into the hopper with a flick of his gloved hand. It was over. Nothing untoward had happened. Nobody had said a word.

I suspect that many people feel guilty about the volume of their trash. As I became more educated about garbage, my feelings of shame and guilt grew. There was stuff in my barrel, like those stained linen napkins, for which I'd failed to find further use. When I'd brought this stuff into the house—a new T-shirt, healthful food, a really fun toy—it was live weight, something I was proud to have selected and purchased with my hard-earned money. Now the contents of the bag were dead weight, headed for burial. No wonder we prefer opaque garbage bags. And no wonder that recycling bags, which flaunt our virtue, are often translucent.

Was I being neurotic? What, after all, could Sullivan and Murphy say about me, based on an average week's trash, that couldn't be said about a million others? That I wasted food, made unhealthy snack choices, bought new socks, or had a cold? I knew, after just one day on the job, that san men constantly made judgments about individuals. They determined residents' wealth or poverty by the artifacts they left behind. They appraised real estate by the height of a discarded Christmas tree, measured education level by the newspapers and magazines stacked on the curb. Glancing at the flotsam and jetsam as it tumbled through their hopper, they parsed health status and sexual practices. They knew who had broken up, who had recently given birth, who was cross-dressing.

Sometimes the things one rejects are just as revealing as the things that one keeps, but not always. When sixties radical A. J. Weberman sorted through Bob Dylan's garbage, which he'd snatched from outside Dylan's Greenwich Village brownstone, he found nothing that helped him interpret his hero's cryptic lyrics. Unhappy about this invasion of privacy, Dylan chased Weberman through Village streets, smushed his head to the pavement, and eventually sued him. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that the Constitution gives individuals no privacy rights over their garbage, though some state constitutions offer more stringent protection.

Weberman went on to found the National Institute of Garbology, or NIG, and to defend trash trolling as a tool of psychological investigation and character delineation. When he tired of Dylan's garbage, he dove into Neil Simon's (he found bagel scraps, lox, whitefish, and an infestation of ants), Gloria Vanderbilt's (a Valium bottle), Tony Perkins's (a tiny amount of marijuana), Norman Mailer's (betting slips), and antiwar activist Bella Abzug's (proof of investments in companies that made weapons).

Looking through trash often says more about the detective than the discarder. When city officials in Portland, Oregon, decided in 2002 that it was legal to swipe trash in an investigation of a police officer, reporters from the Willamette Week decided to dive through the refuse of local officials. What the reporters found most remarkable, after poring through soggy receipts and burnt toast, was how bad the investigation made them feel. "There is something about poking through someone else's garbage that makes you feel dirty, and it's not just the stench and the flies," wrote Chris Lydgate and Nick Budnick. "Scrap by scrap, we are reverse-engineering a grimy portrait of another human being, reconstituting an identity from his discards, probing into stuff that is absolutely, positively none of our damn business."

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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