Monday, August 29, 2016
Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
Book Review: Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash – by Elizabeth Royte (Little, Brown, and Co., 2005)
This is an entertaining and engaging journalist’s narrative account of the fate of trash in the U.S. Her goal is to find out where her trash, recyclables, and sewage goes and how it all is handled. It is quite an informative and sincere account. She calls up and visits often reluctant managers of landfills, transfer stations, sanitation workers, recycling facilities, and tries to extract information from them. Along the way she provides how trash works, its history, decomposition, and many other facets of our waste. Since she lives in New York City, we get much perspective from this very large city. Many of the people she visits, some quite colorful, are New Yorkers and I couldn’t help attributing to them strong NYC accents and “up yours” attitudes – OK I am stereotyping but some of the dialogue makes it hard not to do!
The book begins with her joining some Sierra Club members in paddling around the Gowanus canal in Brooklyn, a waterway highly polluted with sewage and industrial waste. But she explored the canal with a diver and dredger. The canal requires pumps to supply oxygen not unlike a fish aquarium does, or else there will be dead zones. This has helped some species of fish, shellfish, and other animals to survive in and near the polluted, oxygen depleted waterway. Royte also analyzes her own trash habits, measuring her trash output by weight and sorting it. She eventually begins composting as well. At the time, recycling was limited in NYC. Glass and plastic was temporarily not recycled. I assume it is now as in most places.
She notes that in centuries past kitchen trash was typically left out for scavenging animals and farm animals and burnables were burned. This is before plastic. Other stuff was repurposed or bartered. While many of us still do these things, the waste stream is no doubt much heavier these days. Apparently, waste in the first 4 decades of the 20th century was composed of 60% wood and coal ash! Since those sources of heat are now far less common so is their waste. The advent of refrigeration actually reduced food waste. However, concurrently, package waste went up. In the 1800’s trash accumulated in thick layers on the streets of populated cities and it included dead animals – in 1880, 15,000 dead horses were reported in Manhattan. While there were sporadic cleanup efforts it wasn’t until 1895 that trash removal service became a thing in NYC. There were three designations then and there: fuel ash, dry rubbish, and “putrescible” waste. Ashes went to an ash dump where ashes were piled high. Dry trash was picked clean of useful stuff and actually used to build up land and fill waterways and wetlands, creating tens of thousands of acres of waterfront real estate. Airports were built on such sites and still have problems with ground settling. Rat and other vermin problems led to more intolerance of trash. Incineration was in vogue in the 40’s. The toxic, stinky black smoke from these neighborhood incinerators made the air hazy and blocked visibility and for all these reasons went back out of fashion. New “sanitary” landfills came about with the Fresh Kills landfill in 1948 in Staten Island which stayed in operation until 2001. The first one was built in Fresno, California in 1937.
Her first visit was to 6AM roll call at the Department of Sanitation. She then got to meet up and help out her local sanitation workers (trash men), or “san men” as they (including women) are called, Sullivan and Murphy. She notes their skill, concentration, strength, and quickness in getting trash in the truck, crushing it, and moving on. They noted that trash and differences in trash tells a lot about the people – what they buy, what they read, and what they eat. People also throw away useful things (as we discovered living in cities) so the scavenging can be good as well. After the truck was filled it was brought to be weighed and dumped at the transfer station. Knowing how much trash can be put in a packer truck and how efficiently it is packed comes with experience. The quality of the compressed mass when dumped is referred to as the “turd factor.”
On a tangent she notes siting for things like landfills and incinerators are more likely to be in poor communities rather than rich ones, as the environmental justice movement would echo. However, other communities, particularly small rural ones, have welcomed landfills for the monetary benefits to the town which can be quite substantial, not to mention free trash removal. Of course, those benefits will fade through time as the facility fills, is closed, and becomes an environmental liability. For that reason the landfills can be opposed by factions of the local population. Excessive truck traffic is also problematic. Even the local transfer stations in NYC draw complaints about the stink and rats. Metal and a few other valuables are picked out. There are about 450 tractor trailer loads going out of the transfer stations per day.
Two key problems of sanitary landfills soon appeared: release of methane and toxic liquid leachate. Collection systems for both methane and leachate became required under 1991 amendments to the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This shut down many dumps and consolidated others into larger ones. In 1988 there were nearly 8000 U.S. landfills. By 2002 there were only 1767. The new “megafills” could take advantage of construction economies of scale. Royte was still trying to get visits to landfills – the closed Fresh Kills and one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She ended up paddling around the Fresh Kills area with a salt marsh ecologist to try and have a look at what was once the largest landfill in the U.S. She eventually gets to visit.
“Dry tomb” landfills involved isolating garbage so that leachate flows along plastic barriers and can be collected and perforated pipes and pumps could collect methane and the other gases. A differing method is the “wet tomb” or bioreactor method which enhances decomposition and subsequent methane and leachate production. The leachate can be injected back into the garbage stream to further accelerate decomposition. A downside is that there is more leachate available to leak. An upside is that the increased rate of decomposition frees up more space faster. Leachate is a toxic stew of household products and decomposition products. It is often treated and then released back into the environment. Landfills will leach toxins for vast periods of times. Old Roman waste pits still leach toxins. Landfill liners will leak eventually. Since leachate contains nitrogen and phosphorus and its presence in surface water can be beneficial for plants and sea creatures as they take up these nutrients. The ecologist did a restoration of the shore around part of the landfill to further filter out the leachate with grasslands fed by a surface water capture system. They end up getting chased off by a “sanitation cop” guarding the landfill just for paddling too close.
Next she visits IESI’s landfill in Bethlehem, PA. The manager kinda gives her the runaround showing her the recycling area but saying he was too busy to show her the landfill. I remember in the 90’s when we used to drive our own trash to the local landfill in West Virginia once a week when they allowed it – tipping it by throwing bags from the back of the truck right into the readied pits. You could see all the other pits in various stages of covering and reclamation. She manages to sneak under a fence into the landfill proper but can’t get anywhere near the activity. The manager was quite uncooperative.
Next is mention of organized crime in the commercial waste hauling business, particularly in New York City. 23 hauling companies were part of a 1995 indictment. This was part of Guiliani’s fairly successful push against organized crime. These corrupt companies were also severely overcharging for commercial trash removal. After the mob was run out the void was filled with consolidation by the larger companies.
A 1998 study noted that escaping landfill gases contributed to significant increases in bladder cancer in leukemia in those who lived very close to landfills. Other studies noted increases in birth defects. Although these studies weren’t definitive in terms of cause and effect, they were suggestive.
Modern landfills have better containment and collection systems but also cost more to construct and maintain. Layers of gravel, geotextile fabrics, sewage sludge to accelerate decomposition, compacted sand, thick high-density polyethylene geomembranes, and compacted impermeable clay, make up the cells.
Next she visits an incinerator, a modern waste-to-energy (WTE) facility. Such facilities burned about 13% of U.S. trash at time of publication. She watches as trash is tipped and the big metals are removed as much as possible. Then conveyor belts with magnets take away more metal. The facilities are outfitted with state-of-the-art pollution control devices – they have to be since the smoke tends to be especially toxic. Even so, the air emissions are still considered quite toxic and not welcomed by many. While the scrubbers take care of the fly ash, there is also the bottom ash which is full of toxic heavy metals. These are put in standard landfills after treatment but will likely increase overall leachate toxicity.
She visits Nick Themelis at Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Center. He touts the benefits of WTE over recycling, composting, and landfilling, at least from an engineering perspective. There is much debate regarding the relative benefits these four methods of dealing with waste in terms of energy use, potential for environmental harms, cost, and effectiveness. WTE plant costs are high due to siting and pollution control requirements. In the past they seem to have been preferentially located in low income areas, thus feeding the arguments of the environmental justice movement.
She visits a landfill in New Jersey with an environmental consultant. There was a large building with a tipping floor where municipal trash was compressed into small cubes. Outside she observes the cells being filled with these cubes of trash.
Next she attends Robin Nagle’s Urban Anthropology class at New York State University. Sanitation workers were speaking including the director of Fresh Kills. Nagle also worked as a sanitation worker in order to ethnographically document sanitation workers. The Fresh Kills director, Diggins, noted that Fresh Kills had finally got up to code just before it was closed. The leachate collection and methane collection and flaring systems had managed to vastly improve the previous bad odors. She and Nagle get to visit Fresh Kills with Chief Diggins. She notes that there is only a faint smell of gas and that most areas are reclaimed quite well on the surface. Due to the extensive mounds of well covered trash reaching up hundreds of feet, she notes the majestic view from the top. She gets to see a leachate seep that is particularly stinky. She also gets a private lecture on leachate from a landfill engineer at DSNY.
Compacted bagged trash in dry tomb landfills is more like mummification than decomposition as 70-90 year old stuff may not decompose at all, particularly plastics. Wet tomb landfilling takes advantage of anaerobic methanogenic microbes to radically break down the organics but it also increases methane and other gas emissions. Fresh Kills landfill isn’t lined, is in swampy ground with widespread fluid movement compared to other more modern lined landfills. Thus its rate of decomposition is much higher. The methane collected from Fresh Kills runs a gas power plant that can power about 14,000 homes. The WTE plant she visited was said to be able to power about 50,000 homes. Landfills without methane collection systems are susceptible to large vented releases of methane and underground fires that can be hard to contain. She makes an error regarding the amount of methane produced from Fresh Kills (15BCF/year or 40+MMCF/day) relative to world methane production but it is quite a bit. Landfills at the time were the largest source of anthropogenic methane – now they are still close – the top three in the U.S.: landfills, agricultural (enteric fermentation from cows and manure management), and leakage from oil and gas systems are all nearly the same amount – about a third each. Globally, rice paddy farming contributes a significant amount. Raw landfill gas also contains many other toxic gases as well as CO2 so separation, treating, and flaring are also necessary. Landfills, WTE incinerators, and farmers are eligible for government subsidies but oil and gas systems are not. She visits the leachate treatment plant at Fresh Kills where ammonia is treated and released and suspended solids are precipitated out. The treatment plant also produces a significant amount of sludge which is dewatered, mixed with lime, and trucked to another landfill for isolated storage.
Next she recounts her own home composting project and the subject of composting in general. Her own project was not very successful but she gives some stats of the time (~ 2005) for composting in the U.S. for organics, food waste, and yard waste. Composting requires significant oxygen for aerobic bacteria to decompose the organic matter into organic acids. When sulfurous compounds form later in the process the trash begins to stink – humans are quite sensitive, to even one part per billion, to the odors of sulfur compounds. Odor researchers also found that one’s cultural history affects whether one views smells as disgusting, dangerous, or acceptable. The EPA noted that 67% of U.S. waste could be composted. I have been doing it for years and it is not too much work. If one has animals around, both domesticated and wild, they will help with getting rid of food waste as well. She meets with an urban composting activist and they discuss the economics of composting and anaerobic digesters (ADs), which can produce compost and biogas. ADs can decrease overall greenhouse gas emissions and convert carbon into gas and gas into energy – they are big in Europe and currently taking hold in the U.S. to help curb methane emissions, mainly from farms and food waste. She visits the compost farm at the Lower East Side Ecology Center. It makes 750 lbs of compost from 3000 lbs of raw materials per week. The compost is blended with vermiculite, perlite, peat moss, greensand, and black rock phosphate to make New York City Paydirt, which was going for $1 per pound. The leachate from the composting operation goes down the drain which suggests highly concentrated corrosive leachate is being dumped, possibly directly into the East River. The Ecology Center was operating at a loss but made up the difference with government grants. The director also favored AD, which has a fair shot of being economic even without subsidies or with small ones. That is the only way composting can be economic, many would say. She mentions that food waste disposers which grind up food waste and put it down the drain can end up harming aquatic life with the increased nitrogen loads. However, it can also add nutrients for sewage consuming microbes. Comparing impacts shows there are trade-offs: more food waste down the drain means less diesel-consuming trucks carrying the heavy food waste away. Food waste disposers also use water. Some hardcore environmental groups think water should only be used for drinking and washing and not for transporting sewage or food waste. Food waste collection has been implemented in some places but it is hard not to lose money in such ops. Commercial collection of food waste from restaurants, grocery stores, yard waste, agricultural waste, and even manure can be collected on a larger scale and fed into well-sited commercial ADs.
Recycling finally took off in the late 1980’s in the U.S. with newspaper and corrugated cardboard leading the charge. She travels with a DSNY recycling pick-up trash truck. She visits a paper recycling plant and goes through the process of cleaning, heating, dewatering, vacuuming, etc. Paper-recycling mills actually produce more short-fiber waste than virgin mills. In 1988, 30% of U.S. paper was recycled. By 2002 it climbed above 50%. Clean white paper can be recycled about 4 times before its short-fiber content is too much. Paper recycling has slowed deforestation. Going paperless in our increasingly on-line realm has also likely slows it.
Next is metal recycling. She visits the Hugo Neu Corporation, one of the largest metal recycling companies in the world. Neu started in New York and now exports bulk scrap steel, much of it to China where it is further shredded and processed. They also deal with car metal. She talks with Wendy Neu about their scrapyards and environmental liabilities. Steel, aluminum, copper, brass, and most metal recycling are very useful and conserve mineral resources. Royte visits their Jersey City scrapyard and sees how the metals are sorted and separated.
Next she explores household toxic waste and recycling. Battery recycling recycles significant amounts of nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, lithium-ion, and lead batteries. According to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation much of it goes to a facility in Pittsburgh which Royte visits next. Here the components are extracted out and sent to supply other local industries: glass makers, battery, and stainless steel manufacturers. Such metal recycling is still polluting but far less so than mining new raw materials. Along with lead batteries, solvents and mercury are banned in landfills, though it is hard to keep them out from household trash. Royte brings her own household hazardous waste to a drop-off site. She notes that managers are quite guarded about where all this highly concentrated toxic waste goes – but usually to industries after sorting and processing. Electronic waste is a huge issue for recyclers. These devices also contain toxic waste which is not good for landfills or incinerators. Big operations use detailed magnet sorting and weight sorting for the e-waste. They note that glass is more a liability than a commodity – they pay smelters to take it, mainly for the lead. Lead, copper, and zinc smelting plants have been linked to local pollution and lead poisoning. Much of our e-waste is shipped to China, India, and Pakistan. Much of the e-waste extraction is chemical extraction and can be associated with safety and health risk to workers and environmental damage in China. The alternative to exporting e-waste is sweatshops – as e-waste recycling is not profitable. Some have advocated and implemented “extended producer responsibility (EPR) where dead products can be sent back or taken back to producers but that involves work, time, and inconvenience. In Switzerland the bulk e-waste is brought back to retailers but the cost of recycling is added into the purchase price. Recycling is not and won’t become profitable and yet it is rarely subsidized like other feel good green projects.
Plastic is the next subject. She visits American Ecoboard, a company that re-melts recycled plastic and reinforces it into plastic composite resin lumber. She visits a municipal recycling facility (MRF), Allied Waste. She gets a primer in classification of consumer plastics, which was developed to assess recycle-ability, HDPE, LDPE (high and low density polyethylenes), PVC, and others. She discusses the effects of bottle bills (paying to take bottles) and the effects on recycling (recyclers often don’t like them because they get less weight in glass and plastic). She discusses the Keep America Beautiful anti-litter campaign (created by beverage companies and known as a prime example of corporate greenwash) and their ambivalence. Evidence suggests that bottle bills do increase recycling rates significantly, or at least had for a while. Only a small percentage of glass bottles are refilled. Only in some Scandinavian countries are PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles refilled and only because the PET bottles there are thicker and stronger. Most recycled glass and plastic is re-melted. Other destinations for recycled plastic are sleeping bag fill, carpets, products like the ecoboard, and fleece products like jackets and blankets. In 2003, 35 % of recycled PET plastic was exported, mostly to China for cheaper processing there. She mentions a Greenpeace report that showed that Pepsi and other companies were sending low grade recycled plastic to India where they are processed in ways that here would be considered unsafe and much of them ended up in unlined landfills there. One bottom line is that virgin plastic is still far cheaper and easier to deal with than recycled plastic. Plastic production is associated with toxins such as trichloroethane, acetone, methylene chloride, methyl ethyl ketone, styrene, toluene, sulfur oxides, nitrous oxides, methanol, ethylene oxide, and volatile organic compounds. Benzene and vinyl chloride are inputs. Plastic is also known for being very slow to biodegrade and more recently the issue of micro-beads of plastic entering the environment en masse is seen as a potentially serious problem if not abated. Reduction of packaging is one partial solution to overuse of plastic. Plastic bag bans have met with only marginal success but are currently popular in some areas. Curbside recycling has been quite successful in some areas and more marginally so in others. I live rural and deliver my recyclables to a local recycling center.
Next the exciting world of poop is explored beginning with the once symbolic issue of disposable diapers. One study suggested that disposable diapers made up to 2.1% by weight of landfill deposits. Reusable cloth diapers would increase both water and waste into the sewage system. About 20% of sewage sludge is used by landfills to enhance biodegradation. Next she visits a manager of the DEP Division of Wastewater Management to track the journey of her shit through the pipes. Before the 1980’s her “effluent” would have made it into the Gowanus canal. One problem for sewage treatment is commercial food establishments without adequate grease traps. I once had a job cleaning these grease trap systems which included scraping disgusting grease muck and high pressure spraying from roof vents with caustic soda imbued water. Nowadays used oil can be filtered and used as biodiesel which is another feel good green thing – fine in itself but not enough to go around to make a significant impact. Biodiesel is cleaner than regular diesel but still makes significant pollutants when burned. In times of high water runoff the sewage system gets filled and some effluent (more dilute now) does end up in the harbor.
“As recently as the seventies, New York was still discharging 450 million gallons of raw sewage a day into the waterways surrounding the five boroughs. Until 1986, the entire west side of Manhattan, north of Canal Street, discharged its sewage [untreated] into the Hudson.”
In a big rain storm as much as 40% of the raw sewage stream is diverted into local waterways and this is apparently the case in many large cities. Storm water runoff also picks up toxins from the ground, from incomplete combustion, from illegally dumped waste and grease, and from commercial establishments, and adds them to the wastewater system. They followed the gulls, drawn to faint H2S, to the Owl’s Head Treatment Plant where homegrown methane ran engines and 120 million gallons of raw sewage is treated per day. Here solids and liquids are separated and pumped through settling tanks, ‘scum concentrators,’ and aeration tanks. The manager described the sewage treatment plant as a digester that concentrates and accelerates decomposition. The solids as sludge are filtered and used to assist landfill biodegradation and may be spread on farm fields, preferably after further processing. The sludge contains toxins. The effluent certainly contains varying levels of toxins since many toxic substances go down drains. Here the treatment plant also had a large digester and after being digested by anaerobic bacteria the sludge was shipped by barge to a dewatering plant and dried into a raw material product.
“For decades, the DEP dumped 1200 tons of sewage a day from a tanker parked twelve miles off the city’s shore.” EPA announced the waters ‘dead’ in 1985. Oxygen was depleted and shellfish were contaminated with bacteria and heavy metals. Boston as well as New York had practiced ocean dumping of sewage. It was outlawed in 1988 by Congress with the Ocean Dumping Reform Act which went into full effect in 1991. So now the solids had to be further processed and further treated to reduce pathogens. Acceptable levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, and chromium were raised by the EPA, say some, to accommodate sewage so it could be reclassified. It was renamed ‘biosolids.’ Several new sewage-based fertilizer local products came from various cities. At least one tested very high in cadmium. She gives stats for dried sewage sludge at the time (~2005): 54% relabeled “biosolids,” 28% buried in landfills, and 17% incinerated. After ocean dumping was banned a company (Merco) landed a contract to spread this New York waste on ranch land in western states but several states banned it until a donation was made to Texas Tech to study sewage and dump it at Sierra Blanca, a small town in southwest Texas where a 81,000 acre site was used for the sewage farm. The smell was horrendous according to many and the waste tested very high in fecal coliform bacteria. I think it was some sort of quasi-political scandal as well regarding the place selection. Dry sewage pellets also went to citrus groves in Florida and corn and soybean farms in Ohio. Processing facilities often have bad smells even though the manager there in NYC was an expert in odors and how to neutralize them – one method is a regenerative thermal oxidizer which raises temps to over 1600 deg F. Even so, people still complain about the smells and are affected by them. NYC sewage sludge contains magnesium, cadmium, copper, zinc, iron, mercury, selenium, and lead (leached from pipes). Some of those are toxins but several are plant nutrients at typical concentrations as well as nitrogen and phosphorous. It is also high in the toxin dioxin – the 2nd highest source after backyard trash burning. There are allowable levels for Class A biosolids (300 ppm) and various sewage end-products are allowed or not allowed to be applied for food producing agriculture. EPA’s sewage sludge regulations have been criticized. I am unaware of any developments after publication of this book. There is anecdotal evidence associating class B biosolids with all kinds of medical problems but such ‘evidence’ is common with any industrial contact so it is hard to know which cases, if any, are legitimate. However, there are some definite cases of bacterial poisoning of cattle and staph infections so sludge exposure poisoning is a real issue. Since sludge is not always a consistent product it stands to reason that some batches could be considerably more toxic than others. The EPA denied a petition to ban land application of biosolids in 2004. Sewage-treating marshes were in vogue for hip small cities but such wetlands are impractical in most places as well as a liability.
Next she visits a homemade grey water treatment zone and delves into waterless composting toilets. I looked into the toilets years ago but at 30 times the cost of a toilet plus maintenance requirements and potential odor issues it seemed nonsensical. The do-it-yourselfer guy she visited made his ‘humanure’ into compost aided by worms and used it on ornamental plants. Composting of human excrement is often recommended over new sewage systems in developing countries due to having less overall environmental impact if done correctly. She visits an art exhibit with her young daughter which shows and replicates the human digestive system through Plexiglas. They sit near the anal sphincter!
Next she examines consumerism and the possibility of decreasing our waste stream. Less packaging has been one trend to address waste volume and weight. Curbside recycling is another. She examines obsolescence, planned and not. There is functional obsolescence (like say faxes) and style obsolescence. Decreasing the amount of waste per product life can be achieved through life-cycle analyses, say the authors of a study culminating in the book, Cradle to Cradle (I may read that one). Consumption reduction is obviously the most impactful solution but with increasing population and increasing development of developing countries that is not likely to happen overall. “Corporate citizenship,” or rather perceptions of it among consumers, influences buying decisions – unless the cost variations are too extreme. She goes through the effect of holiday consumerism and even the curbside pickup and drop-off of spent Christmas trees. She goes on a tree collecting run with DSNY. Royte shares her own feelings about being green and how it makes her feel more useful. I think that’s fine as long as it doesn’t devolve into pointing fingers at others too much.
She visits a 2-day roundtable about recycling by the Citywide Recycling Advisory Board and others. Industry and environmentalists were present. Producer responsibility was brought up and other recycling issues were talked about and debated. She meets the director of San Francisco’s recycling system and flies out for a visit to see the new $38 million MRF – lured by the possibility of learning more about the ‘zero waste’ concept. Of course, she is not so naïve as to take zero waste literally but more as a guiding principle. The goal in San Francisco was to maximize recycled content and minimize landfilled content. I think maybe zero waste is a ‘cart before the horse thing’ – that maybe less waste should precede zero waste like increased renewable energy should precede 100 % renewable energy and less emissions should precede zero emissions. She explores with a manager of the waste management company Norcal. She spends (a few months?) exploring San Francisco’s garbage system and compares it to New York’s: San Fran is a pay-as-you-throw system separated into black = rubbish, blue = recyclable, and green = organic. Pay-as-you-throw disproportionately burdens lower income residents. It also increases deliberate dumping. Recycle bins encourage theft by bottle redeemers. Collecting food from restaurants increased San Fran’s diversion rate by 15% and this source stays isolated to be composted at a landfill and used to produce crops that are in turn bought by the same restaurants, thus “closing the loop,’ as the MRF manager noted. Anti-recyclers have argued that materials are getting cheaper while labor is getting more expensive so recycling is not worth the bother. Better automation and industrial technology improvements could make recycling more economic and a desire to recycle among the populace should keep streams of it coming through. Mandatory recycling will also help increase the diversion rate. Recycling costs and mandates on businesses incentivize packaging reductions. The MRF was a vast complex with 87 conveyer belts moving recyclables. She wonders if the line workers (as at the Hugo Neu Corporation) were happy with their jobs and their levels of possible exposure – to what I am not sure except maybe toxic dust. Recyclable sorting can vary depending on what materials have the most demand for given areas. PET plastic was the most valuable at the MRF but much of it was exported rather than used locally. Norcal is paid for garbage collection (not the city as in DSNY). They also pay to tip at the landfill so their recycling facilities decrease tipping fees as well as increase revenue by selling recyclables. Apparently. It is still cheaper to make glass from old glass rather than virgin silica (less heat required) so recycled glass still has valuable markets. Next they visit Norcal’s subsidiary organics composting facility where mostly commercial food waste was shredded. These were apparently diesel powered industrial composters with high greenhouse gas and VOC emissions – not anaerobic digesters. The final compost, or organic fertilizer, was sold to wineries, organic farms, and landscapers. She also visits a famed recycling center in Berkley – Urban Ore, an “urban junkyard.” This is a large and well-vetted re-use/re-purpose facility which favored ingenious and creative ways to divert waste into useful products and also just sorted and held on to used stuff until new owners and uses were found for them.
In the final chapter Royte contemplates the role of an “ecological citizen.” Garbage researchers have called sorting garbage a Zen-like societal experience. I can attest to once learning the Zen of dumpster diving! Her own new garbage logging, composting, and recycling habits changed her perspective about waste. It also changed her habits regarding trash placement so as to be kinder to those who take it away. She mentions conversations with a PhD sociology candidate that thinks recycling is pointless and diverts attention from the real problem – consumers and capaitalists. Statistics say that municipal solid waste is just 2 % of the nation’s waste, that the rest is commercial, from agriculture, mining, and industry, and much of it (~ 75%) is in the category of non-hazardous industrial waste. Much of all this waste is really the waste it took to create the consumer products that produce the municipal solid waste. So basically our waste would increase by 50 times if we included a cradle-to-grave waste stream of the products we buy and use. Such a ‘multiplier effect’ suggests that reducing one’s waste stream by any amount reduces that amount much more in the full life cycle. However, that is not always the case since some of the things we buy (like say gasoline) produce no waste that we can see - of course we can buy a more energy efficient low emissions vehicle to decrease carbon emissions and polluting waste. All kinds of technologies are currently being explored for processing trash. Most are energy intensive but some generate and run on their own energy like anaerobic digesters that often run on the biogas they produce. She participates in a beach cleanup and even though such cleanups merely slow down the trash stream and clear it temporarily, it is still dutiful for an ecological citizen to do it – reminds me I am a bit behind on my road cleanup. It is volunteering, community service, and we should all do some.
Garbage Land is a thoughtful book. The narrative is often entertaining, and shows the personal demeanors, character, and biases of the people Royte meets to discuss and explore waste. It is rife with data, speculations, still current debates, and the realities of human waste.