Bookmarks Issue: 

On the Secret Trail of Trash

A-GarbageLandIn following the path of her trash from the bottom of the can to its "final" resting place, Royte introduces us to some unusual characters: an odor chemist; neighbors of massive waste dumps; CEOs raking in money by encouraging waste or recycling (often both at the same time); scientists trying to restore our most polluted places; fertilizer fanatics and adventurers who kayak among sewage; and even a guy who swears by recycling human waste. By illustrating the fate of the things we’ve thrown away, Royte warns us that the daily choices we make regarding consumption and waste affect us in measurable ways—and that unless we radically change our habits, our garbage will always be with us.
Little, Brown. 320 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0316738263

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"As impressive as Royte’s doggedness and investigative skill is the care she takes with language. . . . Royte reserves her greatest indignation for plastics, which are not biodegradable in any conventional sense." Jabari Asim

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Anyone who cares about the environment half as much as Royte does should read this book. Then, recycle it. Or better yet, give it away." Gary Wisby

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What works about Garbage Land is Royte’s big-picture approach. . . . Garbage Land is quite readable, except for the detailed scientific debates on recycling and composting—scintillating to an environmental insider, perhaps, but a yawn to the layperson." John Dicker

Fort Worth Star-Telegram 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Royte occasionally lets the minutiae about a metals recovery center or a waste treatment facility get in the way of the storytelling. But she always brings her point home. . . . Anyone who rolls a trash cart out to the curb once a week will appreciate Royte’s inquisitiveness as she tries to determine not only where our trash goes, but also what its treatment says about our society." Heather Landy

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"If Garbage Land doesn’t induce queasiness, it may cause depression. . . . Surrounded by sobering statistics, Royte is a modern-day, modernist muckraker, exhibiting more irony, realism, and resignation than righteous indignation." Glen C. Altschuler

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"Royte is an entertaining writer . . . and turns what could be dry policy or shrill tub-thumping into an engaging, often darkly funny tale. . . . Here’s hoping Garbage Land prompts more of us to take a good hard look in the wastebasket." Thomas Maresca

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"She is aiming for a more general public, and a strength of Garbage Land is that it doesn’t get too preachy and is full of humor and self-deprecation. . . . Garbage Land, though, does have a fundamental bias, one that Royte never confronts: her jumping-off point seems to be the idea that our best, highest use as human beings is to keep our ‘garbage footprint’ to a minimum." Neil Genzlinger

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"This is an amiably conversational book. It is full of facts but does not delve quite deep enough to be relegated to an audience of recycling wonks." Elizabeth Grossman

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Royte is a true believer, with a strong utopian streak. This makes Garbage Land suspiciously partisan. It’s impossible to tell which studies have an agenda and which do not." William Grimes

Critical Summary

Royte, a science writer, has written a disturbing and enlightening book about the 2 percent of our total waste stream that American households generate. Despite Garbage Land’s almost inevitable environmentalist sympathies, Royte does not offer up easy answers; in fact, she leaves readers sensing the futility of their own small efforts to recycle and reduce waste. Although Royte considers herself to be "in the middle of the argument," her liberal perspective might grate some readers. Even though portions of the book are overly technical or obviously biased, Garbage Land transcends the usual environmental audience to interest any reader.

Also by the Author

The Tapir’s Morning Bath (2001): Royte spent a year with rain-forest researchers on Panama’s Barrow Colorado Island, assisting them with their research and hanging out with them late into the night. The book is a winning mix of science (studying the social behavior of leaf-cutter ants and others), sociology, and environmental concern.