In Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte tackles a subject that's as complex as it is fetid. What drives her story is finding the answer to a seemingly simple question: Where does her trash go? This leads to a potentially endless investigation involving waste-treatment and trash-compacting centers in the metro New York area, and into western Pennsylvania, where she finds it's a lot harder than you might think to look at garbage. Royte treats us to a detailed exegesis on the politics of sludge, and does a fascinating job exposing lesser-known players in the waste industry, whose fear of public scrutiny is evidenced by the fact that so many of them hang up the phone on her midsentence. What works about Garbage Land is its big-picture approach. One minute we're hanging with sanitation workers who sweat through three T-shirts on a summer day; the next we're chatting with a policy wonk who doesn't do anything so hands-on as composting, but gets giddy over the mere mention of anaerobic food digesters. My favorite is the University of California grad student who keeps his scat, or "humanure," in his bedroom for later composting under his apple tree.

A few caveats; about a dozen too many sentences begin with "According to a study by ___ (insert advocacy group here)." And then there's the inescapable tone of guilt-ridden yuppie do-gooderism, epitomized by cloying passages such as: "The more I learned about plastic, the worse I felt about the way I transported short-grain brown rice from the food co-op to my home … ." But this is just nitpicking. Royte is to be praised for taking a simple idea and blowing it up large. Not only that, she refuses to stump for easy answers to our waste-dependent economy like, say, the "buy green" movement and its promise of Sierra Club credit cards. As she explains, "I hate to think our strength is based in consumption, not moral clarity."

Garbage Land
By Elizabeth Royte

(Little, Brown; 304 pages)

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