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Sierra Magazine
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Sierra's November/December 2005 Let's Talk book selection:
Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
A book by Elizabeth Royte
Review by Jennifer Hattam

What it's about
"Refuse reflects truth," writes Brooklyn-based journalist Elizabeth Royte. "We underestimate how much booze we drink; we overestimate our leafy greens." To uncover the truth about her own consumption patterns--and what really happens to the waste she makes--Royte literally got her hands dirty, spending almost a year sorting and weighing her household trash, then following it to its final destinations. Few would want to ride on a garbage truck, much less paddle around a landfill or subject their senses to the "back end of New York"--the city's sewage-processing system--but we should all be grateful that Royte made the at-times-pungent journey. As the author came to realize, keeping trash out of view just makes it easier for us to produce more of it.

Where to get it
Garbage Land is widely available at libraries and bookstores.

About the author
Elizabeth Royte is an acclaimed science writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, and the New Yorker. Her last book, The Tapir's Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest, was a New York Times Notable Book.

Discussion questions
Do you think you produce more or less garbage than, or about the same amount as, the average American (4.3 pounds per day)? Try sorting and weighing your garbage for a month--or even a week--and find out. What surprised you most about the results? What could you easily do to reduce the amount of waste you make?

What does your garbage say about you? If someone were digging through your trash, what would you be most embarrassed for him or her to find?

Do you know where garbage goes in your city or town? Try to arrange a group tour of a local dump, landfill, or recycling plant. Then talk about what you could do to reduce waste or increase recycling in your neighborhood.

Have you ever reused something you rescued from the garbage (yours or someone else's)? Are you proud of or a bit sheepish about your find? Would you tell anyone where you got it?

What do you think about the idea (posited in the last chapter) that recycling "merely [makes] it easier for individuals to keep consuming and to keep discarding"?

Should environmental groups focus on reducing consumption or promoting better buying habits? Is buying less stuff, as Royte suggests, the only route to environmental sustainability?

Links
Listen to Royte talk about Garbage Land on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

Read an excerpt from the book about a day on the job with Brooklyn garbagemen.

Learn more about how landfills and composting work.

Get EPA data on municipal solid waste.


TAKE ACTION
Find out what you--and your community--can do to reduce waste.

Work toward zero waste on college campuses.

Learn how and where to recycle just about anything.

Get tips on how to start composting.


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