Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte

garbage land“Persuading Americans to consume less stuff . . . isn’t a big part of the environmental agenda. Instead, we are exhorted to buy green.”
– Elizabeth Royte, Garbage Land


When I interviewed Joy Sussman, she mentioned a book called Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte. It sounded interesting, so I checked it out from the library. It’s beyond “interesting.” It’s engrossing. It’s fascinating.

The publication date is 2005, so some of the information may be out of date, but read Garbage Land anyway. Royte, a science writer, also has a blog, Elizabeth Royte: notes on waste, water, whatever, where you can find more up-to-date information, like this:

The United States ships 50 to 75 percent of the material collected from curbside recycling programs to China each year, along with such scrapyard staples as junked cars, wire cables, broken motors, and other industrial and commercial castoffs. Add it all up, and that’s 46 million metric tons—enough to fill 4.6 million garbage trucks—of scrap metal, paper, rubber, and plastic, valued at roughly $11 billion.

In 2012, scrap was the nation’s No. 2 export to China, right after soybeans.

“What had been mine was now, unceremoniously, the city’s. It was time to come downstairs, to find out what happened next.”
– Elizabeth Royte, Garbage Land

Royte tries to follow her garbage, recycling and sewage from her house, but most of the organizations dealing with our waste aren’t interested in giving her a tour or even talking to her.

She eventually does get to view some facilities, but when you see how secretive they can be, you’ll understand why the statistics mentioned below have so much variance.

At a recycling roundtable, Royte talks to Samantha MacBride, then a PhD candidate, now a professor at Columbia University’s School of Public and International Affairs and the author of Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States.

MacBride says “Recycling isn’t saving the earth. Just so long as you know that. There are few environmental benefits to recycling.” Recycling programs, she says, focus environmental concerns away from the unsustainability of our current economic system.

“In 1930, the editor of House and Garden wrote, ‘The good citizen does not repair the old; he buys anew.'”
– Elizabeth Royte, Garbage Land


Reading Garbage Land, I learned a lot about what really happens not only to our “garbage,” including our sewage and (alleged) recycling. Once you read the book, you’ll understand why reducing consumption is so important.

According to Royte, many scientists and activists believe we should spend less time worrying about things like whether we should choose paper or plastic and more worrying about consuming less stuff to begin with.

One statistical tidbit that really affected me is for every 100 pounds of product, 3,200 pounds of waste are generated. Another statistic is the product itself contains only 5% of the raw materials used in making it. Yet another: municipal solid waste (our trash and recycling) is only two percent of the United States’ waste – the vast majority is industrial.

As Royte points out, the numbers don’t match, but they all agree that what we, as consumers, actually get rid of is a small fraction of the waste created by each thing we buy.

“What would happen if we slowed our pace of buying, if we kept our furniture, appliances, and cars for life, or even twice as long as we did now?”
– Elizabeth Royte, Garbage Land

Royte says she was shocked by the disparity between her personal waste and “the waste it took to produce my waste,” but pointed out that’s all the more reason to reduce what we consume.

If one barrel of waste at her curb means 32 barrels of manufacturing waste, she says, halving her garbage means eliminating 16 barrels up the line. Recycling is obviously better than nothing, but “not buying quite so many of these things in the first place was far better.”

If you’re at all interested in living more sustainably, add Garbage Land to your “to read” list. My library had it, so yours probably will too.


11 thoughts on “Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte

  1. Hello Christy,

    I had heard that recycling is not all it’s cracked up to be, and now I know why! For many reasons, I love the idea of keeping my possessions as long as possible. I also like giving things away if I no longer need them.

    I wish that manufacturers would stop using so darn much packaging! There’s a ridiculous amount of waste with fast food, indeed with any take-out food.

    It certainly is time that we all thought about how to reduce waste in our own lives.

    Great post!

  2. We used to sort our recyclables but the city changed to a one stream system where all recyclables go into one container and are sorted at the facility. The problem with this is the sorting system breaks most glass containers into pieces too small to recycle and newspapers become so water logged as to not be recyclable at all. This is progress?

    • We have everything in one bin – except glass. When I first started recycling, everything had to be separated and so most people wouldn’t bother, but taking the glass out is no big deal. I wonder why they don’t do that where you are. Of course, I have no idea if my glass actually gets recycled anyway….

  3. Christy, I read this book over the winter months and have shared it with anyone who has shown an interest.. There were many things that bothered me when I read about them in her book. The first was that glass separated and put out for recycling often ends up in the landfill as cover. That’s not why I put it in the recycling. The other was to learn our sewage is diverted into the waterways when we have heavy rains. Talk about gross, there has to be a better way. The amount of fuel used to pick up all the trash was another I hadn’t given enough consideration to. I believe pick up of twice a month should be enough for most families and would cut down on the fuel used along with the pollutants from the trucks but didn’t add it up to see the total costs associated until I read them.

    • I knew about some of the issues before reading the book, but most of what was in the book really surprised me. We, obviously, have already been buying less stuff, eating simpler diets, etc. but now I’m more motivated to focus on waste too.

      • Cristy, I was pretty focused on waste as a by-product of my upbringing but reading the book opened my eyes to more than I was aware of. Welcome to fighting waste club. 😉

  4. That is most disconcerting indeed. I’m sure the numbers are similar in Canada. Wouldn’t it be great if manufacturers went back to the way of making things to last? I’m fortunate enough to have a handyman who is pretty good at fixing things and always giving it a go to try to fix every broken thing before chucking it and buying new… It’s definitely not easy!

    • Not easy and often not cost effective. Many years ago (probably 15), my camera broke. I took in for repair and was told it would cost about the same to repair it as to buy a brand new one with a warranty. Crazy.

  5. I’m glad you found the book well worth a read, Christy. It really changed the way I think about garbage, recycling, and buying “green” things, and was one of the reasons I decided not to advertise green products on my blog. Best to avoid buying new things and the packaging that comes with them.

    • I think I’ve talked my husband into reading it too. He’s been interested in less stuff but not waste-reduction. I kept reading little bits aloud and he says he’s going to check it out from the library.

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