A trashy tale well told

With proper treatment, even the story of garbage can sparkle.

Every now and then - probably not often enough - most of us have occasion to think about one of the chief consequences of consumerism: a swollen stream of waste that could someday overflow its banks.

With "Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash," Elizabeth Royte takes a literary dumpster dive. In the spirit of other recent examinations of seemingly hum-drum fixtures of daily life, this book takes a gritty topic and makes it shine.

The lid that Royte bravely chose to lift reveals a great deal more than grit.

An accomplished freelance writer (Harper's, The New Yorker), she brings participatory zeal to a local story of global importance. A kayak trip near her Brooklyn home sets Royte to wondering about the final resting place of the estimated 1.3 tons of refuse she - like every American - generates each year.

That wondering draws her deep into the world of the sanitation worker, whose work is statistically more dangerous than police work or firefighting. And it takes her far from the sack-strewn alleys, into the "sordid afterlife of garbage" in the byzantine universe of transfer stations, "scum concentrators," landfills, and incinerators - places with their own lexicons, class topography, pathogens, episodes of secrecy and corruption.

Disco rice? That's trash-man speak for maggots. Mongo? It's trash worth saving. (And though keeping it is officially forbidden, plenty of barely used castoffs - from lawn mowers to designer clothes - are harvested.)

Other waste is just that. Paper, metals, and "toxic trash" merit their own chapters. Plastic - "satan's resin" - does too.

Buyers of all of that NYPD and FDNY garb so popular since 9/11 might justifiably seek out "DSNY" in a T-shirt tribute to New York's less heralded hero - the "san man." The act would celebrate, by extension, those "dark angels of detritus" everywhere.

Just don't ask the seller for a plastic bag.

But Royte doesn't preach. Her style is reportorial - unblinking and full of sometimes arch but generally nonjudgmental characterizations of the "garbage folk" she encounters. That's everyone from the joshing front-line muscle with whom she rides to a solution-seeking bureaucrat who peers back at Royte with narrowed eyes to intone that "it's not garbage, it's waste."

Along the way, the reader learns. In a section on the economics of megafills come details about the interstate import-export game that had Pennsylvania, for example, accepting 10 million tons of other states' waste in 2002 alone.

Elsewhere the lesson is on composite landfill liners that conduct "leachate" to treatment plants - liners whose "geomembranes" are stealthily eaten away by common household chemicals.

You might imagine that the organic garbage, at least, morphs into a rich loam at landfills. Wrong. Bagged garbage, compacted and buried, ends up out of reach of the microorganisms that affect decay. Below eight feet, they lack enough oxygen to do their work. Hot dogs can hang around for decades.

But Royte shows mercy. Just when readers may have had enough on, say, fecal coliform levels, Royte pulls them back, interviewing a "scholar of smell." (The book is redolent with discussion of sensory reactions. Elsewhere she interviews an experimental psychologist who explains humans' threshold for odors.)

Riding with one of her sources, a man who works with biosolids (use your imagination), Royte notes an "ionic breeze" gadget on the dashboard of his Volvo.

"I supposed it was working," she writes, "because the car still smelled pretty new ... despite having hauled its share of Granulite [highly processed feces] back home to Tarrytown."

Royte does not squander the richness of the material that full immersion grants her. Her writing is wry and appealing. A landfill is "like Sleeping Beauty's castle, protected on its lower slopes by a thick undergrowth of spiky brambles."

In a chapter titled "Stalking the Active Face," Royte is at her journalistic best on the ground at a Pennsylvania facility, tracking her household trash. Denied access at the front door, she waxes Woodwardian.

"I talked to the neighbors about the smell of the place, the trucks on the road, the gulls kettling over the trash mountain....

"I wanted to find a way to get into the landfill on foot, but a tall chain-link fence topped by three strands of barbed wire surrounded it, and the woods were heavily posted," she writes. She finally found a dirty creek flowing under the fence along the paradoxically named Applebutter Road.

"I made my way to the creek, crossed it on a rotting log, and wriggled under a gap in the fence. Deer tracks showed me the best route. Then I headed north, toward the mound."

All part of a detailed investigation that winds up, as it should, with discussions - some practical and promising, others altogether bizarre - of waste-to-energy solutions and the ideal of "zero waste."

An ominous quote from a former New York sanitation commissioner in the last chapter should serve to motivate: "In the end," he says, "the garbage will win."

But there's little waste in Royte's winning words. Finishing it, the reader feels armed. Seldom has garbage been handled with such care.

Clay Collins is on the Monitor's staff.

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