Saturday, August 2, 2008

Book Review: Garbage Land


When I buy ice cream from an ice cream shop, I always order the cone. Except for the tiny piece of paper they wrap the tip in, I eat the entire thing. Zero waste, baby! Unfortunately, a three and five year old make messy work out of eating with a cone. It often devolves into the use of a plastic spoon (those I usually remember to carry in my purse) and a paper or Styrofoam cup (those, unlike Burbanmom, I usually don't remember to bring).

Being a good little environmentalist, if reusable is not an option, I always opt for paper over Styrofoam. Everyone knows paper is better. It is biodegradable. Heck, it can even be composted. It's ecological footprint seems downright diminutive compared to the hefty weight of Styrofoam which cannot be composted, does not biodegrade and can only end up in a landfill.

A few months ago, we visited an ice cream shop near my parents' home. I was disappointed that the owner stocked only Styrofoam cups rather than reusable or at least paper. A la Fake Plastic Fish, I wrote an email expressing both our enjoyment of the ice cream and our disappointment in the cup choice. I expected either no reply or one acknowledging that paper would be more eco-friendly and that the store would look into it. What I got surprised me. The owner wrote back, vigorously defending his choice of Styrofoam. He stated that he had grown up near a paper plant and the idea that such an industry had less impact on the environment was, in his opinion, laughable.

Chalking his response up to lack of environmental awareness, I let it go. Until I read Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. After romping with Elizabeth Royte in landfills, tiptoeing through recycling plants and burrowing into compost, I know the truth about trash. And, it turns out the store owner's assessment of paper plants was not too far off.

Virgin papermaking is one of the most environmentally harmful industries on
earth. It depletes forests and their biodiversity, it uses more water than
any other industrial process in the nation (more than double the amount of
recycled papermaking), and it dumps billions of gallons of water contaminated
with chlorinated dioxin and a host of other hazardous and conventional
pollutants into rivers, lakes and harbors. According to the Natural
Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the paper industry is, after chemical and
steel manufacturing, the third-largest source of greenhouse gases in the United
States. Each year, paper factories send 420 million metric tons of carbon
dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrogen oxides, and other heat-trapping gases up
their smokestacks (and emissions are expected to double by 2020). Along
with the gases come 38,617 pounds of lead and 2,277 pounds of mercy and mercury
compounds. The mercury, released by plants’ coal-fired boilers, settles in
water, where bacteria transform it into a highly toxic form called
methylmercury. Small organisms, like plankton, consume the methylmercury
and are in turn consumed by small fish. The small fish are eaten by larger
fish, which are in turn consumed by other animals, like us. . . . . (136)
Hmmm. Perhaps, paper is not so eco-friendly after all.

Garbage Land is full of disturbing discoveries such as this one. Royte delves into everything we toss out and follows it to its final resting place - be it compost bin, landfill, sewage treatment system (Crunchy Chicken's pee party wasn't as out there as I originally thought), recycling plant, or barge to Asia. After 294 pages of trash, she ends up somewhere other than where you'd expect. Or perhaps it is exactly where you would expect someone who lived "garbage" for a year to end up.

I found Garbage Land to be a surprisingly enjoyable, highly educational book. After trimming my own waste line for a year, I learned that I still had a lot to learn about the dirty business of waste.

I give Garbage Land a 4 out of 5 rating and recommend it for all green readers.

10 comments:

JAM said...

I really enjoyed that book as well. I just read in Hey Mr. Green that he believes paper made from hemp would be much more environmentally friendly, and would take a lot less hemp than it does trees to supply paper needs for the U.S. Unfortunately, it's still illegal to grow most places.
Joce

Donna said...

This book sounds like it is a lot more usefully educational than "Rubbish," at least the sort of educational that interests me. Thanks for a great review. I'll add it to my (growing) list. :)

kale for sale said...

I'm not sure how much more of this news I can take. The seeds, the fish, the corn, the mountaintops, the diabetes and now the paper. But I would still rather know than not now. Thanks for a great review green bean.

Green Bean said...

Jam: Interesting! Why are the better solutions always illegal for some lame reason!

Donna: Yes. At this point, I'd like to hear what books people don't like because my list, like yours, continues to grow and grow.

Katrina: It seems the more you know, the more you wish you could change. As you say though, it's better to know.

Going Crunchy said...

Ooh, I'm intrigued. I've been near a paper mill before and BLEK. It is just a sickly smell that you cannot even begin to describe. Shan

Donna said...

going crunchy: I hadn't thought of that! There's a paper mill next to I-5 and whenever we have to drive by it, yuck!

gb: Have you tried the type of ice cream cone with a flat base for your kids? Andrew does great with them. Well, better with them. We still have to change his shirt & pants afterwards, but it's less of a mess. ;-)

Joyce said...

I loved this book! I wish everyone would read it. It's entertainly written, and full of really interesting facts, as you point out.
I second Shannon's comments about the paper mills. We made the mistake of camping near one one time, and it made the whole family nauseous. It was also disturbingly noisy. Recycling paper is so much better. If you can't recycle it (as in food tainted paper or cardboard) composting is an option.

arduous said...

I read this a while ago, so I'm not exactly sure where I read this, but I heard that for a long time one of the big problems was that recycled paper wasn't allowed in food related products (ie no recycled paper cups.) And if I'm not mistaken, we actually have Starbucks to thank for the change in laws. (They fought really hard to get to make their coffee cups from recycled materials.)

So perhaps at this point, the best option for your local ice cream shop is recycled paper.

Unfortunately, and this is another thing I found fascinating about Garbageland, Royte says that recycled paper is more expensive only because we have subsidies for virgin paper. How effed up is that?!!!

Melissa said...

It's on the paperback swap list! Since I'm her protege I figure I should read it ;)

Green Bean said...

Shannon: Never been near one but I'll take your and his word for it. And Elizabeth Royte's too.

Donna: Will give the ice cream cone a try. We already have to change the pants and shirt for my younger one. We might be able to make it with a plastic spoon (from mommy's purse) and a flat bottomed cone.

Joyce: Great point about composting paper if it cannot be recycled. At least it doesn't add to the landfill and turns into something you can use for the garden.

Arduous: I read the same thing about recycled paper and Starbucks too. Go figure! I did actually pitch recycled paper to the ice cream shop instead of virgin but didn't get anywhere. Our solution, to go less and we'll try what Donna suggested with a flat bottomed cone.

Melissa: You'd better read it if you expect to write the follow up after prowling through local landfills. ;-)