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.