Garbage Land

<i>Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash</i>, By Elizabeth Royte. <i>Little, Brown. $24.95.</i> <p><p> Exploring how our unwanted stuff keeps disappearing.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Recently, a new class of muckrakers has investigated the hidden infrastructures that provide us with the things we want—from fast food to fossil fuels. With Garbage Land, Elizabeth Royte reverses the formula, shrewdly exposing the mechanisms by which “our unwanted stuff keeps disappearing.” That is, she rakes actual muck. She begins by cataloguing her kitchen garbage, and then sets out to follow all her refuse, from Brooklyn to beyond. We’re talking compost, recyclables, and even crap. They all wind up somewhere, and Royte scrutinizes their journeys with a sharp eye and a pinched nose.

Tracking trash—even your own—is not easy. Royte initially has to sneak around New York’s Fresh Kills landfill in a kayak, and no one will tell her where old battery acid goes. We’ve built up bureaucracies to allow us to keep throwing stuff out without thinking too hard about where it ends up. For years, New York’s sewage was exported to a “sludge farm” in a tiny, working-class Texas town.

But Royte accepts some of the prickly realities of the trash-disassembly line. After all, not everyone can cultivate composting wetlands under their bathroom, like one eager environmentalist she meets. And while more Americans now recycle than vote, municipal waste accounts for only 2 percent of the country’s total refuse in the first place. Our national garbage problem is really an industrial one: Making 1 pound of sellable product generates 32 pounds of waste.

Ultimately, waste is an ideological dilemma, a problem of consumption. It’s the stinky corollary to a world where we constantly choose between “one overpackaged, poorly made product and another.” The solution, Royte argues, is to start dealing with trash preemptively, recognizing it in all its many-colored, sweet-smelling disguises.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend