Garbage Land: On The Secret Trail of Trash

Ivy Munnerlyn, Coastal Programs Coordinator

During my time at the NEC, I’ve read a lot about the environmental consequences of our disposable culture. For this month’s Coastal Column, I wanted to dig a little deeper and learn about all the other factors that make our trash so fascinating and so frustrating. Fortunately, the Eureka Public Library had all the answers I needed. There are several titles available on the topic of trash, but Elizabeth Royte’s 2005 book Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash stands out as an entertaining and informative read. 

Royte starts her journey at the curb. She watches as her trash is carried off by the army of New York City trash collectors, then follows the trail to several regional transfer stations. Here she runs into difficulties. The Supreme Court has ruled that we have no privacy rights over our garbage like we do our mail, but the dump managers she encountered were still extremely hesitant to let her have a tour. This suspicion could be a relic from the older era of trash service in New York, which was run by violent mob bosses and finally broken up in the late 1990s. It could also stem from the fact that at the dump, there’s a lot to hide. We like to imagine that our trash simply disappears when we take our bins out to the curb. In many ways, the trash collection and disposal industry are set up to reinforce that myth. Royte notes that the industry has become “increasingly privatized and removed from the public eye” as our culture has shifted towards valuing “clean living” and zero waste. If you wanted to visit a landfill in the early 1900s, you easily could. While there, you may have seen several other people picking through the debris for items of value. As our trash has shifted from the public realm to the private, it has also become geographically separated from the people who generated it.  

Most major metropolitan areas ship their trash far from prying eyes, often to low income communities of color in states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia. For these communities, a new dump can be both a blessing and a curse. It can bring desperately needed funding and jobs to small towns with struggling economies. However, neighbors may be suddenly confronted with the noises and fumes of hundreds of garbage trucks driving to and from the new dump each day. This illustrates one of the basic truths of the environmental justice movement: poorer, non-white communities suffer more environmental harms than richer, majority-white ones. 

Royte explores more of these themes throughout her book, which goes on to cover the recycling industry, experiments in compost, the science behind stinky trash, toxic waste, and more. Garbage Land can be checked out from Humboldt County Public Libraries, and is one among several books available on the history and culture of our trash. Other options include Edward Humes’s book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, and Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-dollar Trash Trade. Happy reading!