But first, a brief digression: I swung through Union Square Park this morning on my way to the doctor. Scotty the Scott’s Oriole has once again laughed in the face of un-Arizonian overnight temperatures to greet the new day. He’s still keeping company with a bunch of starlings. Tough bird. Also id’d despite my lack of binoculars and time: Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, American Robin.
So, in the course of my duties as a member of the Park Slope Food Coop’s Environmental Committee, I recently picked up a copy of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte. The set-up: a Park Slope woman, inspired by a day of plucking litter out of the Gowanus canal*, decides to figure out what happens to her trash after it leaves her curb. She rides along with Department of Sanitation workers, visits landfills and scrap-metal facilities, figures out how to recycle her rubber bands** and tries to start a compost heap, all in quest of environmental consciousness.
Along the way, Royte perfectly balances a genuine gee-whiz sense of wonder at the scale and complexities of the waste management system with a clear-eyed view of the inherent problems of how we deal with our detritus. Privilege is required to even have the time and energy to do anything about waste, yet rampant pollution harms the poor and marginalized the most. The best way to prevent waste is to consume less, but if everyone who is concerned about the environment opts out of all extraneous consumption then the direction of economic growth is driven by those who don’t care. Individual choices cannot solve the problem, yet system-wide regulation and restructuring must overcome strong opposition from both our short-sighted economic Goliaths and deep-rooted American myths about freedom and abundance.
The tone never plunges into despair, but there’s a lot of well-earned poignancy – sure, cynics may point out that the line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” doesn’t refer to the salt marshes of Brooklyn, but it might as well.
This book is bound to appeal especially to those who know and love New York, but the problems discussed plague every American community in one way or another. Sure, five hundred people can get away with dumping their trash in a hole and their sewage in the river somewhat longer than five million, but not indefinitely, and even the temporal advantage becomes moot if the five hundred turn out to be living downstream. And in the end, we all live downstream.
*photos of which event can be found next to “Sisyphean” in the dictionary
**by giving them back to the mail carrier to use for big bundles of mail, which is technically reuse and gives you even more exp. points than recycling.
By the way, in sanitation department slang “disco rice” are maggots and “Coney Island Whitefish” are discarded used condoms.