Author Profiles 2007:

One of the most innovatively educational environmental books you'll ever find is Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash (NY and Boston: Little, Brown and Company 2005, 311 pages, ISBN 0-316-73826-3). Author Elizabeth Royte functions like a private detective; analyzes like a scientist; and theorizes like an archeologist -- all the while holding fast as an advocate. Her book starts with sorting her own kitchen trash, and radiates outward -- to the sanitation crews and their trucks, to polluted canals and cordoned-off landfills, to recycling centers and their business math, and more...

FRANK GREGORSKY: You were born in what year, and grew up where?

ELIZABETH ROYTE: I was born in 1960, in Boston, and I grew up outside Boston, in a small town called Chelmsford.

GREGORSKY: What can you tell me about your mom and dad?

ROYTE: My mom taught kindergarten and then worked in early-childhood education, training people to be teachers, or to work with young children. My dad was a psychologist -- is a psychologist.

GREGORSKY: He's still in business?

ROYTE: He's retired, but he has a few clients, who come to his house for counseling.

GREGORSKY: So you grew up with an analytical father and -- it sounds like -- a caring mom.

ROYTE: Very caring mom [laughter], very analytical father -- yeah.

GREGORSKY: How far back does your literary commitment to science and the environment go?

ROYTE: Like a lot of young writers, I started out writing about popular culture.

GREGORSKY: Music and movies?

ROYTE: And books and bands -- things like that, yep. I didn't really have a specialty. One of the places I wrote for was a small weekly in New York; it was called Avenue and it was distributed on the Upper East Side. An editor there liked my work. Not sure how he found me, but it was a lucky break, because he went from Avenue to working at the New York Times Magazine. He asked if I would do a piece for him on E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist -- who I hadn't even heard of. He asked if I would go to Panama with Wilson to collect Pheidole, the world's largest and most ecologically successful genus of ants. So I crammed -- read all of Wilson's books -- and my story about Wilson got on the cover of the magazine.

GREGORSKY: What year?

ROYTE: It was 1990. And that was a turning point in my career. People started calling up and offering me assignments. It was a good time to be writing about biodiversity (Wilson coined that word "biodiversity") and rainforest conservation. I learned a lot in a short amount of time, and got more of that sort of assignment, from different magazines.

GREGORSKY: The second really big leap occurred -- if this is bad interpretation from sketchy web coverage, say so -- with an Alicia Patterson grant circa 1999. Your topic would be "Life at a Biological Research Station in the Tropics," which three years later became the completed book The Tapir's Morning Bath.

ROYTE: I pursued the fellowship after signing a book contract and starting my research, in Panama. I'd been sitting on the book idea since visiting the field station, with Wilson, in the early '90s. It took me until 1997 to get a book proposal together, and then the fellowship application.

Elizabeth Royte in 1998

GREGORSKY: I didn't read Tapir, which is why the coverage is limited here. But it seems to have solidified a method of sorts. You've got the New York Times review of it on your site, from which this quote: "[S]cientists behave in a particularly communal way. That is, one person poses a problem, another person answers it, someone else argues with the answer, another says the problem was wrong to begin with, and on and on -- a long conversation that can take decades to converge."

Your writing demonstrates an extreme openness to that kind of truth-searching. Continuing from the Times reviewer: "Profiles of communities often fail in at least four ways: the number of participants in the conversation is usually more than a reader can keep straight; the reader misses a central voice, a point of identification; the science gets cut-and-pasted into the text in a single compulsory lump, as does the history; and the story line is hard to track. But Royte is a remarkable writer, and nails all four. The science and history simply appear where they're needed. A lot of scientists are talking, but only a few have chapters to themselves, and their voices otherwise run throughout the book. The central voice is the author's, and she's a perfect guide -- intensely curious, smart, occasionally unimpressed, a little relentless and so personal she lets us watch her taking a pregnancy test."

I'm going to ask about the "relentless" trait later, but that review must have been hugely gratifying.

ROYTE: Indeed.

GREGORSKY: Was there a mild "crash" after the positive reaction to this first book? Or were you able to define the plot for what would become Garbage Land, secure a publisher, and maintain momentum?

ROYTE: It took me a long time -- nearly two years -- to come up with a second book idea. I returned to magazine writing after Tapir came out. I had no idea what sort of book I'd write next. I knew, though, that my agent would stick with me and it probably wouldn't be hard finding a publisher.

Making Experts Understandable to Lay Readers

GREGORSKY: My own spin, after reading Garbage Land twice, is that -- despite being an environmental expert and advocate -- you are not a crusader. Even your advocacy is subtle. You play off your sources to express opinions, in a way that doesn't knock me in the head (which is appreciated). You indicate, usually gently, sometimes with a barbed side note, approval or disapproval of what your sources are telling you, along with "we ought to consider doing this" or "we ought to do more of that." Yet this never -- at least not in the 2005 book -- comes off as strident or ideological.

ROYTE: Now, this is your opinion?

GREGORSKY: Yes, as a set-up for this question: Have you gotten that kind of interpretation from other readers?

ROYTE: First, I need to say that I don't consider myself an environmental "expert." I'm a layperson, a generalist. I don't have an academic background in science. I'm interested in the environment, I have strong feelings about it -- but [chuckling] I only "know" what people tell me. I think I'm good at listening to experts, and making that understandable to lay readers.

I was gratified to read, in some reviews of Garbage Land, that people didn't find me strident. But if you read some of those Amazon reviews, or some of the things bloggers say, a couple of people out there were annoyed by my tone, or they were just, like, rolling their eyes. They didn't get that I was mocking myself, or a certain green-leaning type. In the book, I'm openly skeptical of many things that people say --


ROYTE: -- about recycling, or the value of composting. I recognize the complexity of all these things.


ROYTE: In the end, I did come down and say yes, we have to recycle and composting is good -- despite them being imperfect solutions. So yes, I would agree with most of what you said.

GREGORSKY: The reader of Garbage Land can see your thought-process kind of "spooling out" as it moves from situation to person to treatment to shortfall, and on to the next person.

ROYTE: Right. And just because it spools out in the book doesn't mean it spooled out that neatly in my head. That was one of the difficult parts of the book. You have to pace yourself and sort of parcel out what you're learning. Because you learn things not always in the "right" order, and your opinions are formed as you go along. But when you arrange the book -- when you structure the book -- you have to put them in a logical order. You want things to build up to a certain point, and not reveal too much too soon. So my knowledge advances incrementally in the book, even though during the writing, it was more a case of fits and starts, big insights and odd detours, a little forward, a little backward.

GREGORSKY: A good example of your low-key approach is on page 10. You talk about Rees and Wackernagel, developers of the analytical tool called "the ecological footprint." I've heard that term for 20 years, but [reading only popular sources] never really heard it defined. In about 120 words, you explain how it works, especially the core premise. After being clinical and descriptive, you say: "Measuring our" -- and here you use a specific everyday product -- "footprint, or any other footprint, isn't necessarily about good and bad; it is about making informed choices." Would you call that an underlying principle or value of your research and writing: Informing our choices -- as producers, consumers and taxpayers?

ROYTE: Sure! My whole book is about letting people know the toll -- the impact -- that their lifestyles are having. "Here's this information, do with it what you want; but just so you know..."

Waste, Garbage, Rubbish and Compost (not a law firm)

GREGORSKY: Help me get clear about two ultra-common words. Someone told me long ago that "trash" and "garbage" are not synonymous. Sure enough, my 1984 Webster's New World paperback says garbage is "waste parts of food," while trash is "worthless or waste things" (a much broader category). First, is that the contemporary understanding of those words?

ROYTE: If you're comparing "garbage" and "trash," I think folks in the waste business would say that garbage is wet, and trash is dry. Yeah, so there's food scraps in garbage. "Rubbish," back when people used that word, was dry stuff that was used for fill. When you hear about wetlands being filled in, around cities, with "garbage," what they're really talking about is rubbish, ash, inorganic material. Because the wet stuff found other uses; a lot of it went to feed animals.

GREGORSKY: That's a fascinating distinction. I guess the word "rubbish" -- I assume they still use it in England, but it has lost its currency here in America.

ROYTE: Um-hmm -- unless you speak to older people.

GREGORSKY: One other definitional point. From professionals to cause-minded amateurs, you all know what composting means. But your book, despite pages of describing the options and the steps, never gives a definition. I found this one from "(1) To fertilize with a mixture of decaying organic matter." That's right?

ROYTE: Um-hmm. Compost is also a noun. It refers to the material itself.

GREGORSKY: And the noun is defined [in my '84 Webster's paperback] as "a mixture of decomposing vegetation for fertilizing soil."

ROYTE: Um-hmm.

GREGORSKY: And that's a whole distinct movement, in the world of citizen environmentalism.

ROYTE: Yes, but getting less distinct as recycling proponents recognize how big a dent composting can make in the municipal solid-waste stream.

GREGORSKY: The whole of Chapter Five -- "Behold This Compost" -- is about your own experiment. Neither of the above definitions even hints at the twists and turns. Here's what I mean (and these quotes also let new readers sample your droll sense of humor): "Pawing through every single item in my kitchen trash bag to quantity my output, I hit upon a garbage fundamental almost instantly: the worst things we throw out were the things that had once been alive... Food waste was making my trash heavy and wet... I was driven to wear rubber gloves, which interfered with recording data. And then there was the smell... Days went by when I didn't have the time, or the will, to process my trash. So it sat around longer, and made its presence known. Soon, my apartment took on the noxious qualities of a transfer station. It didn't take long for me to realize that...I had to get the food out of there. I was going to have to compost." First, can you give us a better, and maybe less clinical, definition of compost and composting?

ROYTE: Composting means dumping your food scraps -- banana peels, onion skins, bread crusts, rice that dried out in the fridge -- into an enclosed container (outdoors), mixing it with grass clippings and yard waste, turning it over now and then to aerate the pile, and letting nature take its course. Microbes and arthropods break down the food and leaves, and they turn it into fertilizer.

GREGORSKY: Second, what is the state of the experiment?

ROYTE: My own compost bin? Despite neglect, it's doing really well. I don't turn it over that often, but the pile keeps going down -- so, I know decomposition is taking place.

About Chapter 13, "The Dream of Zero Waste"

GREGORSKY: Chapter 13 could be called quintessential Royte. Only on the second, and very slow, reading did its power grab me. I'll go through my reactions to the chapter, but you can jump in and say "no, that's not quite what's going on here, Frank."

ROYTE: Okay, but how will this help readers of your website -- to be digging into something that they won't already have some familiarity with? What are you aiming for here?

GREGORSKY: My aim is to show your investigative approach, and how the fact-finding reporter and detached scientific person is going back and forth -- and then coming out at with a bottom-line personal conclusion at the very end.

ROYTE: Okay.

GREGORSKY: For the most part, recycling is very complex, as you show the reader all these conflicting factors; and as you said, it didn't all [come clear] in one chapter or one visit to the $38 million MRF [materials recycling facility] in San Francisco. It was a collective thing over the course of a year.

ROYTE: Um-hmm.

GREGORSKY: But it's all here in this chapter.

ROYTE: Okay.

GREGORSKY: You are invited to San Francisco. You check out the component pieces of their recycling strategy. You're making your trademark droll comments about the facility manager and his chewing tobacco, the dietary differences of two of your lunchmates -- all these observations that liven things up -- as you compare San Francisco's system to New York City's. But the title of this Chapter 13 is "The Dream of Zero Waste." The dream -- now a dream can be lofty and empowering, or it can be a fantasy smacking of irresponsibility. The astonishing thing is that both of these views can be backed up by the reporting in this 25-page chapter!

ROYTE: Recycling is not a fantasy, but the fantasy is that it's going to solve all our problems, and maybe even make some money, too. It has limits, it's imperfect; but we still need to keep doing it because, overall, it saves a great deal of energy and prevents air pollution and water pollution. We have to do more of it. But there are more important things we can do to "shrink our garbage footprint."

GREGORSKY: We can list those in the e-mail follow-up [covering the book's final chapter, number 14]. On page 257, you're candid: "I wondered if Zero Waste really meant anything, considering the limits of our recycling capability and our reluctance to alter our lifestyles." The cynic in you keeps looking around for who's making the good margin on this activity -- but the realist in you recognizes that recycling can't work at all without managed markets and pricing mechanisms. Somebody's gotta to make some money, somehow.

ROYTE: Um-hmm [as in where are you going with this?].

GREGORSKY: And you're okay with that -- that's just part of the economic landscape?

ROYTE: Yes, but when you think of recycling's costs you have to also consider costs that aren't ordinarily figured into landfilling or incineration -- for example, the social and environmental costs paid by individuals who live near these facilities (or downwind or downstream). But yes, I think we need laws -- regulations -- to make people do things. For example, putting recycled content into goods -- that's what San Francisco has done, and why they're so good at pushing this movement forward. It's not voluntary. If you get money from the city, you have to buy products with recycled content, and that stipulation drives the market for recycled paper. They also require glass manufacturers to use recycled content, which drives the market for the glass recycling there.

GREGORSKY: It's not "free" market per se, but these are still market mechanisms -- a managed market, a set-up market -- and the pricing mechanism [thereby shifts incentives]. You're talking about a public declaration that "we value these processes, or these goods," above what the pure free market would say.

ROYTE: Right. Like we value police and fire protection, and we value libraries. We've decided these are a public good.

GREGORSKY: There's been a lot of innovative thinking by environmentalists and economists over the past 20 years on how you can use the pricing mechanism [to shift incentives].

ROYTE: Yeah. But it's still uphill for recycling because, as I say in the book, it's not a level playing field. You're competing against industries that are subsidized by the government -- and the subsidies keep raw materials cheaper than recycled material. Subsidies for logging? They make virgin paper cheaper. Subsidies for mining, which make it cheaper to pull new material out of the Earth than to recycle old metals and minerals. Same with tax breaks and incentives for oil and gas exploration.

Recycling's Muddy Math, Trumped by the Moral Case

GREGORSKY: Garbage Land cites one of the most controversial anti-recycling articles of all time -- the one by John Tierney over 10 years ago. I thought it was [pause] commendable the way Garbage Land mentioned Tierney's piece -- without attacking him! Even though that lone article has gotten in the way of much of your work.

ROYTE: Um-hmm.

GREGORSKY: But it's part of the landscape, part of the debate. So you cover it.

ROYTE: You gotta call these people up! I gave him a chance to change his mind. (He replied that it's not worth his time to walk down the hall and put a can in the trash.) But I couldn't ignore him because he was so important. When the New York Times advertises for home delivery, they have a picture of the newspaper, and for many, many years they showed a picture of the New York Times Magazine with Tierney's cover story [Title: "Recycling is Garbage"] on it, so it got more and more play.

GREGORSKY: If you allow for some overstatement and some honest squabbling over economic analyses, is his point of view legitimate?

ROYTE: No, I don't think it is. A lot of his information was flawed. He went to the CATO Institute and the Reason Foundation; and when you check into where their information came from, they were selective. NRDC and [the] Environmental Defense [Fund] went through his story point by point and rejected his major arguments one by one. I checked into how they got their information, and I just thought it seemed more objective than the CATO arguments.

John Tierney in the New York Times 6/30/96:

Environmental Defense Fund rebuttal three weeks later:

GREGORSKY: One other point about Chapter 13, and it's a huge one. You refer to this both in the book and in the "Booknoise" Q&A -- the question about "what is the most surprising thing" you learned while researching Garbage Land. Answer: "That municipal solid waste -- the stuff that comes from you and me, plus the stuff that comes from institutions and businesses -- makes up only 2% of the total U.S. waste stream. The remainder, some 12 billion tons a year, is mostly non-hazardous industrial waste, plus mining, agricultural, and hazardous waste."

A version of that revelation is on page 275 of the book, the second to last page of Chapter 13. By that point, you've got me thinking that this entire intricate and costly civic religion called "recycling" is --

ROYTE: [Laughter]

GREGORSKY: -- even when everything works right! -- even when municipal incentives and public spirit come together -- it's about reducing that whole total by a percentage or two.

ROYTE: Right -- but they're not unrelated. You have to remember that when we reduce what we put on the curb, there are reductions upstream as well. If we have managed to buy less, or re-use what's already out there, then we're not creating demand for new products.

GREGORSKY: Okay, all right.

ROYTE: That's what -- I mean yes, I make this shocking discovery, and I save it for the end of the book. But my whole point -- you know, I started this book thinking we have to take responsibility for our waste, so let's look downstream. Everyone wants to feel connected to the natural world upstream, where the mountains and trees and clean water are, because that's where our stuff comes from. But no one was thinking about the back end, where all the stuff goes when we're done with it. So I was focused on the back end.

Then I realized the back end is telling us a lot more about the front end. We've got enormous piles of waste, but they're really nothing compared to the waste generated upstream in making all of it. These things are connected. So when we reduce what we buy, reuse what's already out there, and recycle what we can, we're proportionately reducing upstream waste as well. We're not pulling as many raw materials from the earth and hauling them around and transforming as much of them into these consumer goods.

GREGORSKY: Very good. And then, at the end of 13, you take a position. "No matter how trivial my kitchen recycling operation might appear, I considered it a moral act. It reminded me of the connection between my daily life and the natural world, from which every bit of the stuff arrayed about me had come."

ROYTE: That still stands. I believe it, and I think feeling connected in that way, and knowing what's going on -- upstream and down -- is important. But if I had that passage to do over again, I wouldn't call my recycling operation "trivial" [she chuckles] -- because it is having this proportional or multiplier effect upstream.

GREGORSKY: I think the original phrasing worked, because you didn't say the kitchen duty was "trivial," just that "no matter how trivial it might appear."

ROYTE: Yes, okay.

Self-Descriptives -- Eight Fit, Another Four Do Not

GREGORSKY: Before we get to a final section on future activism and policy recommendations [which ended up being created via our e-mails], I'd like to try this exercise. From a list, no part of which you have seen, I'll read off potential self-descriptions. You can give a simple yes or no, you can elaborate, or you can pass and say "next candidate." Also, I'm going to roll the terms out alphabetically, as a way to induce some randomness. So -- ready?

ROYTE: All I have to do is say yes or no; I don't have to elaborate?

GREGORSKY: Only where you think it's needed. Okay, first one: Artist.


GREGORSKY: Second [potential descriptive] -- a balancing act.

ROYTE: Hmmnnn [pause]. When you say "balancing act," I think about being home to take care of my daughter, versus earning money to care for my daughter. Are you [speaking in general terms of] my writing? Or in Garbage Land?

GREGORSKY: Both of the latter -- the literary side of life. At its most extreme, a balancer is on a tightrope.

ROYTE: Yeah, but a balancer needs to end up in the middle [slight laugh], and I don't think I need to end up in the middle.

GREGORSKY: A balancing act is also one of those "scales of justice," where the tilt changes [as the "evidence" goes this way and that], but [a verdict] means coming down more on one side at the end.

ROYTE: Um-hmm [mildly concurring]. I think I need to listen to both sides -- but I don't always have to find the middle line.

GREGORSKY: Well, a minor dissent here. The goal is not to find the middle line, but I still find your writing "balanced" in the sense that there's nothing you haven't thought about, even the things that conflict with your position. You are fair enough or diligent enough to at least make mention of those contrary factors.

ROYTE: Okay, yep.


ROYTE: Yes [laughter]. I'm cynical about a lot of things. Cynical about motivation. I'm cynical about [pause] -- I don't know. I'm cynical about many things in my life [and] in our society.

GREGORSKY: A "cynic" goes beyond a realist. To reverse a metaphor, the cynic "looks for the cloud in the silver lining."

ROYTE: Well then, no -- I don't think I look for the cloud in the silver lining. Maybe I'm just -- skeptical.

GREGORSKY: Another word -- delineator.

ROYTE: What do you mean? [laughing at the irony of needing to delineate the word's applicability]

GREGORSKY: A delineator draws things out, refines the information, and [later] boils things down.

ROYTE: I think that one applies to a certain extent. I could have gone a lot farther with Garbage Land than I did. I could have spent a lot more time looking upstream -- but it wouldn't have been the same book. It would have been five times as long.

Someone could read this book and get ideas for 10 other books, to spin these investigations out a lot farther. So, I wasn't going all the way with my "delineation." I had to make the book accessible and fun to read.

GREGORSKY: Did your editor get you to remove some chapters?

ROYTE: Only one, which he felt was far too local. It was about Fresh Kills, the now-closed landfill on Staten Island, and the redevelopment of those nearly 3,000 acres.

GREGORSKY: Were you able to use that [lost chapter] as an article?

ROYTE: I tried, but -- no.

GREGORSKY: Are you saying in so many words that you would much rather write books than peddle individual articles?

ROYTE: [Pause] I think so -- although I'm having a hard time coming up with other book ideas. But once I'm settled on a topic, it seems that I prefer to be away from the sturm und drang of dealing with editors and their bosses, and their bosses' changing whims --

GREGORSKY: [Uttering a groan of empathy]

ROYTE: -- and negotiating for payment [laughter]; that kind of thing. I like to get into something for months and months at a time -- have the time to really explore something, and the room to stretch out and write something long.

GREGORSKY: And the advance to make it practical.

ROYTE: The advance, sure -- but the advance is gone long before the book is on the bookstore shelf [slight laugh]. So I might make more money -- and I have made more money -- just focusing on magazine articles. But there's too much heartbreak in it. Things get killed, editors leave -- it's just constant [exasperated sigh] -- I don't know, constant sorrow.

Sturm und Drang (German for "Storm and Stress") was a German literary movement that emphasized the volatile emotional life of the individual.... The name was derived from a play by Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger. The chief exponents of Sturm und Drang were the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his friend and collaborator Friedrich von Schiller... The Sturm und Drang movement also had influence on music composers [Haydn and Mozart].


GREGORSKY: Extroverted.


GREGORSKY: How about legacy-oriented?

ROYTE: No [showing incredulity at the premise] -- you mean my legacy?!?

GREGORSKY: Yes, as a writer!

ROYTE: No [now seeming embarrassed].

GREGORSKY: That you're creating a body of work [along with] a method of investigation that others will use and replicate 20 years from now. You don't have that sense?

ROYTE: No, not at all. Other writers you could say that about, but no. I'm not thinking about that for myself and I wouldn't put myself on that much of a pedestal.

GREGORSKY: Well, okay. You're being suitably modest. It might be presumptuous to feel [legacy-oriented] at the age of 46, but don't be surprised if there is some legacy payoff out of all this, or "benefit," I should say.

Musical? Political? Relentless? Religious? Sensitive? Serendipitous?

GREGORSKY: Another word -- musical.

ROYTE:  [Three-second pause] Yes!


ROYTE: I listen to music, I was brought up playing instruments, but -- I said "yes" and then I thought about listening to how words sound when I'm writing or when I'm reading. I note how other writers put together sentences. I notice lately that I'll be writing and sort of "humming along" the words to myself. I don't say the words out loud as I'm typing them, but -- I'm making a noise [laughs with delight].

GREGORSKY: Sure. The literary melody, yes.

ROYTE: The literary melody [laughs]. So I'm musically inclined and maybe it shows in my writing, by the choice of words and rhythms.

GREGORSKY: Next potential descriptive -- political.

ROYTE: [Four-second pause] Yes.

GREGORSKY: Relentless.

ROYTE: [Mild laugh] When I was young, someone told my mother I was stubborn and she said, "I don't like to say ‘stubborn,' I like to say she has stick-to-it-iveness." She thought "stubborn" sounded pejorative somehow.

GREGORSKY: While "relentless" implies fearlessness and other great stuff.

ROYTE: "Relentless" also sounds aggressive and -- you know, has negative connotations. Some people would shy away from a woman who was "relentless." It also implies that I don't know when to let go or [would] hound people until they're in tears. So I'd rather say "stubborn."

GREGORSKY: Religious.


GREGORSKY: Sensitive.

ROYTE: Yes [said with a hint of tentativeness].

GREGORSKY: This comes out when you talked about the abrasive tone in the headquarters of the sanitation men.

ROYTE: It does come out there, but there's a contradiction in the book, and I feel bad about this. You could read this book and think I was completely insensitive to the feelings of some of the people I wrote about. It's sort of interesting to me. While researching the book I had a hard time getting through to [she means scheduling a visit with, as opposed to convincing] a lot of these people. You know, I was put off and hung up on.

GREGORSKY: Seems that it was mainly the corporate types [who were evasive or deceptive].

ROYTE: Yeah, but -- so I was angry while I was writing, and it shows.

GREGORSKY: Yep. Irked.

ROYTE: And I don't like that. I said a few things about people that I wish I hadn't said. I said one woman was "tendentious." She really annoyed me. I should have had a little more self-control, and not taken it out on her. I absolutely admired the work she did.

GREGORSKY: Okay, we're nearly at the end of the list. Serendipitous.

ROYTE: What does that mean for a person, as opposed to something that happened, to be "serendipitous"?

GREGORSKY: That you are willing to not so much "carry out a plan" but [pause] to allow a situation --

ROYTE: Totally.

GREGORSKY -- to reveal itself --

ROYTE: Totally.

GREGORSKY -- and [then you can] flow with it.

ROYTE: Yep! I'm a great believer in just going out and seeing what you can see. See what happens. Throw something out and see how someone reacts to it. Go along with them -- because you never know what's gonna turn up.

GREGORSKY: And, as you do that -- are you relying more on your powers of reason, or is it more of a gut-level intuitive process?

ROYTE: Gut-level and intuitive. It has to do with how I was brought up, I think -- just to talk to anyone and not be afraid [laughter] to go up to people and ask what's going on? I'm a curious person, not particularly shy, and very willing to trust my instincts that it's going be safe, it's going be okay -- and maybe it'll turn out to be something worthwhile for whatever it is I'm working on. So you end up getting dragged here or there.

I also find that making people get out of their office -- wherever that might be -- and having them do something is a much better way to talk.

GREGORSKY: In some ways, the whole book is an example of that approach.

ROYTE: [Laughter] Going along -- yeah.

What to Do? Where to Go?

NOTE: This closing segment was put together by e-mail exchanges. That's why it appears in purple, to distinguish it from the tape-recorded Q&A.

GREGORSKY: Chapter 14 of your book -- "The Ecological Citizen" -- speaks of "becoming addicted to cruising these virtual communities," by which you mean websites that work as bulletin boards and trading posts. The hybrid term is "freecycling," in that they "help folks move unwanted goods laterally through their communities." Perhaps you can update your take on this decentralized electronic movement to reduce waste, and also stick the two or three more reliable such sites or e-groups in here --

ROYTE: Well, I'm no longer addicted to cruising those sites, but when I want something (skates for Lucy, most recently) I'll often look to freecycle or Craigslist first (Craiglist serves more people so the odds of finding something I need/want are higher than freecycle). For readers who don't know the difference between these groups, Freecyclers give things away; they don't sell. Craigslist involves money, like e-Bay, but there's less mailing of stuff because you usually deal with people in your immediate community -- same with freecycling. Go to to find a community near you.

GREGORSKY: A friend of mine teaches third-grade here in the Virginia suburbs. I bought the hardback of Garbage Land last spring for her -- because she lived in Seattle during 1984-96, and was a recycling leader there (a city which your book's final page says has practiced "recycling on steroids"). Since Carolyn is a fellow advocate, and even as a frugal right-winger I can't make the same claim, I'm going to pass on to you what she e-mailed:

In a message dated 10/21/2006 8:21:51 PM Mountain Daylight Time, writes: "i'm sure you will have a wonderful conversation with her. i would be curious to know what she is doing to 'help the cause' now that she has enlightened so many; and what is she doing personally?"

ROYTE: To help the cause I'm talking, every chance I get (on campuses and in the media), about what we can do as individuals, as voters, and as members of larger communities to shrink our garbage footprint and to press for more significant upstream changes. Like getting brand-owners or manufacturers to take responsibility for their products' end-of-life. (Several states have done this with electronic waste. The bottle bill is another example of extended producer responsibility.)

GREGORSKY: During the phone interview, I suggested you were well-equipped to bring global warming down to community and individual human levels. You rattled off some new books that already do that. How about naming and describing two of them here?

ROYTE: Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change, and Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth. See descriptions at

GREGORSKY: I'm putting in a link to a USA Today story from 10/27/06 about recycling, or at least the local political management of in a social cost-benefit sense. Portland (OR) and Fort Worth (TX) are featured:

The reporter says "landfills have plenty of capacity, interstate garbage shipments are routine, and recycling has lost its buzz as a hot environmental issue." Do you agree with his statement?

ROYTE: Yes, there's plenty of room out there for trash, and yes, the environmental groups have quit harping on recycling, which does contribute to lower recycling rates. (So do lack of public education, confusion about the rules, mistrust of the system, and our increasingly mobile lifestyles: People can't be bothered to hold onto their drink bottles till they see a blue bin.) But just because there's a lot of room out there to put garbage, and it's cheap (at least in some areas of the country), doesn't mean we should continue to bury valuable resources.

GREGORSKY: Beyond different cities and locales experimenting with changing their mix of penalties and incentives -- the USA Today piece has many examples -- can you name one or two national policy changes that would give a boost to recycling without triggering sabotage and resistance?

ROYTE: Require some recycled content in paper, glass, metal, and plastic products. Eliminate subsidies for waste: Tax breaks for landfills and incinerators, subsidies for mining, logging, and oil and gas exploration. Force electronics manufacturers to finance and manage their products' end of life. Yes, there will be some resistance. It's a challenge, but we can't continue generating waste the way we do now and shoving it into a hole in the ground. Landfills are not safe places: they will eventually leak, and they'll contaminate our water and soil.

Okay, I will get off my soapbox now.

GREGORSKY: Can anyone contact you with questions about what you have said in our Q&A and this e-mail follow-up?


GREGORSKY: We'll use the same "maildrop" I began with, from the Booknoise spread --