"Books are the carriers of civilization . . . They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print." Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989).

GARBAGE LAND, by Elizabeth Royte. ISBN 0-316-73826-3

This is a serious book about the garbage underworld. This world is strange, murky, complicated. The book is entertaining, scary and inspirational. Royte describes our "throw away culture," the graveyards of our dead batteries, broken cell phones, obsolete electronics, diapers, junk cars, cast off clothes, plastic bottles, even the ubiquitous twist ties. She takes us to the dumps, to the recycling plants, to the sewage processing plants, and in these journeys aptly describes and quantifies our base ecological problems.

Many waste problems appear solvable, at least if one does not mind increasingly larger landfills, and there is still plenty of room on the planet for these. But some problems don't, at least not in the long term. Mercury from the ten million batteries produced each year. Medical waste, often radioactive. Plastics, which do not biodegrade, but persist for centuries. Long lasting toxic chemicals.

A few of the many statistics in this volume. The U.S. scraps ten million autos every year. Most of this scrap metal is sold to China. Over a trillion aluminum cans are now buried in landfills; the recycle rate is between 40 and 50 percent or that number would be higher. The value of these cans is about $21 billion at 2004 prices; sooner or later the landfills will be mined. There are 150 million PCs now buried in landfills, each one a repository of several pounds of toxic chemicals. But it's worse! To MAKE every one of those PCs took about 3500 pounds of raw material, all but a fraction of which is ultimately waste! McDonald's generates enough trash, just at the customer end, every DAY to fill the Empire State Building.

Royte ends with a chapter on "The Ecological Citizen," one who recycles, composts, and does all the "right" things. For those who see in these commendable activities an acceptable solution to the nation's waste problems, the book may be a "downer." Recycling plastics, for instance, may be more harmful than burying them. One simple statistic grabbed my attention in this respect. Our municipal waste, including food scraps, bottles, yard waste, paper, etc. accounts for a whopping 2% (TWO PERCENT) of all the waste generated every year. The other 98% is generated in the manufacture of the goods we consume. The call is to industry to clean up their act.

This is a book which can be -- should be -- read in small doses. Otherwise it may overwhelm.

John W. Burgeson, Rico, Colorado

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