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Elizabeth Royte


GARBAGE LAND: On the Secret Trail of Trash

BOTTLEMANIA: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It

Lecture descriptions of each program follow:

In Garbage Land, acclaimed science writer Elizabeth Royte leads us on the wild adventure that begins once our trash hits the bottom of the can. Royte takes us on a bizarre cultural tour through slime, stench, and heat -- in other words, through the back end of our ever-more supersized lifestyles. By showing us what really happens to the things we've "disposed of", Royte reminds us that our decisions about consumption and waste have a very real impact -- and that unless we undertake radical change, the garbage we create will always be with us, in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we consume.

"(ELIZABETH ROYTE) is a wonderful, warm, engaging speaker who somehow manages to keep a roomful of people not necessarily interested in  garbage absolutely riveted. I've been receiving e-mails from those who attended OUR EVENT expressing amazement that they learned so much so painlessly. Just as in her latest book, her lively intelligence and sincere concern combine with a fearless mischievousness to create something extraordinary."
--Jessica Marshall
, Senior Partner - Eye Candy Books

"Garbage has found its poet, and her name is Elizabeth Royte."
-- Washington Monthly

"Royte's nervy and unprecedented journey through the land of garbage is fascinating, appalling, and--thanks to her keen first-person journalism, commonsense skepticism,
and amusing personal asides--downright entertaining."
--Donna Seaman

"Buy a copy of this book. Garbage Land is a thoughtful look at the history and future of trash. Most important, it's a look at what we can learn about ourselves by studying what we discard."
-- Scott C. Yates,
Rocky Mountain News

Elizabeth Royte has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, National Geographic,
The New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, Outside, Smithsonian, and other national magazines. Her work is included in The Best American Science Writing 2004 (Ecco/HarperCollins), the environmental omnibus Naked (FourWallsEightWindows), and Outside Magazine's Why Moths Hate Thomas Edison (W.W. Norton & Company). A former Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, Royte is the author of The Tapir's Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 2001.


The Dream of Zero Waste

I had been touring San Francisco's garbage infrastructure for two days now - prowling around the city's transfer station, poking into its curbside bins, and following its garbage trucks. My hosts were Bob Besso, who worked for Norcal, the private company with which the city contracted to pick up refuse, and Robert Haley, from the Department of the Environment. Dressed in blue jeans and sneakers, Besso had the lankiness of a marathon runner. He was in his fifties, and he'd worked in recycling for decades. His and Haley's easy-going attitude, and their penchant for plain speaking, were diametrically opposed to the formal inscrutability of New York's sanitation operatives. The best part of hanging around Besso was his competitive streak: both he and Haley were walking poster children for Zero Waste. Who could throw out less? Who had more radically altered their lifestyle to leave a smaller human stain?

The Zero Waste concept was a growing global phenomenon. Much of Australia had committed to achieving the goal in 2010, and resolutions had been passed in New Zealand, Toronto, twelve Asia-Pacific nations, Ireland, Scotland, the Haut-Rhin Department in the Alsace region of France, and several California counties. So far, no community had reached this nirvana, a condition perfected only by nature. For humans to achieve zero waste, went the rhetoric, would require not only maximizing recycling and composting, but also minimizing waste, reducing consumption, ending subsidies for waste, and ensuring that products were designed to be either reused, repaired, or recycled back into nature or the marketplace. Zero Waste, said Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation, had the potential to "motivate people to change their life styles, demand new products, and insist that corporations and governments behave in new ways."

I didn't take Zero Waste literally. I considered it a guiding principle, a rallying cry for green idealists. I understood its intensive recycling component, but what about goods that simply could not be recycled? Over lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant, I learned that Zero Waste wasn't just rhetoric to Haley. "I don't have a trash can at work," he said. On his desk sat a grapefruit sized ball of used staples - ferrous scrap that he couldn't bear to throw out. "If I'm going to be a leader in Zero Waste I have to live the life," he said. I asked what affect this had on domestic harmony. "My partner is 99.9 percent with me," he said, nodding enthusiastically.

"What's the one-tenth-of-a-percent problem?"

"She draws the line at twist ties."

"Well you know you could strip the paper from the wires and -" I interrupted myself. Haley already knew how to recycle a twist-tie. At home, he was diverting 95 percent of his waste from the landfill. The 5 percent he threw out was "manufactured goods" - recently some beyond-repair leather shoes. Worn out sneakers, of course, were mailed to Nike, which shreds rubber and foam into flooring for gyms. The company accepts non-Nike footwear too, and is also trying to tan leather without questionable toxins and developing shoes made of a new rubber compound that doubled as a biological nutrient - something that could be harmlessly returned to nature. This would be quite an improvement, since according to designer William McDonough conventional rubber soles are stabilized with lead that degrades into the atmosphere and soil as the shoe is worn. Rain sluices this lead dust into sewers, and thence into sludge bound for agricultural fields. According to the National Park Service, which has more than a passing interest in manmade stuff that lies around on the ground, leather shoes abandoned in the backcountry last up to fifty years (if they aren't eaten, one presumes), and rubber boot soles go another thirty.

McDonough's 206-page book, Cradle to Cradle, was printed on "paper" made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers. The pages are smooth, and waterproof, and the whole thing is theoretically recyclable into other "paper" products. The book weighs one pound, four ounces. A book of comparable length printed on paper made from trees weighs an entire pound less. "What do you think of that?" I asked Haley. He nearly spit out his mouthful of curried vegetables. "McDonough's book will be landfilled! I'd rather cut down a tree!"

To Haley and Bob Besso, landfilling was the ultimate evidence of failure. Avoiding the hole in the ground--which in San Francisco's case was owned by Waste Management, Norcal's archenemy--had become a game to them, albeit a game with serious consequences. Haley didn't use his paper napkin at the restaurant, and he scraped the last bit of curry from his plate. But we all knew there was waste behind his meal - in the kitchen, on the farm, in the factory that made the boxes in which his bok choy had been carted to San Francisco.

I wondered if Zero Waste really meant anything, considering the limits of our recycling capability and our reluctance to alter our lifestyles. It was as dreamy an idea as cars that ran on water. And just as appealing to industry, too. "Zero Waste is a sexy way to talk about garbage," Haley said. "It gets people excited." I considered that for a moment. Could we solve our garbage problems by making garbage sexy?

Seeing how little I could throw out was fun for me, if not exactly sexy. I'd gotten caught up in the game, back home with my kitchen scale and Lucy's blue toboggan. I recorded my weights in a little book, I crunched my numbers, and I measured my success by how many days it took to fill a plastic grocery sack.

In the months to come, I'd find people who neither lived nor worked in the Bay Area who were having fun (if not sexy fun) with garbage reduction. Shaun Stenshol, president of Maui Recycling Service, had toyed with the idea of decreeing a Plastic Free Month, but ultimately deemed such a test too easy. Instead, he issued a Zero Waste Challenge. Over the course of four weeks, Maui residents and biodiesel users Bob and Camille Armantrout produced eighty-six pounds of waste, of which all but four (mostly dairy containers and Styrofoam from a new scanner) was recyclable. Alarmed to note that 35 percent of their weight was beer bottles, which they recycled, the Armantrouts vowed to improve. Bob ordered beer-making equipment to help reduce the amount of glass they generated, and Camille promised to start making her own yogurt. Despite these efforts, the Armantrouts didn't win the Challenge. The winner of the contest, as so often happens, was its inventor. All on his own, Stenshol had produced an even one hundred pounds of waste, of which he recycled ninety-nine pounds.


The demand for expensive bottled water in a country where tap water is clean, plentiful, and cheap is a spectacular example of the triumph of marketing over common sense. In her book, and now in her lecture BOTTLEMANIA, Elizabeth Royte exposes the absurd lengths corporations have taken to commercialize water, a basic human need, and the surprising environmental and social toll of simply quenching our thirst.
A $15 billion dollar a year business in the U.S., bottled water is poised, within four years, to over take soda as our number-one beverage.  Bottled-water brands have become so ubiquitous that we’re hardly conscious that Poland Spring and Evian are real springs, bubbling in remote corners of Maine and France. Yet only recently, with the water industry making enormous profits and carbon footprints a topic of constant debate, have we begun to question what it is we’re drinking and why.
In Bottlemania, Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land, surpasses current media coverage of the bottled-water phenomenon and tracks this increasingly urgent environmental issue directly to its source at springs and taps around the U.S. She visits Fryeburg, Maine, where the giant multinational corporation Nestlé is battling locals to export their groundwater in Poland Spring bottles. She visit urban watersheds, vast filtration plants, and rural springs; she cruises the aisles of swanky grocery stores, where H2O costs up to $50 a bottle, and she challenges a “bottled water expert” with a water he’s never before tasted. At every stop, Royte asks tough questions and comes up with some surprising answers. Who owns water? Is access to it an inalienable human right? What happens when a bottled-water company stakes a claim on your town’s source?  Is the stuff coming from the tap completely safe? If not, what must we do about it? What is the environmental footprint of making, transporting, and disposing of all those plastic bottles?
As the world runs out of easily accessible fresh water and this resource becomes more precious than oil, Royte asks, ‘Whose hand do you want controlling the tap?’ Elizabeth Royte’s BOTTLEMANIA will change the way you think about what you drink. 


“Entertaining and eye-opening”—Publishers Weekly

"Compelling and dynamic"—Library Journal

Bottlemania is eye-opening and informative; you will never look at water – either "designer" or tap – in quite the same way. Royte demonstrates how everything is, in the end, truly connected.”—Elizabeth Kolbert

“Royte deserves credit for her tenacity and well-balanced approach….Lively investigative journalism."—Kirkus Reviews