Elizabeth Royte: Petrucibles and a Paradigm Shift

Interview, Brooklyn, 2008, by Andrea Hiott.

Royte is the author of „The Tapir‘s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest“, „Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash“, and „Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It“

Pulse: You’ve been writing about the environment for quite a few years now. Do you think the way people think about their trash has changed? Are we really becoming more aware?

Elizabeth Royte: Many people do pay much more attention to it now. It’s new for us to think about our waste at all. One reason for this is because trash itself has changed so much. A hundred years ago, our garbage was either organic products like food scraps – things that could be given to animals or used as fertilizer – or it was inorganic substances, like ash, that came from cooking and heating our homes. That changed in the 1950s with the consumer boom and mass production, when we started to have what they call “product waste” or “single- use disposables,” things that can be toxic when burned or buried. As we’ve become more aware of the possible afterlife of our stuff – whether it’s polluting the air or the water or the soil – some people have started watching and measuring their waste. I’ve heard of people keeping it in their garages or basements for a year, just to see how much waste they generate, or people going a year without buying plastic. People are coming at it from the policy level too, trying to restructure the ways we deal with garbage as communities, making manufacturers more responsible for their products. Local governments are realizing that they subsidize waste by paying to haul it to landfills, and that they’ll pay again if the landfill leaks or the incinerator causes pollutants to be released in the air.

As your work points out, any big change has to be a collective effort. Your books Garbage Land and Bottlemania feel like quests, as though you and the readers are going on a mission for the truth together. Did you think of them this way as you were writing them?

I did think of the garbage book that way. I had the idea of going on this journey, of following my garbage. While paddling in the Gowanus Canal, I began to see all the different streams of waste dumped there, and I realized that the canal was a microcosm of the larger world of waste. I decided to follow each stream to its final resting place. That gave me the narrative line.

Your books make me very aware of everything I use and come into contact with: I go to get a coffee and I wonder where the sugar packet is going to go, or what will happen to the little wooden stick I’m using to stir in the sugar. By bringing our attention to these everyday moments, your books inspire mindfulness. And yet that mindfulness seems to take longer to seep into the bigger picture. How is it that we continue to sanction things such as mountaintop mining even as the consequences are clear? Is it inertia? Laziness?

I think it’s a matter of there being powerful lobbyists in the industry. And also a lack of awareness and confidence; there’s the feeling that we are not powerful enough to stop it. It’s a no-brainer when you explain it to someone (someone who isn’t making vast amounts of money from the practice) on a personal level, when you tell him or her we’re destroying streams and polluting our drinking water. When people really understand these things, they react viscerally. It’s always the personal repercussions that are the first lever of change. It’s talking to people about the air their children breathe or the water they drink. When it’s somewhat removed from their daily experience, something like mountaintop mining or declining polar bear populations, people don’t seem to connect enough to get motivated.

It often takes one extreme to get to the other.

Right. I’m afraid we need high energy prices to get people to change how they live.

It does seem to be happening though, doesn’t it? Hasn’t some sort of shift occurred in the past years?

I do think it’s happening, and I think that’s because it’s hitting people in their pocketbooks. You could show them pictures of dying polar bears all day but the change will only really happen when they drive up to the gas pump and can no longer afford to fill their tank. It’s the same with bottled water: many people are giving it up, not for environmental reasons but because they can no longer afford it.

It all comes down to money. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if we realize that money is a sign of where our attention is going. In that sense, has your own attention changed since you began writing about environmental issues? Did you also experience a change once these things were made personal?

Since writing these books, I do think more often now about where the things I’m using come from. When I thought of the natural world before, I was thinking of the world without us, and now I think about it with us in it. I see it as more integrated. My interests have mirrored the environmental movement in that they’ve shifted to more of an urban focus rather than focusing on remote creatures or far away places in the world. But the way I live hasn’t changed that much. I’ve never been a big consumer. Living in a small apartment in the city sets up a lower-impact lifestyle. As much as I would love to have outdoor space and be surrounded by nature, I don’t see myself in the foreseeable future moving to a place where I would have to rely on a car, for instance, or where I would no longer be sharing my walls and heat with neighbors, as we do here in Brooklyn, or where I didn’t get my food from a co-op.

I want to talk about the word “organic” – is there any way in which all materials could eventually be broken down and regurgitated? Even plastics?

William McDonough, in Cradle to Cradle, talks about a future in which consumables, things like containers and furniture and goods not meant to last forever, are made from biological nutrients – plant-based materials — that can be composted at the end of their useful life. Chemists are working on new kinds of plastics made from plants that will easily compost (unlike the current generation of corn plastic, which can take months to break down in a backyard compost bin). In Garbage Land, I explain that plastic made from oil doesn’t really biodegrade; it photo-degrades into much tinier pieces that will be around for a very long time. These tiny pieces end up in waterways, where they’re taken up by plankton and move up the food chain to fish and birds.

What if we banned plastic and we all became vegetarians?

I don’t think we can ban plastic. It’s too useful. And even if we did, we would use more fossil fuel hauling around glass and driving heavier cars. Plastic is too important in terms of medical equipment and the role it plays in health care to think of banning it.

So it’s a necessary negative?

Well, maybe not in its current form. I have great hope that green chemists and engineers will come up with an easily compostable bio-based material that doesn’t take vast quantities of fossil fuel to grow. But even though I see the value of plastic today, I still think we can use a whole lot less of it. So much of it is just fulfilling our desire for something quick and easy and affordable and disposable. That’s the stuff that we have a choice about. And it’s a pretty easy choice if we think about it clearly.

So what we really need is a shift in what is important to us, a shift of values.

Yes. Definitely. A paradigm shift.

But it isn’t about “saving” anything so much as about finding a more efficient process for changing it.

Well this word “saving” is tricky because it sounds like we’re trying to get back to some perfect condition, but what is it we are trying to go back to? Of course there is the idea of keeping resources in place, like keeping the water clean or keeping old-growth trees in our forests. That makes sense. But as far as going back to some perfect state, I don’t know what that would look like, not with our current population.

What is your feeling about balance and abundance? Do you think on a global scale we actually have everything we need and that if we could only figure out a way to balance it both physically and mentally, then it would work?

I think we would need negative population growth for that. People say there is enough water on the planet to serve our needs now, but it’s not always in the right place at the right time and it’s just a matter of apportioning it. But even so, if we continue to expand as we are, those resources are not going to be enough.

How does having a deeper understanding of these issues contribute to changing them?

Understanding is the key. No one will change just by hearing a slogan like “Save the Earth”. Hearing such things too often can even make them meaningless. The real change comes when you make a personal connection and see and feel what your lifestyle is doing to the planet. For instance, I interviewed a world-champion snowboarder once, a teenager who was really excited because she had just won a big SUV as a prize in competition. We were supposed to photograph her snowboarding but the snow never came and the story was killed. I know you can’t directly link the lack of snow to global warming, but the change in plans did give us a chance to have a conversation about how competitive snowboarding, this activity that was so important to her and made her so happy, was dependent on certain weather patterns, and that how we live could actually cause those patterns to change. I was trying to talk to her at the level that was most real for her. I could see she was thinking about it; I could see that she was starting to connect it all. For someone like her to come out and say “I don’t want this gas-guzzling, emission-spewing SUV” would have made a big difference – a lot of kids really looked up to her. But at that time, having a kickass SUV was the ultimate thing.

And it was for me when I was 16 too. I mean, it wasn’t something I dreamed about. But it was cool in my small little world of friends to have an SUV and I didn’t think about it outside of that. I didn’t even know there was another way to think about it. I guess that’s another reason why understanding and awareness is so important. It’s like we’re all just doing the best we can with whatever information we have at that time.

Right. Which is why it is so important to me to write about these issues, and why it’s also important to have all these other ways of introducing people to new ideas, having people that these young people pay attention to – whether it’s musicians or moviestars or whomever – be aware of these issues too and present them in a real way to their admirers, their fans, whatever.

Maybe it has to become something trendy and cool if it’s ever going to work.

Just like what is happening now with water bottles. It’s become trendy not to use water bottles these days. You’re suddenly aware of how you look on the street when you’re carrying a disposable water bottle.

It seems these moods pervade culture before people are aware of them: sometimes we start doing something or acting in a certain way even before we’ve thought about why we’re doing that.

People have studied why people change their behavior and peer pressure is always a top reason. Social scientists did a study in hotels: they put out the little signs that said, “We use a lot of laundry detergent and water to wash these towels. If you want to keep your towel for the next day, please let us know by hanging it up after use.” And then they made another sign that said, “Four out of five people at this hotel chose not to wash their towels everyday.” And of course it was this latter message that was more effective: people were less likely to have their towels washed everyday if they knew most other guests were doing the same thing.

So we’re all looking to each other to figure out what’s “right” and “wrong” and at the same time we’re all creating what’s “right” and “wrong” together. Maybe that’s why there are always emotions like shame and guilt and outrage tied to environmental issues. Writing Garbage Land, did you start to feel this way about your trash?

I did come to see my garbage as a kind of failure after a while. After really spending time with these ideas and realizing how many trees were saved by recycling paper or how much mining was avoided by these small actions, I came to think of everything I threw out as a sign of failure, because I hadn’t avoided the packaging or product in the first place, or I’d failed to find another use for it. Putting any kind of food in the garbage now kills me because I know it’s a biological material that has a higher use; I know it could be composted and returned to the earth as fertilizer, and I also know that it’s going to generate methane when it’s buried in the landfill.

One thing your books do is point out how interconnected we all are. Your writing even seems to hint that realizing this interconnection, not only between people but between products as well, might be the best path to an answer. Not only because it leads us to think of the world in a different way, but also because these associations can open up new ways to proceed. Is this a valid interpretation of your work?

When I wrote the garbage book, I thought it was a simple matter of following things downstream, tracking them once we had used them and let them go. But I learned that what goes on downstream is only the tip of the iceberg, environmentally speaking: there’s far more going on upstream that has a huge impact too, in terms of the actual manufacturing of all these things we consume. It’s not as simple as looking at a metal can or a plastic bottle and tracking it through the waste and recycling systems; you also have to think about where the raw materials for that object came from and how they were moved around through the manufacturing process and then transported to end users. Looking at it this way, you see that the real value of recycling, or being aware of what you buy and throw away, is much broader than it at first seems.

Because you can’t change downstream without changing upstream too?

Right. I think connecting people with this idea is what makes the biggest difference, realizing that when they use a ceramic cup instead of a paper cup, for instance, the effect is a lot bigger than just keeping some paper from the landfill. It’s about avoiding the production of that paper cup in the first place. Part of the buying process should be knowing where that product came from and where it will eventually go. Some people want labels on products that tell you how much recycled content is in it, or how many trees were saved. In England, they’re already putting food miles on labels, showing how far it has traveled. It’s a bit controversial. Maybe we should also have a way of showing how much waste making a particular product generated, or how much energy was consumed, and that would give you a much bigger picture of its true impact.

It sounds like a similar mentality to the one we are all getting so used to because of the internet, the way you can move from link to link indefinitely, hopefully learning as you go.

If people could trace their products that way, if they did know the whole story of where their products came from and went, they might think twice about buying as much as they do.

We would have to find a way to give products a better story.

That would mean changing our expectations, and changing the way we make things.

Maybe we can. It does seem like we’re ready for a shift, or that a shift is coming whether we‘re ready or not.

Yes, it’s certainly an important moment in history. It might just take a while before we understand exactly why.