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A Dispatch from the Princeton Environmental Film Festival

Hamida Kinge reviews presentations by Leila Darabi, Bill Kirkos and Elizabeth Royte, who took on a single topic: America’s garbage.

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Thursday, January 8, 2008

I secretly hoarded a bottle of Vitamin Water – albeit in a cloth bag – as award-winning environmental author Elizabeth Royte began talking about her book, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. I was really thirsty but I didn’t dare take a sip in front of a crowded room at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, a two-week event that covered topics ranging from climate change to the privatization of the world’s fresh water supply.

Thursday evening’s program was a mix of talks and film screenings centered on a single theme: garbage. The program featured “Garblogger” Leila Darabi, Trashed filmmaker Bill Kirkos, and Royte, who also wrote a book called Garbage Land. The five-hour program was abundant with incredibly unsettling facts about, among other things, the consumers who create garbage but also the local and state politics that decide where waste will go and who will profit from it.

But despite compelling presentations and a bevy of data, there was something missing from the conversation: How do you hold manufacturers accountable for their contribution to the trash conundrum, and do it without tanking the economy? Both Kirkos’ film and Royte’s presentation centered (mainly) on the consumption and the post-consumption aspects of trash. But what is happening in terms of preventative policy at the manufacturing level? Americans make up only five percent of the world’s population but create nearly a third of its waste. And methane, released by waste, is an exponentially more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Royte offered a few recommendations for decreasing our trash output (one was that attendees sponsor their state bottle bills, which offer refunds for returning bottles). But while she quickly suggested that we hold manufacturers accountable for taking back the materials they produce, she never went into the how. A featured guest from the advocacy or policy side of the trash debate would have completed the discussion.

Individual reviews:

Leila Darabi

“Garblogging” is as straightforward as it sounds: It’s blogging about garbage. It’s a growing practice, according to Leila Darabi, a journalist and international development worker who spoke about her work. Darabi first discovered the often secretive and very powerful world of trash in journalism school at Columbia when she was assigned to write a story on local government. After attending a New York City meeting about a loading dock and finding many of the city’s movers and shakers present, her interest was forever piqued. Why were so many rich, powerful people present? As it turns out, the dock in question was in a wealthy Manhattan neighborhood and residents refused the re-opening of the dock. (The trash transfer station susequently ended up in the Bronx.)

After graduating, Darabi started what is now a very popular blog called, which encompasses topics from trash art to the ingenuity of developing world’s use of its trash. Aside from the loading dock story, however, her talk at the film festival was not as fascinating as the blog itself. She focused mainly on quirky trash art, like “trash tits,” bras made from garbage. To her credit, she also provided an introduction to several other garblogs, like “365 of Trash,” in which a man called “Sustainable Dave” documents his life during the year in which he does not throw out his garbage.

But I had hoped for something meatier from a journalist. Darabi frequently mentioned her international development work, especially in Africa, where so much of the first world’s garbage is exported. So it would have been wonderfully absorbing to hear her elaborate on what happens when the garbage hits third-world ports. Darabi notes on her blog that Sweden exports its electronic trash to Ghana; what happens once it gets there? And what are some of the innovative ways those countries are using “everyday trash”?

Bill Kirkos – Film screening followed by Q&A

Filmmaker Bill Kirkos’ 60-minute film, Trashed, explores one of the fastest-growing industries in America: garbage. The film covers the privatization of the landfill industry, the import and export of trash by various states, and individual and corporate recycling. It features interviews with former and current solid waste managers, “freegans” diving for food in New York City’s dumpsters, and a community fighting a landfill in Indiana and its unremorseful owner, among others, and presents a powerful storm of eye-opening facts and figures.

Maybe the most important fact imparted by Trashed is that landfills are run as businesses and the creation of garbage keep revenues flowing. That’s really the only reason states import trash. Since 2004, Michigan has allowed several thousand tons of domestic and international garbage into its borders. Toronto alone sends 400 tons of trash to Michigan per day.

Aside from the politics of landfills, the film explores their environmental impact: the highly toxic garbage juice, or leechate, that can make its way into the water supply, and the methane landfills release—methane which can be mined for energy, but which only very few of the 10,000 landfills in the United States are tapping. Kirkos also notes that electronics waste has seen a major uptick because products become obsolete so quickly. A section of Trashed is also dedicated to plastic, but it feels rushed, as it does not go into the reasons plastic has had a huge backlash from both the public and environmental advocates.

Overall, Trashed is an important piece of filmic journalism. Though the instrumental soundtrack sounds oddly outdated, the production is barebones, and the narration at the start of the film sounds like speed-talking, the sheer informational value of Trashed trumps its aesthetic shortcomings – and I was less inclined to judge the film’s stylistic acumen when I found out that Kirkos financed the film himself and is allowing free screenings, anywhere and everywhere.

Elizabeth Royte

Garbage Land and Bottlemania author Elizabeth Royte gave a fascinating talk at the festival, plowing through a procession of alarming data on both the trash and bottled-water industries.

To write Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Royte followed and quantified her own trash for a year. Starting from her sidewalk in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, she found that her garbage winds up in a landfill in Bethlehem, PA. (Royte notes that Pennsylvania imports more waste than any other state, earning cash that ironically pays for its Department of Environmental Protection.) When Royte attempted to get into the landfill and was met with hostility from landfill administrators and operators, she wondered why there was so much secrecy in the world of waste. Her research answered the question: “price fixing, bid rigging and a long list of environmental violations.” One of those violations is leechate: Royte explains that very few of the country’s landfills are lined with the tarp necessary to help stop the toxic garbage juice from seeping into groundwater.

Royte also followed her recycled items. She found that most American scrap metal goes to China, aluminum cans stay domestic and get melted into more cans, paper goes from New York to Indiana, where most of it becomes cardboard, and narrow-necked plastic bottles are either sent to China or made into textiles. (Melted plastic cannot be remade into its primary product, so it goes into secondary products like textiles. After that, it cannot be recycled.)

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It (2008) is equally fascinating. Two tidbits of information in particular blew me away: First, Nestle owns most of the country’s bottled water, including Poland Springs, Deer Park, and several others. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, explains Royte, the bottled water industry spent a lot of money to position itself with health. Nestle, for example, sponsored New York City marathons. It’s yet another example of “washing” – how positioning and branding can get the public to buy (or buy into) just about anything.

The second most startling fact about bottled water is that while the EPA regulates tap water, the FDA regulates bottled water. And, says Royte, they send very few people to visit bottled-water plants to check the safety of the water. That’s not to say she’s suggesting that bottled water is contaminated; she is simply pointing out that it is unregulated and that, essentially, the industry is selling you what you can get from your tap, with a filter.

Environmental awareness about the carbon footprint of bottled water is spreading; just look at the current “forever in a landfill” Brita television ad, which drives home this point. But, as Royte explains, Americans still buy the water for convenience, especially when we’re mobile. I personally bought my Vitamin Water because it had green tea in it and I needed the boost after hours of trash talk. But I now realize that that’s a lot of garbage….for a few sips of tea. Of course, I’ll recycle it. But buying it to begin with is part of the consumption dilemma America has yet to solve in this millennium.

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Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.

Tags: new york citytrash

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