It's become a publishing cliche to give books titles such as "Fast Food Nation," "Prozac Nation" and "Fat Land," suggestions that the entire country is marked and defined by the single trend or topic under discussion. It may be less of an exaggeration for Elizabeth Royte's "Garbage Land," a surprisingly engaging look at what becomes of all the things we throw away.

Royte, a Brooklyn resident, follows her own discards along their journey to recycling plants, out-of-state landfills and sewage treatment centers. Royte writes from an environmentalist perspective; she even frets about the potential high-energy consumption of her own cremation. But her unflagging curiosity about the subject leads her to examine the full range of inevitable compromises and trade-offs. Even people who work in the waste industry are bound to learn something from her, simply because she takes a comprehensive look at all aspects of waste management, something that few writers ever do.

Cleaning up the garbage industry--getting rid of the Mafia--didn't lower New York City's trash bills any, Royte says. Composting takes a lot of time and doesn't always work. Recycling programs often fall short--and at any rate, tend to be cut back during tough budget times. But what really frustrates her is the fact that making products out of new rather than reused materials is usually cheaper. Royte cites a Packaging World survey that found a fairly high percentage of people in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries thought environmentally friendly packaging was "very important"--but that twice as many thought there was no way consumers would pay for it.

She sees a few encouraging signs. Last month, Seattle began enforcing a ban on residents putting recyclables in with their regular trash. Royte would like to see more of that. "Right now," she said in an interview, "a town can collect curbside items, but if you don't ban them from landfills, it's easy for people to sneak them in." In any event, ordinary waste picked up by neighborhood garbage trucks accounts for just 2 percent of the nation's total. (Far more comes from industry and agriculture.)

Thankfully, Royte trains her descriptive skills less on the odors she encounters than the individuals she meets. She offers garbage men as appreciative a portrait as they're ever likely to get. No one who reads this book would ever begrudge them their overtime pay.