Museum makes clear to kids what happens to all that stuff the family throws away
Richard Larcheveque and Will Gibson watch a Caterpillar operator sort paper from cardboard at the Stratford, Conn. recycling center attached to the museum. (David Lyon for the Boston Globe)
One of the signal events of my childhood was the year that my school friend Willie's father won the contract for the town dump. This meant I could ride my bike to Willie's house, and we could spend afternoons in the farm's back lot scavenging old inner tubes for slingshots, picking up radios and clocks to repair and sell, or aiming said slingshots at the vigorous population of rats. If you'd asked me what "recycling" was, I would have guessed it had something to do with pedaling a bicycle back the way you'd come.
I would have loved the Children's Garbage Museum. Connecticut kids don't have to muck through a dirty and dangerous landfill. (The day I came home from Willie's reeking of the garbage pit where I'd fallen was my last visit.) They can come to this facility and see big trucks disgorging heaps of trash and watch as drivers use bulldozers and front-end loaders to push it around. There's not a rat in sight.
"It's our job to get the kids to nag," says Audrey Sciuto, museum educator. "We want them to go home and bug their parents until they get a recycling bin and start using it." If that means luring them with a big, noisy, messy, colorful trash spectacle, so be it.
The Garbage Museum is an outgrowth of the adjacent processing center that receives paper, plastics, and metals from curbside recycling programs in 20 southern Connecticut communities. The walkway on the museum's second floor overlooks dumping stations on one side, and processing and baling stations on the other. Neat blocks of pressed cans bound with steel wire await shipment to a metals center. Other bales contain plastic bags. Bales of paper are stacked 10 kids high.
Anne Larcheveque and Nina Gibson of nearby Bridgeport and their 3 1/2-year-old sons, Richard and Will, are frequent visitors. "They love the trucks," says Larcheveque, "all the types of trucks - and the garbage." (What little boy wouldn't?) "It's not just an activity for them. They learn a little." As she's speaking, a trash hauler backs into a bay, raises up the bed of his truck, and tips a load. Bottles and cans gush out and spill across the concrete floor like a trash tsunami. Watching from above, Richard and Will are ecstatic.
"We recycle stuff at home," Larcheveque says. "We tell the kids that the stuff that was picked up in front of our house ends up here. We play games - like looking for our orange juice container."
Obviously Gibson and Larcheveque need no nagging to recycle, and their sons are torn between watching the trucks, following the line of trash as it moves along a conveyor belt to the baler, and simply running up and down the hall with unrestrained glee. Will stops and points as a yellow Caterpillar machine with snapping jaws lunges into a pile of paper and cardboard. The operator is a whiz at using the mechanical fingers to push cardboard one direction, newspaper another.
"Consumer demand is one reason why there's so much call for recycled materials," explains Paul Nonnenmacher, public affairs director for the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority, the quasi-governmental agency that operates the museum and which derives its operating budget largely from selling recyclables. "By law, Connecticut newspapers have to be printed on newspaper with a certain percentage of recycled fiber." (The state mandates at least 50 percent recycled fiber in all newsprint.) He points to the tough, multicolored wall-to-wall carpet on the hallway floor. "This used to be soda bottles."
The chief plastics that Connecticut recycles in curbside programs are PETE and high-density polyethylene or HDPE, marked numbers 1 and 2 on the bottom of containers. The PETE is spun into fibers for such applications as carpeting and synthetic fleece for clothing. The HDPE usually ends us as construction lumber, curb stops, and decking.
Although the paper baling continues unabated - except to remove a plastic garbage bag that's snagged the machinery - the container processing line is down for maintenance. As Nonnenmacher explains the process, I can only imagine how excited Richard and Will would have been. (OK, me too.) "A magnet pulls out all the steel containers," he says. "Then the aluminum is popped out with an eddy current, a spinning electrical charge that makes nonferrous metals just pop off the belt. The cans just go flying, and we catch them in a collection bin. Everything that's left is plastic."
The Stratford facility still sorts plastics by hand, he says, but that will change when new machinery is installed. "It sends a beam of light that measures the density of the material and separates the ones and twos."
The facility processed 55,575 tons of trash in 2007, which seems phenomenal until you consider that, on average, each American throws away a ton of trash each year. To make that volume tangible, in 1993 the agency commissioned artist Leo Sewell to create a 24-foot-long dinosaur sculpture using one ton of discarded materials. The museum expects to hold a 15th birthday party for Trash-o-saurus as part of its May 10 Family Fun Day.
The dinosaur is hard to miss. The rounded hump of its back nearly grazes the ceiling. A school child would be hard-pressed to wrap his or her arms around one of the stout legs (which doesn't keep them from trying). "We ask the kids to imagine that they get a Trash-o-saurus made with all the stuff they threw away," says Nonnenmacher. "That sounds pretty cool. But then suppose you get another one the next year? And the next year? And each member of your family gets one? Where are you going to put them? That gets the kids thinking."
Elementary school children often become fascinated by the Trash-o-saurus treasure hunt; in fact, there are seven such hunts, and some kids are determined to complete them all. Spotting the Trash-o-saurus components can be mind-boggling. The surface alone shows a clock face, a plastic knife, squirt guns, corrugated metal trash cans, a kitchen colander, snow shovel, plastic pail, flashlight, false teeth, stop sign, Frisbees, combs, a tennis racket, a plastic Halloween pumpkin, sandals, a no smoking sign, a plastic yard flamingo . . . The kids are particularly alarmed at discovering toys on the Trash-o-saurus: a doll, remote-controlled cars, a football, plastic dinosaurs . . . Who tossed all of that stuff? It could have been them.
Sciuto suggests that there's a take-home lesson for every age. "With the high school kids, we talk a lot about the trash-to-energy projects," she says. The museum has a few small displays that show how those projects work, although the facilities are elsewhere. Stacked soda cans graphically demonstrate how much easier and more economical it is to make new aluminum cans from old ones, rather than digging bauxite from the earth and refining it. Small fry, on the other hand, love to crawl through the mock-up of a compost heap, complete with oversize bugs and worms.
"With the 3-year-olds," Sciuto says, "we just try to get them to turn the bottles over and identify the number and send them home to nag their parents until they get a recycling bin."
And when they've succeeded with that, there's always the compost heap. Wow! Worms!
David Lyon, a Cambridge-based freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.