Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, October 8, 1999

Every day, the Southwest Connecticut Regional Recycling Facility processes about 250 tons of cans, bottles, plastic jugs and newspapers trucked in from 19 towns in Fairfield and New Haven counties. A steady stream of recyclable trash flows through this industrial building just off Stratford's Lordship Avenue. The wisdom of greatly reducing the amount of packaging we use is reaffirmed here.

I visited this amazing recycling center with some students as part of a tour of the Garbage Museum with which it shares a building. The multi-compartmented trucks which pick up recyclables from the blue bins at the curb, dump their loads in the appropriate areas of the large, two-story facility. Plastics number one and two, glass bottles and cans in one place, newspapers in another. Workers driving bucket loaders push the disgorged trash onto conveyors which carry it to the sorting rooms. The image of that loader pushing such massive piles of plastic containers around mandates a serious rethinking of our packaging systems to encourage more conservation.

Meanwhile, back in the sorting rooms, dozens of workers stand over the two conveyor belt lines under greenish, industrial lights. Bottles, cans, and plastics jumble along as one worker picks off clear glass, another pulls off the number two plastic, and so on. The trash goes round and round like luggage on an airport carousel until it has all been picked off and deposited in its appropriate slot, while the steady inflow of new trash continues.

On the other line, workers separate the newspapers from colored advertising sections and kraft paper. More conveyor belts deliver separated materials to a baler which turns them into solid blocks of one type of plastic, metal or paper. Having waste sorted accurately is so critical to its value that it requires human beings to do the job. It's a startling sight in this high-tech age, to observe these workers picking through an endless stream of packaging waste.

At the Museum, visitors are greeted by a one-ton dinosaur, wonderfully sculpted from real trash. Its 2,000 pounds represent the amount of trash the average American discards annually! And, fifty percent of that is packaging waste! Americans go through 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. It's clear from the Museum's exhibits that because plastic is a non-renewable resource derived from fossil fuel, our gluttonous use of it is non-sustainable. Even when plastic is recycled, it can only be used for low-grade products such as carpets and plastic lumber, not for more packaging.

One exhibit demonstrates the enormous amount of energy that is saved by making aluminum cans from recycled ones, rather than from bauxite (aluminum ore). However, there is no information about the exorbitant energy and environmental costs of recycling aluminum cans and of our massive consumption of single-use containers.

The half a million pounds of trash processed here each day is far from all of the packaging trash produced in this region. Beverage containers returned to stores for their deposits, packaging trash which is mixed in with the regular garbage, and the containers scattered around the environment add to the enormous amount of waste we generate.

All of this packaging consumes energy and other resources and produces pollution in its production, transportation, disposal and recycling-- all for our convenience.

Take your children to the Garbage Museum. See, up close, the massive effects of our over-consumptive behavior. The Museum is open to the public, free of charge, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from noon to four and on Saturday, November 13, from 10 to 2.

Banners and the writing on the walls of the museum invite us rethink, reduce, reuse, recycle. Although it is a recycling facility, rethinking the way we do things, reducing our consumption, and reusing things in their original form should all come ahead of recycling in our actions.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.