Garbage Museum Aims to Change Wasteful Ways

A resources-recovery center in Connecticut shows visitors how to reduce, reuse, and recycle trash

AT the Temple of Trash, almost nothing is too good to be garbage.

Amid the papers, plastic bottles, and cereal boxes attached to this incredible structure of stuff is an old bicycle, a skateboard, a suitcase, a vacuum cleaner, and more.

Propped up by two columns of old tires, the temple is a unique artistic exhibit, part of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (CRRA) Visitors Center. This facility - officially known as the Visitors Center but affectionately called a ``garbage museum'' - teaches about modern society's wasteful ways.

More important, it focuses on solutions to today's growing landfill crisis. Colorful exhibits cover topics like waste reduction, resources recovery, and recycling.

Since January, close to 5,000 people have made a trip to the Visitors Center, considered the largest such educational facility of its kind in the United States, says Cheryl Burke, Visitors Center director. Helping people learn how to reduce, reuse, and recycle trash is the goal, she says.

``The main idea is that the more you educate the public, the better quality recyclables you get. And that's better for us,'' Ms. Burke says. Each resident in the state generates just under one ton of trash on average every year, amounting to almost 3 million tons of solid waste per year, according to CRAA.

The idea of a trash museum is not unique. The Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission's Education Center in Lyndhurst, N.J., hosts thousands of student visitors every month. Hartford, Vt., has a similar educational center. And in San Jose, Calif., the Wall of Garbage, a 100-foot pile of accumulated trash, is a popular tourist attraction in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here at Connecticut's Visitor Center, the Temple of Trash continues to draw stares of amazement. Do we really throw out that much? say silent, wide-eyed faces.

Next to the temple is a model garbage truck that dumps the ``trash'' onto the temple while a blinking electronic sign measures the increasing tonnage of waste that Connecticut generates every second. Inside the temple, visitors hear the sounds of recorded sea-gull calls, as if the birds were circling the ``dump'' and looking for scraps.

The temple is meant to show Connecticut's ``old method'' of taking care of waste: dumping it in a landfill. This sets the stage for other exhibits on more effective waste control methods, CRRA officials say.

``The solutions segment is to impress on people ... that solutions start at home with smart choices,'' says Thomas Gaffey, director of government and public relations for CRRA.

A source-reduction display, for example, promotes buying goods that aren't overpackaged. The message: Buy in bulk.

Large-size containers of things like fruit juice, potato chips, and cereal, for example, create less waste than smaller-size containers. Washable cloth napkins and diapers can be used instead of disposable paper ones. Mugs are recommended rather than styrofoam cups. Glass juice bottles, which can be recycled, are favored over paper-carton containers.

Other waste-control methods are shown, including a waste-to-energy exhibit. This process plays a key role in managing waste for the CRAA's Mid-Connecticut Project that serves 58 communities in and around Hartford, Conn.

Trash is burned to produce steam. The steam then powers turbine generators that create electricity. This waste-to-energy process generates 412 million kilowatts of electricity per year, enough to supply the yearly electrical needs of 70,000 homes.

There are also exhibits on preparing and composting recyclables, and an area for viewing the Mid-Connecticut Project's Container Processing Facility. Through a glassed-in window, visitors can watch how this facility, located behind the Visitors Center, processes 200 tons of recyclables a day.

A system of air blowers, conveyors, and magnets separates recyclables like glass, metals, and plastics. Glass is further separated by color and then crushed, while plastics and metals are bound into separate bales. These materials are shipped to manufacturing plants where they can be reused.

At the viewing site, visitors can sit on benches made of recycled plastic. The carpet on the floor is made from clear plastic bottles. Even the parking lot is made of secondhand material. A substance called ``glasphalt'' - a mixture of recycled crushed glass and asphalt - serves as pavement.

``Next thing you know they will be making cars out of garbage,'' says a freckle-faced boy here on a school field trip.

Children are frequent visitors. Gathered inside the Temple of Trash this day is a group of approximately 15 youngsters, aged 7 to 11.

``What can we do besides having old-fashioned dumps?'' Burke asks the group of youngsters. ``Why don't we take our garbage, put it in a rocket, and send it into space?''

A young boy pipes up. ``We can't do that,'' he says. ``It could explode into the atmosphere and fall on the earth.''

Burke offers another idea. ``Why can't we put all the garbage in your back yard?'' she says, pointing playfully to another young boy.

``Not in my back yard!'' he squeals. ``That's where my dog goes!''

Such lively discussions capture youngsters' interest and encourage them to think seriously about the environment, Burke says. Young people, especially, are important to reach, she says.

``Many times kids get confused and even overwhelmed with questions like `What can I do?' '' she says. ``But if you start with something like recycling at home, kids will say, `I can do this.' ''

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