New Jersey Puts Trash on Display

Unconventional exhibit aims to educate visitors and enlist them in solving the garbage crisis. REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE

NO art critic has ever been surrounded by such outright rubbish. But that's the point: Visitors enter New Jersey's Garbage Museum straight through a dump - a symbolic one, that is. The winding entrance is covered in trash - from old toys, telephones, and tires, to newspapers, plastic containers, glass bottles, and more.

The purpose of the museum here at the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission's Environment Center isn't to bombard people with some of the rubbish New Jersey produces - 26,000 tons a day, 10 million tons a year - but to educate them.

``We basically wanted to talk to the general public, find a way to intrigue them, and then also have a nice way to present them [with the garbage issue],'' says Anne Galli, director of environmental operations with Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission (HMDC). ``We wanted to combine the traditional museum experience with a very untraditional topic.''

Where to put it all?

The colorful, hands-on exhibits, primarily designed for children, show how Americans' waste impacts on the environment. Each month, some 1,500 schoolchildren visit the $400,000 center - funded by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority - to see the garbage museum and other exhibits. A planetarium, auditorium, and environmental laboratory are nearby.

The garbage museum ``has been received exceptionally well'' since it opened in October, says Ms. Galli. ``Media attention and interest have been worldwide.''

Why here? Why now? ``New Jersey is a small state, land-wise, with a large population,'' says Ms. Galli. ``The crisis of `Where to put it all?' has hit us first.'' The Garden State was one of the first to feel the pinch of the landfill crisis now hitting much of the Northeast. And no wonder: Every American produces an average of 3.5 lbs. of trash a day - one ton per year.

Fifteen years ago, New Jersey had 300 landfills. Now there are but 12 still operating, says Robert Grant, HMDC spokesman. ``We export 50 percent of our garbage to other states,'' he says.

The problem is so intense that the New Jersey legislature is asking that by 1991, 25 percent of the state's waste stream be disposed of by alternate means, such as recycling and composting.

It's a huge problem, says Mr. Grant: ``Our garbage could be stacked six feet high on Route 80 from here to California every month.''

With the issue looming so large, ``we need education tools,'' he continues. ``Could someone 10 years ago have put up a garbage museum and not be ridiculed?''

Set over a marsh in the Hackensack River estuary - home or stopover point for more than 256 different species of birds - the center also faces a landfill. It is at the heart of the most densely populated area of the most densely populated state in America. The Manhattan skyline looms in the distance; condo developments seem to be inching closer.

``We're a hole in the doughnut,'' says Grant, speaking of the center's location in the wetlands.

``Our problem is not just protection ... our problem is wetlands restoration and enhancement,'' he continues, as he looks out over the marsh and points to a ``sparrow high-rise'' birdhouse. The commission was set up by the state Legislature in 1968 to enhance public understanding of and appreciation for wetlands as well as the rest of the environment.

The modest museum is a pleasant, not preachy, and quick presentation of the issues surrounding garbage.

Visitors may learn how to ``change their habits and actually become part of the solution,'' explains Galli, adding ``There are tips, ideas, and thoughts that people can take with them.'' Choose reusable items over disposable ones, for example; support recycling.

A stack of 400,000 tires

Upon entering the garbage-walled room, visitors hear the recorded voice of a child introducing some statistics about the garbage Americans throw out daily: cans with enough aluminum to make 30 jet planes; 23,000 tons of newspapers, and 400,000 old tires (if you stacked them up, they would be 10 times taller than Mt. Everest).

Who throws out so much garbage? Visitors are invited to look through portholes for the answer - and see their own faces reflected. Another exhibit projects what items thrown out today will look like 100 years from now. Glass and metal look no different.

A display on the history of packaging shows the evolution of a box of cookies. Today's package not only has two or three layers of packaging, ``but also advertising to promote it,'' Grant points out as he escorts a reporter through the museum.

``Idealtown'' profiles a make-believe village that recycles, composts food and yard waste, collects and safely disposes of hazardous household waste, sends burnables to an incinerator and other materials to a landfill. A sign asks, ``How does your town dispose of these?''

The reusable vs. disposable products showcase tries to educate visitors to be ``smart'' shoppers: Take reusable dishes, cups, napkins, and utensils on a picnic, rather than disposable ones, for example. Use cloth diapers instead of disposable.

``The amount we dispose of in this country is absolutely amazing,'' says Grant, in a tone of voice that still sounds surprised after 15 years' experience with pollution issues. ``We can shop smart,'' he adds: Buy produce loose, bring reusable canvas bags to the supermarket. And ``we need to support recycled products.''

There's also a game room with computers, and examples of products made from recycled materials, such as a rug made from plastic bags. Cartoon animals exhort visitors with signs that say such things as ``It's up to YOU,'' and ``You CAN make a difference!'' ``Go for it!''

``It strikes home,'' says Jeff Keith, an elementary special education teacher. Students' initial reaction to the garbage is: ``I've thrown that away. I wonder if that's mine?'' he continues. The other exhibits are ``right to the point,'' and because they are hands on, ``kids seem to remember.''

When people - especially children - come away from the museum, says Grant, ``we want them to understand the importance of recycling - that there are decisions they can make in purchasing goods that can help.''

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