September 25, 2013

From trash to treasure at CSWD

Posted in New Horizons Educational Program, Program Spotlight tagged , , , , , at 4:27 pm by Lund

It was certainly a scene like no other recent field trip when six NHEP students, their teacher and the school outreach coordinator at the Chittenden Solid Waste District processing facility, posed in front of huge bales of crushed aluminum cans and plastic jugs.  Though this location is possibly not anyone’s first thought when considering field trip locations, it turned out to be interesting, informative and relevant to the students’ lives.

The trip started in the administrative offices where Johnny, our recycling enthusiast tour guide, explained what the facility did and the effect that it has on the trash and recycling industry in general.  The plant processes about 180 tons of material a day, one third of which is cardboard.  The processed items are then sold to manufacturers who reuse them to make other products. It struck one of the students particularly when she heard that the plastic bottle from which she drinks her preferred soda, Mountain Dew, was 99% likely to have been recycled from a previously used bottle.  “I am going to pour my soda into a glass from now on,” she said, horrified.  “You could stop drinking Mountain Dew,” I pointed out.  This was apparently more horrifying than the thought of the recycled bottle.

One of the other students had a question about why bottle caps could not be recycled and Johnny headed that one with the expertise of a man who spends a lot of time in his life talking about bottle caps and holding his thumb and forefinger two inches apart.  “Anything recycled has to be longer than 2 inches on every side,” he said.  “Anything smaller than that slips through the machines. And with the caps in particular, they are made of a different type of plastic than the bottle. So if too many caps end up in the bale, they can cause the whole bale to be not recyclable and worthless.”  This satisfied the student who had been discussing the issue with her father and was hoping for a good answer to take home to him.  This was one of the many practical links that the students could make between this trip and their own lives.

Eager to get into the facility, Kathy led the charge to put on hardhats, safety glasses and safety vests.  With Johnny leading the way, speaking through a bullhorn that seemed overkill in the parking lot but made him only just audible inside the plant, we set off to see the work in action.  The first stop was at a pile of processed glass that was too contaminated to be sold so was just sitting in the parking lot.  The edges were round enough to plunge your hand into without damage   Sure enough, no  one got cut and this wasn’t even the best part of the glass pile.  Plants were growing from it nourished, as any other plant, by rain and sun but rooted in glass rather than earth.  Not only was this surprising to observe but provided excellent fodder for a labored metaphor about growth and beauty seeded in the discard pile that I could later post on Facebook.

Heeding the warning to clump together so that nobody got into a tangle with a forklift, I snapped my Facebook photo and headed inside the plant.  It was a little similar to a middle school disco – loud and smelly, with danger around every corner.   We watched as trucks backed in and dumped their loads of potential recycling material.  It was then shoved onto a conveyor belt by a bucket loader to begin the sorting process.  Gravity is the prime tool in sorting – fans blow off the paper, plastic is bounced off the line, glass slips through the holes.  Everything is very logical.  The students were able to identify products that they use every day and appreciate that their interactions with them are but a small part of the life of the item.     “You have to think about where it’s come from and where it’s going,” Johnny would later say after we left the plant’s work floor.

After some obligatory photos in front of the enormous bales of cans, jugs and boxes (“How long do you think they could stand here and take photos?” Johnny mused, somewhat incredulously.  ), we headed outside back into the fresh air.  We spent some more time at the glass pile, this time at the glass that is going out to be recycled.  It sparkled in the sunshine and was actually, albeit in an industrial, slightly tired way, beautiful.  Seagulls wheeled overhead and Johnny explained that they find food in the glass pile, as well they eat the small pieces of glass to aiding digestion in their gullets.  There was a tomato plant growing from it.


Johnny finished the tour with a rousing cry to recycle.  “It wouldn’t just do a little good, it would do a lot.  Currently we are leaving the following generations nothing but problems.  We need to start thinking about ways to slow down and find alternatives.”  The students were left with lots to think about and the tour had introduced ideas that Kathy will expand upon during their environmental science class.

“What did you learn?”  I asked the students later. The general consensus was that it was interesting for the students to see how the recycling gets sorted and to learn what happens to it from there.   It was a reminder to all of us that there is so much to learn in unexpected places.   Though something might seem  like the end of the process to us, like putting a bottle into the recycling bin, it is actually the beginning of a very interesting and long journey that results in something new and useful coming out of what has been discarded.

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