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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Science of Trash

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Stephanie O'Neill travels to the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles for a look at the finer points of trash. The museum's high-tech, interactive exhibit gives visitors an opportunity to examine their own consumption habits . . . emphasizing the importance of individual impact on the waste stream.


CURWOOD: Not long ago, only Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch loved trash. But in these days of curbside recycling and 100% post-consumer waste, trash is nearly a national obsession. For those still unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the paper or plastic conundrum, there's a new exhibit at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles that could help. Stephanie O'Neill reports.

(Rock music with narration: "When you're a globe-head the world seems bright." "You make the effort to do things right." "Globe-head!")

O'NEILL: The Globe-heads, a family of claymation characters, are the first to welcome visitors to the exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.

(Rock music with narration: "Reduce, reuse, recycle, we've all heard the call." "But a waste kid doesn't bother at all!" "We're the Globe-heads!")

O'NEILL: Called "Our Urban Environment," the exhibit invites visitors to push buttons, turn cranks, and play sophisticated computer games, which dish up easily-digestible tips on green living. David Bibas is the exhibit curator.

BIBAS: In all of our exhibits we try to make the visitor work to get the information instead of just presenting it. So there is better learning as well as retention of the information.

O'NEILL: Visitors are led through interactive displays on energy efficiency at home, water use, solid waste management, and green shopping. In a mock supermarket, real items you'd find in your grocery store are displayed on turntables. One side asks a question about that product. The other side gives the answer.

BIBAS: For example, here, "Why aren't disposable razors such a sharp idea?" And you turn the turntable and it says, "Americans throw away 2 billion disposable razors every year, so the materials and energy that go into making all those razors are wasted after a few Chavis."

(Narration: "Are you a green consumer? To find out, choose Products by scanning the bar codes in the catalogue. When you're done, scan the total page for your final grade.")

O'NEILL: And when you've competed your shopping, a bar code scanner tallies the environmental score of your purchases. We chose juice in a large plastic bottle instead of a glass bottle or individual servings in boxes.

(Cash register rings, followed by narration: "Okay, but not a great choice. A large container uses less packaging material than individual servings. And PET plastic is recyclable. However, toxic waste is created during the plastic manufacturing process.")

O'NEILL: From this store, visitors can follow purchases to their ultimate resting place and wrestle with the problems they create along the way. At one point we're given a chance to test our mettle as municipal solid waste managers, by trying to deal with the ever-increasing trash flow on a specially designed computer game. We asked the computer to approve a landfill expansion plan.

(Computer beeps)

BIBAS: Unfortunately I get a fax back from the mayor saying, "Your planned landfill expansion has been denied. The site is located on an earthquake fault. Please try again."

O'NEILL: So it's all the real problems people run into.

BIBAS: Yeah, we want people to be aware of the complexity of the problems of managing the solid waste stream.

O'NEILL: The Home Center focuses on energy conservation. For instance, you'll learn that cleaning the coils behind your refrigerator and setting its temperature on low saves a lot of energy. Throughout the exhibit, Globe-head video clips roll continually, each teaching a different lessons.

(Music and voices: "Hey mom, what're you doin'?" "Time to change some oil in the old family car, kiddo." "What a mess!" "Relax, honey, we'll just hose it down when I'm finished here." "But mom, that'll go right down the storm drain!" "Mm hmm." "It'll go straight to the ocean. Think of those poor fish!" "Oh honey, I don't think there's enough to do any real harm." "Waste-head!")

O'NEILL: But by the end of the vignettes, waste-heads learn proper green behavior and become Globe-heads once again.

(Music and voice: "You were right, sweetie. We'll recycle our used motor oil, and take the old coolant to the next hazardous waste roundup. What do you say?" Dog barks.)

O'NEILL: The exhibit is funded largely by local public utilities and two corporations: Western Waste Industries, a trash hauling company, and Bank of America. There's not a whole lot here that deals with industrial pollution. Bibas says that's because officials didn't want to point the finger at anyone in particular, but instead wanted to emphasize that everyone's responsible for the environment.

BIBAS: Raising the awareness is a first step. And giving the public the information that they need in order to make, to take certain informed decisions, I think would, you know, get them thinking about these things, and hopefully act on their beliefs.

O'NEILL: David Bibas, curator of "Our Urban Environment" at the California Museum of Science and Industry. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.



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