Educating community members about where our waste goes and why it’s so important to generate less of it has always been an important part of BRING’s work. That’s why we offer a range of educational programs and tours to schools, community groups and civic organizations. Have you ever wondered if one is right for the kids in your life? Here’s a glimpse at what happens on one of our most “popular” tours.
Every year BRING takes hundreds of local students to Lane County’s Glenwood transfer station and Short Mountain Landfill. Although each trip generates plenty of complaints about bad smells and dirty surfaces, teachers and parents realize that it’s important for kids to know that when they throw something away, it doesn’t go away – it just goes somewhere else. Where it goes and how it’s handled can have a huge impact on the health of our community and our planet.
On a recent tour, education and events coordinator Emily Shelton led a group of Creswell Middle School students up the concrete walkway that leads to the transfer station’s trash and recycling areas. “This facility does exactly what the name implies – it transfers all the garbage we generate at various places in our community to its final resting place,” she told the group of youngsters wearing bright orange and yellow vests. “Where do you think it goes from here?” The landfill, students confirmed.
“Does anyone know how long trash lives in the landfill?” Shelton asks. There are guesses of 20 years and 30 years before someone guesses hundreds of years. “Forever,” Shelton confirms. Once waste goes into a landfill, it’s compacted tightly against the layer below it. The bottom of the landfill is capped by a sophisticated composite liner system so nothing can escape, and at some point another system of liner layers will go over the top, locking in everything in perpetuity.
Although some methane escapes from the anaerobic environment that results, most materials don’t break down. If you dug up a copy of the Eugene Register-Guard from 50 years ago, you’d still be able to read every story.
Shelton points to the nearby guard stations and tells the students that people come to Lane County’s transfer stations to throw away their unwanted items, but they also come to recycle. The scales ensure they’re only charged for what they throw away and not what they recycle. “When you drop off all the recycling, that’s weight you’re taking off,” she explains. “That’s weight you’re not paying for. So by recycling materials you’re saving money, in addition to saving resources and reducing pollution.”
Before she takes the group to the containers holding electronics, wood and other materials for recycling, Shelton leads them to the trash pit. It’s a warm day, which makes the smell worse, something the students don’t hesitate to point out. A few noses are quickly tucked inside of shirts, and there are lots of exclamations of “Ewww!” and “Gross!”
But once they’re on the catwalk that runs over the top of the cavernous space, the focus changes. The young people quickly begin pointing out familiar bits of detritus: a stuffed animal. A pizza box. A deflated and discolored basketball. A group of boys is particularly excited about a bulldozer flattening pieces of furniture.
When they’re standing back in the sunshine, Shelton asks, “Did you see anything that could be reused? Or did you see anything that could be recycled?” Shelton asked. There’s a chorus of suggestions: Furniture. Cardboard. Plastic soda bottles. Paper.
“We can’t control what goes in here because we don’t pull things out of the trash,” Shelton says. “It’s really up to us as community members to know what can and can’t go into our landfill.”
Shelton reviewed the things that legally aren’t allowed because they’re too dangerous or bulky. Items on the list include motor oil, car batteries, fluorescent bulbs containing mercury, car tires, electronics, mattresses and appliances. She points these items out as the tour goes on to emphasize that some things that can’t be recycled curbside can find a home at the transfer station.
The tour provides a good opportunity to educate the students on how to be better curbside recyclers. Glass needs to be separated from other materials because broken shards can injure workers or get into other recycling streams. The only type of plastic containers that should go in are bottles, tubs and jugs.
Shelton also uses the tour as a chance to discuss the importance of the other “R.” Reducing the amount of waste we generate is the best thing for the planet because it extends the life of the landfill and cuts down on the amount of raw resources that must be harvested from the earth. Reusing materials does the same thing but to a lesser extent because goods still have to be transported to a reuse facility and find a new home with a buyer. If they can’t, they may end up in the trash as well.
“We say ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ in that order for a reason,” she says to emphasize the waste management hierarchy. “Reducing your consumption is the best way to lessen your personal impact on the planet.”
Teachers: If you’d like to schedule a transfer station and landfill tour for your students, or take advantage of any of BRING’s other educational programming, please contact us.
Parents: if you care about teaching children about waste prevention, resource conservation and where our waste goes, please check with your child’s school and encourage them to contact us. All of our programming is available year-round.