In a waterfront industrial area near the Bridgeport line, the trucks keep dumping trash and the school buses keep dumping children.
Eight-year-old Matt Carlucci is in awe as soon as he walks through the front door of The Garbage Museum, confronted immediately by a colorful, 12-foot-tall dinosaur made out of junk. "Trash-o-saurus" resembles something out of the animated movie "Robots."
Pennsylvania sculptor Leo Sewell, who grew up near a dump, fashioned the 24-foot-long piece out of old "no parking" signs, cell phones, shoes, license plates, sunglasses, plastic toys and anything else he could get his hands on. Visitors are given a list of things to find on the dinosaur, and it's no easy feat.
"It's pretty cool," Matt said during a trip with his third-grade class from Sherman, Conn., on a recent Friday. "All the garbage on it, how big it is and how much it weighs."
The sculpture is 2,000 pounds, representing the average amount of garbage and recyclables each person in Connecticut discards each year. Like all the exhibits, "Trash-o-saurus" was designed with the goal of teaching how important recycling is.
The museum opened in 1993 at the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority's recycling center in Stratford, "before 'green' was cool," a fact sheet says. About 32,200 people visited the museum and took part in its off-site programs last year, a record.
"We don't know of any other museums dedicated to garbage and recycling in the country," said Paul Nonnenmacher, a spokesman for the CRRA, a quasi-public state trash agency.
The importance of recycling
The agency also operates a sister facility, The Trash Museum, in Hartford that drew more than 27,000 people last year.
Educators at the Stratford museum are preparing for upcoming Earth Day programs, but they consider every day to be Earth Day.
"What's exciting is the kids go home and tell their parents what they can recycle, said Sotoria Montanari, the museum's education supervisor.
While the dinosaur sculpture is popular, children have just as much fun in the viewing area over the center's sorting area, Montanari said. Trucks dump recyclables from 20 area towns, to the tune of 60,000 tons a year.
Huge piles of plastic bottles look made to jump into. Stacks of newspapers and cardboard fill another area. An assembly line of workers sorts the materials, which are crushed and sold as commodities to produce new products. Some buyers even make carpets and fleece jackets out of the recycled plastic, which can be turned into fibers.
Back down a flight of stairs near the dinosaur, children can play in a general store complete with a cash register, old cereal boxes and other reusable items.
An exhibit with stacked soda cans shows how making aluminum out of recycled materials creates 95 percent less air pollution and 97 percent less water pollution than mining bauxite.
Visitors can walk through the tunnel of a big, brown and plastic "composting pile" that has fake worms, bugs and pieces of fruits and vegetables sticking out of it. Educator Robin Bennett can show you a real composting pile, and how a special kind of worm eats the garbage and converts it into what looks like dirt. (Reality check: the "dirt" is mostly worm poop.)
The "Trash Bash" activity imprisons helmet-wearing contestants behind chain-link fence doors and makes them answer questions. If the answer is wrong, others are given the green light to dump trash on them from an overhead opening.
There are also art exhibits made from reusable stuff, including a life-size mannequin made from crushed and colored milk containers strung together with pipe cleaners.
And everything in the museum is cleaned once a year by a special cleaning company, Nonnenmacher said.
Where garbage goes
It all makes for a fun hour or two, but visitors say they also walk away with new knowledge and appreciation.
"You can see where all the garbage goes," said 10-year-old fifth-grader Brooke Hiatt of Milford. "You can see how and where it goes and the process of recycling stuff. I've learned that recycling is better than just wasting. If you waste, you can pollute your environment."
Some CRRA trash trivia:
- The average American throws away 3.5 pounds of trash a day.
- Americans throw out 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour.
- The average American uses 650 pounds of paper a year.
- 1,500 aluminum cans are recycled every second in the United States.
Looming over all the good things at the museum is the chance it might have to close this year because of money problems. The recycling plant's long-term contracts with buyers just happen to be expiring June 30, at a time when commodity prices have plummeted because of the bad economy.
Museum officials have launched fundraising efforts, including a public call for donations and the selling of recycled glass tiles for $50 apiece that can be personalized before being placed in a dinosaur wall mural.
The museum also started collecting $2 entrance fees from visitors in September. Kids 3 and under free. A recent IRS ruling helped, making donations to the museum tax-deductible. Information about the efforts to keep the museum open is being posted on the Web at http://savethegarbagemuseum.blogspot.com/.
The CRRA has even applied for federal stimulus funding, because it has a "shovel-ready" project that would upgrade and automate the recycling center.
Nonnenmacher said the museum will probably have enough money at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1 to run for a couple of months. What happens after that remains unclear. The museum needs $200,000 to $250,000 to operate each year.
"We're guardedly optimistic," Nonnenmacher said. "But people are starting to offer us help. We have got our finance people scrambling."
It's a scramble visitors hope succeeds.
"It's possibly one of the most important things to give to a child — teaching them the impact they have on the environment and the difference they can make just by themselves," said Joe Carlucci, father of recent visitor Matt Carlucci.