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Disney Exhibit Gives Visitors a Warped Idea of Waste and Consumption

The message of the exhibit, sponsored by the largest garbage company, is that we needn't radically change our lifestyle or our way of thinking.
 
 
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This piece orginially appeared in OnEarth Magazine.

I had never really considered a career as a sanitation engineer, but suddenly the idea doesn't seem far-fetched. "Good job!" a perky female voice commends me as I spill a load of dirt over a fresh pile of trash at the bottom of a dump. Really? I think. "You have a great future in landfill management," she adds emphatically.

Maybe. But I'm not really at a landfill, only moving a little yellow dozer with a joystick at Walt Disney World's Epcot, where Waste Management Inc. has an exhibit called "Don't Waste It," and the voice is prerecorded. I could be doing nothing -- and since I've never touched a joystick before today, it's possible I am doing nothing -- and she'd be happy.

Since opening in 1982, Epcot has celebrated human achievement, particularly in the technological sphere, and projected hope for the world's future. The goals sound high-minded, though most of Epcot's offerings are no more than rides or games with the thinnest of educational veneers. For example, Epcot visitors -- or "guests," in Disney parlance -- learn how to prevent house fires by playing an interactive game sponsored by Liberty Mutual, how engineers design safe cars by screaming around a test track sponsored by General Motors, and how biotechnologists "feed a growing population" on a boat ride sponsored by Nestlé. Elsewhere, we are shown how Siemens refrigerators coated with special powders will prevent the growth of microbes in homes of the future. Might the powders lead to powder-resistant bacteria, the way our profligate use of antibacterials has given rise to bugs that resist all antibiotics? That's a possibility our Disney "cast member" doesn't address.

I wanted to see what Waste Management, the country's largest garbage company, was up to, and not only because it has such a long way to go in the public relations department. (It was rocked by an accounting scandal in the late 1990s and has paid many millions of dollars in fines for environmental violations, including burying waste illegally, spilling hazardous waste, and violating the federal Superfund law.) I was also curious about its new slogan, "Think Green," which seems the pinnacle of doublespeak. After all, the company's success -- it posted record-breaking earnings in February 2008, when this exhibit opened -- depends on a steady, if not rising, stream of waste. It stands to reason that consuming and wasting less stuff, one of the best things an individual can do for the health of the planet, is antipodal to corporate goals.

The line for "don't waste it," billed as an "interactive playground" and lit like a casino, is mercifully short. A cast member in a green shirt ushers two family groups and me inside to a computer kiosk. "Has anyone eaten today?" she asks over the dinging of computer consoles and the crash of glass from a nearby Underwriters Lab exhibit, where videos of smashed television screens and falling safes endlessly loop. Heads nod. "Has anyone bought anything?" More nods. "Then you've made garbage!"

We brace for her spiel: Americans generate enough waste to fill 60,000 garbage trucks a day. Waste Management recycles 3.5 million tons of paper a year, enough to save 41 million trees. By recycling aluminum, which cuts down on bauxite mining, it saves enough energy to run a TV for ... My attention wanders to a child trying to ram a miniature garbage truck, which weighs about 30 pounds, into a docking station. "Mumble, mumble, renewable energy," I hear. "Save the environment..." She seems to be wrapping up. "OK! Now we're going to learn how to reduce, reuse, and recycle every day."

 
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