Disney Exhibit Gives Visitors a Warped Idea of Waste and Consumption

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."

I'm game. Our guide splits us into three groups that she positions in front of three computer kiosks (the families stick together; I'm on my own). I name myself Team Leachate and proceed to answer a list of questions on the screen: how many individually packaged beverages do I consume each day ("none" isn't an option); how big is my lawn (I don't have a lawn); how do I get my media (both online and dead-tree style, alas). The machine calculates that I generate 1,300 pounds of waste a year.

The information is digitally recorded inside my own mini garbage truck that I trundle to a port in Sort It Out, the recycling phase of the game. On a monitor, I drag animated bits of paper from a speeding conveyor belt into a bin and learn nothing, though that perky woman keeps hiccuping "Good job!" (Had I teammates, the screens would have let them drag the animated speeding glass, metal, and plastic into the proper bins.) When time's up, I push my truck over to the Fuel the Burn station, where waste is "cleanly burned to make energy."

Since 2005, Waste Management has spent more than $90 million on print and TV ads emphasizing how much energy it generates by burning trash, how many trees it saves by recycling paper, and how many acres of land it sets aside for "wildlife habitats." You can't blame the company for accentuating the positives. What Waste Management doesn't tell you is that incineration isn't completely benign. Though the technology has improved in recent years, incinerators in this country still leak small but dangerous amounts of mercury, lead, and dioxin into the atmosphere. They also generate more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of energy generated than do power plants, and their ash is toxic.

At Fuel the Burn, I'm supposed to transfer what's left of my discards after recycling into the fire using a joystick. We never learn what the waste is composed of, but presumably it's all the materials for which easily accessible markets don't exist, including food waste, yard waste, and other things that shouldn't end up in the curbside trash -- like electronics and other hazardous household wastes -- but usually do. The trash forms two piles. One is red, one is blue; the distinction has something to do with the temperature at which each will burn. Again, I have no idea what I'm doing, but Miss Perky doesn't seem to mind ("You guys are doing great!"). No matter what I do, a second voice drones, "Too hot, add more blue garbage; too cool, add more red garbage," as a clock ticks down. At the bell, I'm in a lather, but I've created enough energy to power eight houses. For how long? Unclear.

Incineration may trump landfilling, but burning waste captures far less energy than recycling it would save (making new goods from old avoids the extraction, transportation, and transformation of raw materials). Because incinerators rely on a steady stream of waste, they compete with waste prevention, recycling, and composting -- once you burn all those discards, they're lost to recovery forever. And then there's this: a company or municipality that gets state and federal tax credits for generating "renewable electricity" -- in this case from waste-has little incentive to reduce waste in the first place.

Team Leachate moves on to Landfill Up, the last of the three computer stations. Now, do I want to create a ballpark, a golf course, or a nature reserve? "The whole community can enjoy the landfill when it's closed," Miss Perky says. I choose nature reserve, and with my virtual bulldozer I start spreading dirt atop the vague piles of garbage. "Hey," I want to ask the cast member who'd been shadowing me, "didn't we just burn all the garbage?" But she drifted away after asking me what leachate means. (Leachate is the garbage juice that accumulates at the bottom of landfills, I told her, and is typically laced with pesticides, motor oil, flame retardants, and other nasties.)

My virtual landfill lacks a leachate collection system, which at a properly managed dump sucks up the juice and either treats it on-site before discharging it into a waterway or sends it off-site to a wastewater treatment plant. But my landfill does have gas-collecting pipes running into a nearby plant that produces "clean, green energy." Collecting landfill gas, which contains methane generated by rotting biodegradable resources like food, paper, and wood, is better than letting it waft into the atmosphere.

But contrary to the depiction at Epcot, landfills don't start collecting gas until years after operations commence, and fewer than half of Waste Management's landfills have such gas-to-energy systems. To make them financially viable, the dump has to contain large amounts of organic waste and be close to transmission lines in places where conventional energy costs enough to make the energy from landfill gas competitive. The average system is prone to failure and, according to Peter Anderson of RecycleWorlds Consulting, in Madison, Wisconsin, collects at best only 20 percent of the gases released over the course of its lifetime. Still, it gets Waste Management another tax credit, and it makes landfills appear to be a great source of energy. ("Lipstick on a pig" is how Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, has characterized dumps' efforts to polish their image.)

Miss Perky's breathless voice prompts me. "Thirty seconds left! Your nature reserve is going to be beautiful." Why am I hurrying? Because "the more layers [of garbage] you create, the more energy you produce." One of Waste Management's sustainability goals is to provide at least 25,000 acres of wildlife habitat on its property by 2020 (a 35 percent increase). Such habitat, of course, is the product of closed and capped landfills. The new, structurally simple landscape, which lacks trees and favors nonnative plants, has limited value to at-risk species and favors the types of animals, such as white-tailed deer and raccoons, that don't exactly need our help.

 Ding! Time's up. I've generated enough energy to power six houses. The landfill looks like a green carpet, with shrubs and a gazebo. According to Waste Management's script, it belongs to the community now. What goes unscripted is that so does liability for any future environmental or health problems.

I heave my little truck to a final docking station and await my results. I get two of three points for my recycling efforts, six of eight points for burning trash, and four of six points for burying it. "Think green and have a nice day," the computer says. It's a welcome change from "Have a magical day," the usual sign-off of Disney employees on the phone. 

Wandering through Future World, I convert my points -- a total of 12 out of 17 -- to an overall percentage (a mediocre 70) and ponder the exhibit's takeaway. Will anyone remember the facts and figures after the furious time pressure, the pinging and roaring of the computer games? It doesn't take me long to realize that the point of "Don't Waste It" isn't so much to inform visitors as to leave them feeling that everything is A-OK, trashwise. Not only is our garbage under control, thanks to Waste Management, but it can even be a positive force, a source of renewable energy.

In the upbeat "Don't Waste It" world, there are no problems with landfill gases and liners that leak, with unhappy or sick neighbors, with toxic incinerator ash, mercury-contaminated fish, or dioxin-laced soil. The message from Waste Management, and by association from Disney, is that we needn't radically change either our lifestyle or our way of thinking. Put our recyclables in the right container and there's no need to alter our consumption habits.

Why is this so important? Because visitors to Epcot can't go 100 feet without an opportunity to buy something -- Disney backpacks, mouse-shaped straws, logo caps, colorful buckets, plastic sandals, T-shirts, tutus, towels, stuffed toys, disposable cameras. On and on it goes -- merchandise that will, in short order, be dumped.

Twenty-five years ago, Americans visited Epcot to learn about the future. Today the future looks grim, at least in terms of the economy, the environment, and security (guards search all visitors' bags on entry, and a computer scans our fingerprints), but Disney's corporate sponsors still have an opportunity to share their optimism. Nestlé will feed billions by growing genetically modified food in arid regions, we learn in The Land; GM is manufacturing cars that burn ethanol (though the Hummer 3, on display outside Test Track, gets only 14 miles per gallon of conventional fuel); and Waste Management, of course, is generating renewable energy.

I'm not completely naive. I understand that corporations routinely sponsor exhibits to tell their side of the story (though consumers are starting to wise up to the transparent manipulation of greenwash: Britain's independent Advertising Standards Agency, which tracks such complaints, noted a fourfold increase last year). But at Epcot things seem to have reached an absurd extreme. In the butterfly garden, small signs from Claritin offer advice on dealing with pollen allergies. In bathrooms, Brawny offers tips on hand washing ("Scrub hands and rinse"), and Nestlé welcomes mothers at the diaper-changing station to visit its nearby baby-care center. No experience, it seems, can go unbranded here.

"Don't Waste It" began when Disney approached Waste Management with the germ of an idea. Disney needs content -- empty pavilions are sad -- and sponsorship helps to pay the bills. For their part, corporations agree to build exhibits and sponsor rides because Disney parks see countless happy visitors every day. Epcot is a terrific platform.

At the center of our consumer culture, Disney World and its sister parks could be an epicenter of greening, a shining example of how we might still have our cake (in this case, an entertaining vacation) and eat it too. But reminding visitors that we must tread more lightly on the planet is a tricky line for Disney to walk. Folks are here to have fun, after all. Maybe that's why Disney's "environmentality," as the corporation has branded its green campaign, seems so feeble. Recycling has barely gotten off the ground, plastic water bottles abound (though there are plenty of drinking-water fountains, and the company does promote a $12.99 mug that visitors can fill with soft drinks for free throughout their stay), composting is in its infancy, air conditioners run in empty hotel rooms. Where are the solar panels? Where's the low- or no-irrigation landscaping?

If technology could indeed fix our mess, Epcot would seem a natural place to tell this story. Imagineers could start by tasking Disney suppliers to make consumer goods that are designed to cycle back either into the manufacturing process or into nature. Compostable Finding Nemo backpacks, anyone?

Or better yet: what about selling experiences -- the rides and other entertainment, built to the highest green standards -- without the side offerings of disposable crap? Yes, it's a radical change in thinking, and it would probably cut into the company's profits, at least in the short term. But such a policy might also attract a whole new demographic: parents like me who have eschewed Disney for the consumerist frenzy it elicits. If it chose to, the enormously powerful and influential Disney could position itself as the country's leading platform for corporate environmentalism. That makes more sense than ceding that role to a company that manages waste.


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