Estimates show that it takes roughly 450 years for a plastic water bottle to decompose. While this number is staggering, the question is: How does our behavior change once we have this information?
Producer Alexandra Salmon and her six-year-old son, Leon Thomas, decide to go on a tour of the Dane County Landfill, not only to learn about trash but also the people on the tour and how they grapple with the tension between buying new things and reducing their waste.
Alexandra Salmon could not wait to spend her Friday at the Dane County Landfill. She had been thinking about her own consumer habits and thought seeing where her waste goes would help her work through those thoughts. So, she booked a tour and brought along her six-year-old son, Leon Thomas.
“It kind of feels cool to see what other people use,” said Thomas.
“What do you expect that the landfill is going to look like?” Salmon asked her son.
“Like 10,000 things of trash and lots of stuff,” he said smiling.
When the two arrived at the landfill, they hopped on a bus to tour the facilities with tour guide Sujata Gautam.
“I was that kid that tended to dig through the trash and recycling bin at home because I saw it as a treasure trove of resources. I would build rockets and Barbie house dolls and all sorts of items,” said Gautam.
Now as the sustainability and engagement coordinator for Dane County Department for Waste and Renewables, Gautam is able to incorporate that fascination with recycling into her daily work and the landfill tour.
“I hope (the tour) cultivates a bit more mindfulness in people’s own personal lives with their relationship to resources and stuff in general,” said Gautam. “Why do you bring what you bring into your life? And do you put a lot of thought about bringing something into your life in the sense of: what will you do with it at the end of its life?”
Another person taking the tour was Britta Lothary of Fitchburg, Wisconsin. She brought her daughter along to learn more about the landfill.
Lothary said she’s a minimalistic person and doesn’t like to keep a lot of stuff around her house.
“I feel very anxious and it feels overwhelming to me, as if I can’t appreciate the stuff that’s there because there’s so much of it,” said Lothary.
So, how does she live a minimalist lifestyle and manage stuff around the house while having kids?
“I have to say, sometimes you don’t,” said Lothary. “I want them to enjoy their childhood. However, they both want a Barbie dreamhouse and we have one. So we talk about using our resources wisely and how it’s not the best in our world’s interest or our interest to have two Barbie dreamhouses. We can learn to play with one.”
Adam Steinback from Madison, Wisconsin also took a tour of the Dane County Landfill.
“I am like most people here, we all generate waste,” said Steinback. “But I’ve become more conscious of it. The more you start to see the natural disasters occurring and trying to find out ways that we can try and help slow down the process of global warming.”
Steinback reflected on his feelings when he does buy something new.
“Yeah, I think when you go and make a purchase and it’s something new, it’s fun. The experience is exhilarating,” said Steinback. “Especially when it has features that you haven’t had before — whether it’s a new car, a new phone, a new computer. All of those things, there can be some really good benefits that you experience right away. That thrill lasts for awhile, but after a certain point of time, we become accustomed to it. The excitement starts to fade.”
At the end of the tour, Alexandra Salmon talked with her son, Leon Thomas, about his takeaways.
“So you know now that it takes years and years for things to decompose. So then how do you feel about us buying new things?,” she asked.
“Maybe this inspires me a little bit,” answered the six-year-old.
MUSIC: “Nothing But Flowers” by Talking Heads