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for people who care about the West

The Universe on Blacktop

A family dumpster-dives for cash and satisfaction.


One of the reasons I occasionally find myself in a dumpster in my Colorado town has to do with a woman in India that I've never met. I've seen a photo of her, though, and that's enough to convince me of the need to climb around dirty diapers and cans of cat food. In the photo, this woman is holding her hands out, as if to ask why, and her face is splattered in blood.

Actually, I'm not the only one in a Colorado dumpster today. My two children and a friend, Tim, a geologist and dumpster-diving guru, are also in the stinky mess, tossing cans over the side, winging them high up so they can arc down with a tinkling clatter. We love dumpster diving anyway, but today is particularly perfect: We've found lots of huge bags of pop cans, aluminum doors from a construction site, and several pieces of aluminum tubing.

"Aluminum Day," my son declares it, and it wasn't until recently that I understood what this meant, or how important it was.

Aluminum is a funky material: It's the most abundant metal in the Earth's crust, its symbol is Al, its atomic number is 13. But the most important thing to know is this: Aluminum is too chemically reactive to occur in nature as the free metal, and so it gets "locked in" with other elements, especially bauxite ore. And it takes an incredible amount of energy to break those bonds and free it up.

Which means, basically, that when you hold an aluminum can in your hand, you're holding a lot more than the element. You're holding a bit of a strip mine and accompanying tailings piles, a power plant, and a smelter. You're also holding bits of boats and trucks and trains and the fuel required for the transportation, not to mention the aluminum-can and soda-making factories. And perhaps most importantly of all, there is the human and cultural cost -- for example, the Odivosis peoples in Orissa, a state in Eastern India that is rich in mineral deposits but poor in honoring the rights of indigenous peoples, who suffer at the hands of mining companies. A group of peaceable Odivosis women who were protesting a Canadian bauxite mine in their back yard recently got beaten up -- hence the bloody picture, and hence my sorrow at seeing aluminum cans in the trash. 

But oh, how I hate the preachy and judgmental types. So I'll stick to the numbers: While digging out beer cans from the dumpster (which sits exactly two feet from a recycling bin), Tim and I consider the facts. Recycled cans take 95 percent less energy than aluminum obtained from bauxite. About 30 aluminum cans are produced from one pound of aluminum, and each aluminum can requires about 3000 BTUs to produce it. So, Tim tells me, every two or three cans we recycle basically saves one pound of coal.

All this sounds complicated, but it's not. Not when you look up at the sky and consider what three cans means in the bigger picture of a clean and pure sky.

After digging in the dumpster to retrieve metal that other people have thrown away, my son declares that it's "Metal Run Time." He determines this by looking at the enormous heap of various sorts of metals Tim has piled in his backyard.

In fact, we are overdue -- there is so much metal here that we have to load up his rickety old flatbed trailer and my old pickup truck, and still the vehicles are overflowing with chunks of metal. Our vehicles look like two crazy robots driving down the street, with arms and legs sticking monstrously out, threatening to attack the normal cars that dare to come near.

On the way to the recycling center, my kids chatter on about metals and the prices they bring, which proves that they are already smarter than me (and also sweeter and goofier, as when they say things like, "Mom, you're the best mom, because if you suddenly die, we know how to live out of dumpsters!").

The dirty and work-worn guys at the metal place chuckle and wave as we drive in. They know us by now and they think we're weird. But they like to chat with my kids and show them various interesting machines (the can crusher) or sights (the smashed vehicle, the huge bundled squares of flattened cans).

Tim and the guys start unloading metal, chatting about the weather, and haggling over the purity of certain items. All this will take a while, I know. I spot a canister of "Sidewalk Chalk" on the floor of Tim's car (something he's no doubt retrieved from a dumpster as well), and the kids and I sit down on the blacktop to draw. We draw pictures of the earth and sun and stars and comets and shooting stars -- we draw and draw until we've got an entire universe. It looks healthy and bright and beautiful. While we draw, we listen: the roar of the can-crushing machine, the beeping of trucks backing up, men yelling to each other, Tim haggling over the price of clean copper. 

Finally, the workers are done: We have 108 pounds of cans (that's about 3,215 of those babies), 400 pounds of scrap aluminum, 10 pounds of clean and dirty copper, 174 pounds of radiators (aluminum/copper mixed), 116 pounds of insulated wire, 26 pounds of #1 single wire, 25 pounds of soft lead, 23 pounds of stainless steel, 30 pounds of yellow brass, and a bunch of batteries.

Assuming that the aluminum would be produced by a coal-fired power system, we have saved 18,000 pounds (nine tons) of carbon dioxide from being released into the air. That's 56 million BTUs. Add to that the copper -- about 175 pounds -- which saves another 10 million BTUs (and an additional 3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from being emitted). And we're just talking about the aluminum and copper here; we're not even talking about how much earth would have been stripped, processed, and laid waste in a tailings pile left to further pollute.

On top of this, my kids are holding their first hundred-dollar bill, which they're looking at with reverence and awe. Compared to their lemonade stands, this diving business is the better deal.

While they ponder the money, Tim and I look at the drawings of the earth and the universe. "One ton of aluminum produced from bauxite consumes the energy equivalent of 356 barrels of oil," Tim says sweetly, with a touch of sadness in his voice. "That's 197 million BTUs. One pound of coal produced from an average strip mine in Wyoming can produce about 7500 BTUs. A pound of coal burned produces about 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas . ..."

On he goes, and some of what he says blurs in my mind, like the edges of our chalk drawing. But enough stays clear: the woman's face, the knowledge that metal needs to be recycled.

Before we load up and go home, Tim suggests we go diving next Sunday again. Everyone lets out a loud cheer, and so does a mountainside and the sky. At least I like to think so; that's the real treasure here. I glance at our picture of the universe on blacktop and wink at the world. I tell you, it's enough to keep the heart happy.