The Universe on Blacktop

A family dumpster-dives for cash and satisfaction.

  • Coutresy Tim Vaughan
  • Coutresy Laura Pritchett
  • Coutresy Laura Pritchett
  • Coutresy Laura Pritchett
  • Coutresy Laura Pritchett

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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.

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