Dumpster Dive

(This column was first published in the April 27, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Normally I would pass up this kind of opportunity.

    I was surrounded by refuse through which dozens of young men and women were rummaging. They would dig out a bag, open it and sort through the conglomeration it released to separate paper, corrugated cardboard, and what they called "commingled," their technical name for glass, metal and plastic. Those materials went into big labeled containers, the rest tossed back into the dumpster from which it had been emptied earlier.

    As if the putrid smell wasn't bad enough, the steady rain was rapidly soaking their protective white coveralls, sopping their gloves and streaking their goggles. But through it all they remained in good spirits, laughing and calling out to one another as they came across particularly obnoxious materials.

    These were dedicated kids. They were participating in the University at Buffalo's "Dumpster Dive," a demonstration of how much more material could -- and should -- be recycled. I wish I could name them all because they certainly deserve our admiration and respect for undertaking this project. Here at least are the undergraduates who organized this operation with the help of University Energy Conservation Officer Walter Simpson -- Erin Cala, Meghan Fay, Jodi Freilich, Rob Horvath, Randi Mail, and Rob Nash.

    The university is already a national leader in energy conservation, a recent study indicating savings to taxpayers of a remarkable $9,000,000 per year. Now these students are spearheading a campaign to raise campus trash recycling from a good 30 percent to their target of 50 percent.

    As I stood watching this activity, I thought of two events out of the past.

    First, my mind turned back 52 years. I was watch officer on a navy ship moored to a pier in Naples. The harbor was blocked by sunken ships and the city was half destroyed by earlier World War II battles. A message came to the quarterdeck that a civilian had climbed aboard over the fantail. I walked back to see if I could find him.

    It didn't take long. He had squeezed into our unlighted incinerator. Frightened by my approach, he climbed out, vaulted over a bulwark, shinnied down a hawser and ran off, carrying his burlap bag half filled with our discarded table scraps.

    Then I thought of a Bill Mauldin cartoon, not one of his Willy and Joe wartime features but a later political drawing. In it he pictured a group of cigar smoking business tycoons standing before a board room picture window through which you could see a factory belching smoke and dumping a stream of tar into a river. Above the factory stood a billboard announcing that we would be overwhelmed with pollution in 30 years. One of the tycoons turned to a colleague to say, "Gosh, for a minute I thought it said three years."

    The lessons of those memories are clear. Although some of us are especially fortunate, there are still millions whose level of existence is like that garbage thief -- many of them even in this country. Meanwhile we are fouling our own nest. We need only drive past those mountains of garbage in Tonawanda and Niagara Falls to see how serious our problems are.

    These university students are showing the rest of us the way, not just their campus colleagues but every one of us. I find my experience that rainy morning embarrassing. Should not we adults be setting appropriate standards for our young people? Of course we should.

    But since we aren't, I hope that we can be guided by their lead. The least we can do is separate our own trash conscientiously and without complaint.