Talking Trash

Attention junior-high teachers: have we got a deal for you. Teach your kids about the environment with a cutting-edge educational program - a multimedia extravaganza complete with color slideshow, interactive software that features color graphics and hands-on activities galore. And best of all, it's free, and it comes with the U.S. government's stamp of approval.

It's called WasteWorld. "The kids really responded well to it," enthuses Diane Pirello, a junior-high teacher in Beloit, Wisconsin - just one of WasteWorld's scholastic supporters.

Here's how WasteWorld works. Students pretend to be citizens of WasteWorld, a fictional community that has to choose between various waste disposal options: recycling, landfilling or incineration, or some combination of the three. They carry out various exercises that explain what happens to trash after the trucks take it away. The climax comes when the students enter their choices into the software program, which then sets forth the consequences for their simulated community.

WasteWorld positively bristles with facts on trash. But those facts deserve closer scrutiny, particularly the author's name and hidden agenda. Both are entirely omitted from this painstakingly thorough program.

The U.S. Department of Energy sponsors WasteWorld and underwrote its development and production costs. Agency officials contacted for this story, however, could not even answer basic questions about WasteWorld. Such questions are instead referred to a private organization called the Integrated Waste Services Association, or IWSA. Who is IWSA? "IWSA represents companies that build and operate waste-to- energy (WTE) facilities," notes a brochure, "as part of a community's integrated solid waste plans." Waste-to- energy is the term by which the U.S. incinerator industry likes to be known.

Margaret Ann Charles, IWSA spokeswoman and overseer of the WasteWorld project, denies any hint of partiality toward the industry she represents. "I don't want to bias the program toward waste-to-energy," she insists. "The program is about integrated waste management." Oddly, IWSA's commitment to avoiding bias extends to environmental groups - most of whom are skeptical about the merits of incineration. Not even the most moderate of incineration critics, the Environmental Defense Fund, has been invited into the review process. "If they don't believe in an integrated system, I don't see the point in asking their opinion," says Charles.

 Charles' "integrated system" refers to the concept of "integrated waste management." Under the Bush Administration, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency endorsed this concept, which holds that community waste disposal plans should "integrate" a combination of approaches. But the Bush Administration ruled incineration to be an essential element of any "integrated" plan. So integrated waste management is by definition pro-incineration.

This thinly-veiled advocacy of incineration is mirrored in WasteWorld. If a student enters into the software program a waste management plan that excludes incineration, the response comes back: "energy experts are upset" and "no one is too happy with this choice." No environmental or economic arguments are cited against trash-burning, in contrast to the many such arguments delivered in the real world.

The slide show also gives kids a through-the-looking-glass picture of waste management. For example, it explains that "leftover ash ... is taken to special landfills designed to safely manage the ash," referring no doubt to monofills, landfills that take only incinerator ash. But a study by the New York-based research group INFORM Inc. surveyed a number of state-of-the-art incinerators and found that about half dump their ash in regular solid waste landfills.

The slide show also asks the following rhetorical question: "Are landfills environmentally friendly?" The answer, "Yes - modern landfills protect our underground water supplies," could have been scripted by the industry itself. Statements like these, which stretch the truth or ignore areas of serious disagreement, litter WasteWorld like candy-wrappers outside a convenience store.

It's a WasteWorld world

WasteWorld is now used in schools across the country, apparently raising no alarm bells among teachers or students. After pilot-testing WasteWorld at over 500 schools during the 1993- 94 school year, IWSA formed a peer review committee composed strictly of teachers. Outside critics of the incinerator industry were locked out just as before. Nonetheless, the teachers reported back that WasteWorld "slants [the] picture of WTE as [a] better solution than it is," according to an update report from IWSA to the Department of Energy.

Charles does not seem to have heard this complaint. Her list of revisions only nibbles away at the margins: format the software for IBM-PCs, say a bit more about source reduction, and so on. In early 1995, the Department of Energy is expected to approve nationwide distribution for the next school year, revisions or no revisions.

Materials that advocate some viewpoint can play a valuable role in the educational process if, as suggests Ed McCrea, Executive Director of the North American Association for Environmental Education, they are "clearly labelled as such in the opening." No warning label appears in the opening to WasteWorld. In fact, IWSA's very name appears nowhere in WasteWorld but a tiny copyright notice.

Even worse, critical viewpoints have all been silenced. Rather than explore opposing arguments and conflicting pieces of evidence, as any program deserving of the adjective "educational" would, IWSA excludes any voices that disagree with its own. WasteWorld worships only one god - and it is a noxious god of fire.

- Tom Hilliard