Local Garbage in a Global Controversy
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This activity will use the 2001 debate between biologist and environmental activist Barry Commoner and Iowa State University engineering professor Robert Brown about the Ames (Iowa) Resource Recovery Plant. Students will use this case study to understand the arguments of four different groups involved in the debate: the local engineers and public works employees who created the plant and had kept it operational for 25-years; the academic engineering community and the EPA; Barry Commoner and the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation; and the Nunavut Inuit, who were found to have high levels of dioxins, largely blamed by Commoner on the Ames plant. They will all be provided with the same packets of information, which they will have to mine for materials to argue their points. Other students will play local community members trying to weigh the words of the experts, their personal interests (e.g. property values and the health of their families) and their varying degrees of desire to be good stewards of the environment and their concern for the Nunavut Inuit.
Students will develop analytical skills by searching through primary sources for information to support their arguments. They also will develop written and oral communication skills by drafting and presenting their arguments and debating positions with their classmates.
This issue deals heavily with environmental justice issues, especially concerning the extent that the dioxins from the Ames resource recovery plant are responsible for the cancer surge of the Nunavut Inuit. This is not a case of corporate greed or community selfishness. The people of Ames took great pride in their environmental stewardship and the conservation of farmland, which they saw as a result of their resource recovery plant. Unlike many large cities, which handled garbage often times by shipping it somewhere else, Ames handled their garbage locally. Students will have to think about the most just way to handle MSW. There is quite a large geoscience component because students can evaluate the reports of the two scientists and consider issues relating to objectivity and risk assessment.
Context for Use
I think the Ames example could be transferrable to a lot of settings; although, nearly every location would have some kind of garbage debate students could study. Ames is so special because out of hundreds of resource recovery plants built in the 1970s (where recyclable materials are extracted and the rest is converted into energy), it was the only one that lasted for more than about a decade. The town took great pride and spent a great deal of money (at some points ten times the national average) for what they believed (and what many others had believed) was the most environmentally responsible way to handle waste. Then a famous environmental activist accuses them of causing cancer in people in the Arctic Circle. It has a lot of unique elements that could interest students in and out of the Midwest.
Description and Teaching Materials
“The Ames Anomaly: How ‘A Small Town with a Pretty Big Idea’ Came to Have the Only Resource Recovery Plant in the Country,” The Annals of Iowa, Fall 2011 (Acrobat (PDF) 2.2MB Mar17 13)
Ames Debate Bibliography (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Mar17 13)