Local Garbage in a Global Controversy

This page authored by Angie Gumm, Friends University, based on my dissertation, "Waste, Energy, and the Crisis of Confidence: The American People and the History of Resource Recovery from 1965 to 2001"
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Initial Publication Date: March 20, 2013 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


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.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Students should get a feel for how complex it is to shape environmental policy. Ideological entrenchment has not proven helpful in creating environmentally sound or just solid waste handling solutions. Opposing sides unable to reach an agreement often ship their garbage off to some other, distant location. By helping students see different sides of an issue, hopefully they will learn to empathize and cooperate with others, who often also believe they are doing what is best for their community and the environment. They will also become familiar with concepts of risk, which are often problematic to the general population today. (How should risks be assessed? How much risk is acceptable? Why do scientists have different opinions on levels of acceptable risk?)

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'm currently developing this activity for gifted high school students in a week-long summer course called "The History, Present, and Future of Garbage." It is similar to the Reacting to the Past Role Playing Games for college students, however. It would need a minimum class of 11 students probably (two to represent each of the four factions and three community members to vote). It would be ideal to have up to four members on each faction and 5-7 community members. In the summer course students will have three days to prepare and one full day of debate, followed by a half-a-day post-mortem discussion. In a college course, I think one week to prepare, two weeks to debate, and a one-class post-mortem would be a good amount of time, making it 10-class hours. Teachers/professors would need to have packets of information with primary sources reflecting the views and concerns of the different groups. Waste management is something everyone can relate to fairly easily. I don't think most students at the college level would need any special skills or concepts before starting. This will be the main focus of my summer course, but in a semester-length course on garbage syllabus, I situated a debate like this just after the half-way mark.

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

I have the description in the first hand out. Local Garbage in a Global Controversy (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 24kB Mar17 13)
“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)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The activity can be pretty flexible to adjust to your time and needs. I think it does work nice to have students give two speeches because it keeps them involved. Depending on what subject this is for, you might emphasize different readings.


The amount of class discussion and question asking would be the best way to assess.

References and Resources

I got the idea from the Reacting to the Past Role-Playing Games, but it is nowhere near as detailed or in-depth as those games.