Recycling Super Heroes
Photo: A bail of #1 Plastics at the Local Recycling Center
This is a critique of Graphic Library’s “Engineering an Awesome Recycling Center with Max Axiom, Super Scientist.”
Before they started paying me to pick up garbage, they paid me to catalog books. I have kept in touch with some people who still do. When they came across a copy of Graphic Library’s “Engineering an Awesome Recycling Center with Max Axiom Super Scientist” by Nikole Brooks Bethea, they knew that I would want to see it.
I have spent the last nineteen years or so helping to move garbage and recycling off a small university campus, and I do appreciate anybody trying to teach people that garbage is bad and recycling is good. As a child, I collected comics with the best of them, so I know the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book. Also, I believe both of them have a valued use as a crossover medium between literature and graphic arts. In fact, one of my early poems has a line about all my “heroes come from comic books.”
Like any form of storytelling, graphic novels and comic books do not subscribe totally to reality, but I spent many years learning to analyze literature for an English degree. It took me a bit to understand why I started laughing out loud when I reached page seven. It was Max Axiom’s definition of the problem in his outline of the engineering process that made me laugh.
The basic story line of the piece is that Max gets a message from the mayor, “Help! The city’s landfill is filling up quickly.” He zooms off to check out the landfill and see it in action. He explains to Will, the solid waste manager, how the engineering process works and what engineers do. “They create things that help people and change the world around them.” They use “what they know about science, math, and people to consider and compare many possible solutions.”
He comes to the conclusion that “Our problem is the landfill is running out of space.” For an engineer that might be the problem, but he is a little too reliant on the science and math. He has forgotten what he knows about people and there for fails to come up with the right problem to start his engineering process. The real problem is that there are too many people making too much garbage. It is possible that for the sake of the story, he decides to bury the core problem of people making too much garbage because he knows that it cannot be solved. But as the old programmer’s axiom goes, “garbage in, garbage out” (no pun intended).
Max starts with the wrong problem so this may be why he goes wrong in his information gathering process. He speaks with the mayor, solid waste and recycling managers, with a little nod to the engineers who do the building and inspections of the new recycling facility. But he does not talk to the people who operate all the equipment to make the solid waste/recycling process work. The people who drive the recycling trucks, the operators of the track and wheel loaders, the people who clean and sort recyclables even with a wonderful sorting machine. These are the people who have to clean and repair and maintain and operate it. The food and biological contamination in recycling is pretty bad, especially at central drop off points without monitoring.
Max does not talk to any of these people. They would tell him that it is not the landfill filling up too quickly. It is people making too much garbage that is the problem. And all this equipment that makes the process easier, possible even, takes its toll. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, being a solid waste/recycling collector in 2011 was the seventh most dangerous job in America for deaths per hundred thousand. It became number five in 2013. People die out there in the trash world, and the people who actually do the job will tell you it is a losing battle. The hole in the ground is going to get full and you are just going to have to get another one no matter how you slow the process with recycling.
There is a point in the story while the mayor, Max, and the solid waste manager are looking for options. She points out that “the city council doesn’t want to upset citizens.” In this instance she is nixing the building of an incinerator to burn the garbage. But I think the citizens will be upset with the millions of dollars spent on building and maintaining a recycling program as well as a solid waste program. They will certainly grumble about having to sort their garbage. I thing the original call for help should have been to ask Max how to finance a new recycling center. In the world of this story, funding is never discussed, and building an awesome recycling center costs nothing to make it happen. I believe that selling recycling product covers the cost is implied in super scientist world. However shipping out material these days eats most of the profit. The only way recycling centers survive is by government subsidies. The big sorting and recovery plants are where the profit may lie. That will be even more so with single stream or co-mingle recycling. Co-mingle may well cut out the middle person in the solid waste flow.
At the end of this graphic novel, there is so much recycling that they may have to build a larger recycling center. If this town is anything like the place I work, they will be waiting for a new building in fifteen years like we are.
There is a “more about” section in the back of this book also. It has a small blurb about a statistic from 2010 which says that Americans generated about 250 tons of trash and recycled about 85 tons of that making a thirty-four percent recovery rate. I do not know where this statistic came from, but the organization I work for generates 400 tons of trash a year and recovers about forty-eight percent of that. So I question how much trash America really generated for that year.
I do not want it to seem that I am totally disenchanted with “Engineering and Awesome Recycling Center”. I like it very much! It is a good starting place to learn that recycling is good and garbage is bad. There are a couple of panels that are just too real not to be appreciated. When Max is at the city landfill, in the back ground there are piles of trash with track-loads moving it. With a few little strokes of black ink above the piles, there are flocks of birds. That is just a beautiful touch that most people would not put in. It brings the dump alive. I wish that people could smell the methane coming out of the ground also.
Maybe this line of work all boils down to tilting at windmills, yet you have to remember, my heroes all come from comic books. I hope someday, some kid will pick up a copy of this book and say “Hey!” That is what I want to be when I grow up.” Until somebody addresses the central problem of too many people making too much garbage, somebody is going to need to operate those recycling trucks and front-end loaders.
First published through triod.com, 2015
This book review was written to keep me writing and publishing through an on-line clearing house of materials which was supposed to make me a couple of dollars. It didn’t. However, it did keep me going until I was distracted by the continuing horrors of the American election of 2016.
Photo: AL-foil bail at the Local Recycling Center.