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Buried in Cups

I eat a lot of yogurt, and the plastic-cup containers keep piling up. A while ago I decided it was time to get rid of them, and thought of a few ways I could put them to use:

I could stage a demonstration to shame the yogurt industry into doing something about the billions of throwaway cups they crank out each year. I’d ship the cups to France and unload them on the dock, then pour (biodegradable) corn syrup over the pile and roll it into a huge ball. I’d roll the ball through the countryside to Paris, adding more cups in towns along the way, and park it right in front of Dannon Yogurt Corp. World Headquarters, the very heart of the yogurt industry. Then I’d notify the media, put on a t-shirt that says "Dear yogurt companies: what am I supposed to do with all this garbage?!" and corn syrup myself to the ball so Dannon’s hired thugs couldn’t drag me away.

(I field tested this idea in my back yard this past summer. It was obvious the real event would have to take place in warm weather for the corn syrup to dry and form a rigid ball. The problem, I soon discovered, is that warm weather is usually accompanied by swarms of insects, and most of them seem to have a taste for corn syrup. Within a half hour of gluing myself to the six foot diameter test ball, I was covered in ants, bees, flies, mosquitoes, ticks and wasps, all of them biting and stinging as they tried to escape the still-sticky goo. I was in so much pain and itching so badly by then that I had to yell out for my girlfriend, Samantha, to bring some Benadryl and aspirin. By the time I’d taken enough pills to find relief, I was so drowsy I insisted on staying glued to the ball overnight— the real event might last for days, after all. This turned out to be a near fatal mistake, as I soon fell asleep and, totally sedated, slid to the grass and rolled under the ball. In the morning I woke up choking, with my hair stuck to the ball and my face shoved into the wet grass, barely able to breathe. Fortunately, Samantha heard my feeble screams and rescued me. Unfortunately, she had to cut off all my hair to free me from the syrup ball, and I’ve found out over the years that the strength of her sexual passion climbs in direct proportion to the length of my hair. I’ve heard that used plastic can be spun into fibers; I wonder if they can make wigs from the fibers?)

I could build the next best thing to a perpetual motion machine: a yogurt cup water wheel. The wheel— made of thousands of cups bonded together with titanium rivets and spokes like a Ferris wheel— would be so lightweight it could generate power when dipped in any moving water source, say when attached to the side of a riverboat cruising up the Hudson from New York.

(It’s sad, but the yogurt companies don’t seem interested in ideas that could lead to a completely closed ecological loop for the industry where, e.g., power from yogurt cup water wheels could run milking machines at yogurt dairies, and run "grow lights" in the huge caverns where they raise "live yogurt cultures." According to the best estimates, these lights now use more electricity than all the clandestine indoor marijuana plantations in the world combined.)

Of course the wheel wouldn’t generate enough power to propel the boat, because that would make the boat a perpetual motion machine, which is impossible. But if the wheel was augmented with a football field-sized raft full of solar cells dragged behind the boat, and there wasn’t too strong a headwind, it could provide enough power to run the boat’s bilge pumps, sound system and maybe some festive lights strung above the deck.

I was testing this idea with a scaled down version of the wheel in a nearby industrial canal when I noticed a few problems:

First, the titanium rivets seemed to have a bad reaction to something in the water, so every so often one would heat up to a hot orange color, then explode like a kernel of popcorn. Note this problem may be isolated to the canal and not be a factor on the Hudson, unless the boat runs in shallow water where the titanium could come in contact with PCBs and other toxins bubbling up from the mud. I’ve sent letters outlining the problem to the research labs of Alcoa Corp. (the titanium) and G.E. (the Hudson), but have yet to receive a response.

Second, the rivets turn out to be much stronger than the yogurt cups, which were constantly being ripped from the wheel, even by the sludge-slowed current of the canal. This could turn out to be a more difficult problem than the reactive titanium, because I would have to replace the cups at the same rate they’re lost, and though I love yogurt, I don’t know if I could stand to eat one after another all day long. So I’ve sent letters to all the big yogurt companies in the hope that the experts can solve this problem— maybe they could reinforce the cups with titanium?

(Then again maybe that’s not such a great idea, because to recover the valuable titanium without burning the plastic and creating a toxic cloud, they’d probably have to genetically engineer titanium-eating super bacteria, then figure out how to pump their stomachs afterwards. And if the bacteria escaped from the dump and dug their way downtown, pretty soon they’d be chewing away at the titanium alloy bolts that anchor high rise buildings to bedrock, and all hell would break loose. Not to mention that the titanium is the good part, and what you really want the bacteria to eat is the worthless yogurt cup, to convert it into something benign like dirt. But for some reason science, which launches rockets so accurate they can crash into the surface of Mars like it was the side of a barn, has so far failed to convince any kind of hungry, mindless microorganism to eat yogurt cups.)

I could use them to build a mammoth tomb. Though advances in the biological sciences and health care may extend my lifespan, someday I will die. That galls me because, from what I’ve read, if I could just hold on for another hundred years or so, I could have eternal life.

(By way of inevitable advances in technology and computer science, someday everyone will be able to live forever— without the effort and suspension of disbelief required by religious schemes, or the painful injections required by schemes based on the blood and hormones of virgins— inside the memory of a stupendously large and powerful computer. The computer will get the electricity it needs to grow and run forever by burning the whole universe— all the stars, planets, etc.— in its power plant. It’s true that this "forever" is not really eternal, because one day the last planet will be thrown on the fire, and soon after that the lights will go out for good. But by then, with everyone having sat around inside the computer for untold eons, it will have seemed like forever, which is equivalent in human terms.)

And what galls me even more than dying is the certainty that the yogurt cups will outlast me. Where the food they contain vanishes in a few seconds, and mere mortals like us have to face the idea of "ashes to ashes, and dust to dust," these worthless cups get to live forever.

Since I can’t beat them, I plan to join the cups in eternity by using them to build the largest pyramid/tomb the world has ever seen, based on the design of the tallest pyramid on earth, the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas. Note that the actual burial chamber in my pyramid will be located at about the same position the Pharaoh’s Pheast Buffet occupies in the Luxor.

(I found out later that my research on this was faulty. It turns out that the "great" pyramids in Egypt are taller, at about 480 feet to the Luxor’s 350. But the Luxor’s pyramid can accommodate thousands of guests, while each so-called "great" pyramid was built to house just one guest, plus slaves, and not one of them has air conditioning.)

The batteries on my calculator died (and when I asked if we had any more, Samantha muttered what sounded like "how the hell should I know, Mr. Clean?" from the sofa, where she’d been drinking beer and watching infomercials all morning), so I couldn’t get an accurate figure on the number of yogurt cups the project requires, but it’s safe to say it’s in the millions, if not billions. Not to mention the thousands of tons of sand ballast needed to keep the cups from blowing away, and the tons of adhesive needed to keep the top layer of sand from blowing away. Again, there’s no way I can eat that much yogurt, short of eternal life. So I planned to start small— I have enough cups in my basement to build a 17 foot high pyramid— and rely on donations to complete the project. But then I made a few calls to waste disposal executives, in cities where yogurt cups are picked up with other supposedly recyclable plastics, and found out they’d be willing to pay me to take their stockpiles of yogurt cups.

So I went ahead and purchased a 100 acre site 65 miles north of Las Vegas, right next to the old nuclear test site and the proposed national nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. A railroad spur abuts the site, and there’s plenty of sand nearby. Pretty soon trains from around the country will be delivering nuclear waste, and there’s no reason they couldn’t carry the yogurt cups too.

I filed plans with the county land use board last week, and locals like Gerhard and Hilda Studer, who run a gas station on nearby Jackass Flats Road, are excited about the jobs and tourism the project will bring. An old prospector named Willie, who lives in a shack a few hundred yards into the scrub brush behind the Studer’s station, has volunteered his mules, Annabelle and Otis Jr., to pull the winch line we’ll need to haul cups and sand up the face of the pyramid.

In fact there’s so much enthusiasm for this project that I see no reason to stop at 350, or even 480 feet. As far as I’m concerned, we can keep piling on cups till we reach the sky, so that millennia from now— long after the last neon light in Las Vegas has flickered and died, and Nevada has reverted to an irradiated slag heap populated by a few burrowing insects— the pyramid will serve as a beacon, enticing scientists and tourists from passing space ships to descend to the surface. There they can puzzle over the relationship between the images of fruit on the yogurt cups, and the ones on the carcasses of slot machines scattered across the landscape, blinking in the sun, their luck run out.

My one disappointment is my failure to convince Samantha to come with me to Nevada right away. She doesn’t seem very interested in the idea of a monument built for the ages (even though I’ve made it clear that a spot in the burial chamber is reserved for her), and says she’d rather wait till winter to go, when the desert heat will seem like a good idea. But I’ve found her gazing out the window a lot lately, and I’m not sure what’s really on her mind.

Meanwhile life goes on. As I pull out of the driveway in the rental truck with the cups from the basement, headed for Interstate 80 and Nevada, I see our new neighbor Julio, an out of work carpenter, diligently raking leaves in his front yard. I rub the stubble on my head, smile and wave, and note the way his long, golden hair catches the receding October light, then turn my attention back to the road.


Kurt Strahm

Kurt Strahm lives in Greenpoint.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 03-JAN 04

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