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Monday, Aug. 11, 2008 08:58 am

Messages in bottles

Kids hope to float environmental theme in state-fair parade

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At least one float in tonight's Illinois State Fair parade is going to look like trash. I know, because I saw it Monday afternoon. Designed to suggest a state capitol building, it consists of two main parts — a basic boxy structure and a dome. When I stopped by to see it, the boxy base was on a trailer parked in somebody's driveway, and the dome was perched atop a mound of detritus inside the garage. The designers were in the back yard, busily touching up paint on banners, masks, and costumes meant to enhance and accessorize the float. Still, no matter how many embellishments they add, this float is still going to look like garbage.

At least to most people.

And that's fine with the designers, because, well, that's kind of their point.

The float is made of plastic water and soda-pop bottles — the kind most people thoughtlessly toss every day. The kids who constructed this crude capitol used exactly 1,000 plastic bottles because that's the number thrown away in Springfield every hour of every day. About 10 percent of those are recycled — represented on the float by 100 green plastic bottles used to form the dome.

When you see it, you'll find yourself struggling to avoid the obvious math problems that bubble unbidden into your brain: If that's one hour's worth of water bottles, what would a day's worth look like? A week's worth? A year's worth? What about all the other categories of trash besides plastic bottles?

And, furthermore, who invited these buzz-killer kids to participate in our annual ambling homage to the state's festival of fried food on a stick anyway?

"We'll be playing happy music, so it's not going to be a downer in any way — we hope," says Meg Schanke, the kids' adult leader, "although," she adds, "everybody who sees it goes, 'Oh my God!' "

The idea was hatched at the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation — a church that warmly welcomes people of all faiths and religious traditions, as long as they don't use Styrofoam. The ALUUC "green-sanctuary committee" recently took a break from installing low-E film on the church's many windows to join the high-school youth group for a screening of An Inconvenient Truth. Sometime after that, youth leader Schanke floated the notion of building the congregation's first-ever state-fair float, and the water-bottle monstrosity was born.

To gather the bottles, the kids went to Lake Area Disposal's recycling center (just behind Kicks on South Sixth Street) and dived into the plastics Dumpster, carefully selecting and counting 900 clear bottles and 100 green ones.

"It was gross," says Mallory Mattimore-Malan, a 17-year-old senior at Springfield High School. "It was really hot that day — in the nineties, I'd say. It was kind of smelly."

The bottles ended up at her house, where ALUUC kids used letter openers to help remove labels from all 1,000 plastic containers. Then, Mallory says, they dumped all of the bottles on her front yard and began discussing what to construct with these funny building blocks.

Suggestions included a house, a tree, a money sign, and a clock or hourglass to signal that the earth is running out of time. Ultimately, they decided on a capitol building.

Is it the old one or the new one? The float's not that detailed, but I'm guessing the kids drew their inspiration from the smaller Old State Capitol, because it has been recycled into a tourist attraction.

The ALUUC kids built the float on an old trailer Mallory's family had used to haul luggage on family trips (Mallory is the youngest of five daughters). They're pondering propelling it with pedal power, and the trailer was hitched to an old blue bicycle when I saw it on Monday afternoon. It's a toss-up between the bike and a borrowed hybrid, according to Mallory's dad, John Malan, who would be one of the designated pedal-pushers.

"It kind of depends on the hills," he says, mentioning that any sudden stops could jolt the float, resulting in a very un-green littering problem. He's leaning toward the two-wheeled option anyway. "It just adds so much to the whole thing," he says.

Helping pull the float — symbolically, at least — will be papier-mâché birds and a big Mother Earth puppet. "It symbolizes the animals and the earth carrying the weight of what's happening to the planet," says 14-year-old Melinda Schnake, who helped build the float.

They hope to distribute candy and reusable shopping bags donated by local merchants. Unlike other parade participants, though, the kids with this trashy float will not only be passing out goodies but also taking some of the spectators' stuff. They will be pulling several large recycling bins along the parade route in which to collect — you guessed it — empty plastic bottles.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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