Reincarnation of Stuff

Paula LaBrot

In the jungle of northern Panama, a shocking image seared into my psyche. I came upon a slashed clearing in the pristine greenery crammed with mountains of black plastic garbage bags. On top of the bags were dozens of vultures, ripping them open and feeding on the garbage. It was profoundly sickening. It’s not like I had never seen a dump before. But in the context of an emerging culture, it was a heavyweight hit, a vivid illustration of the consequences of consumption.

What is the future of waste in this ever more consuming world?

Way back in the day, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had middens—pits and mounds where bones, broken pottery, charcoal and other waste were buried. Early landfills. We never stopped using landfills. Use it, toss it, bury it. Humans, also, burn their waste. Unfortunately, the methodology of “linear” waste management produces toxins that get into our water and air.

Waste management of the future will shoot for a “circular” methodology. This means putting waste to use as energy or other positive products. The plan ahead aims for “zero waste.” You have to love the perfectionists.

Now, it’s one thing to paw through your own garbage looking for that thing you accidentally threw away. It’s quite another thing to paw through other peoples’ hideous discards. So, who is going to be processing all the future waste? The answer is so cool. Robots! They are doing it now; the future is here. Robots are hard at work, not in waste treatment centers, but in “waste factories.”

In a waste factory, a kind of reincarnation center, different types of garbage are processed; mixed waste, organic waste and paper waste. A problematic part of the mixed waste is electronic junk, for which I am adding its own category. Working remotely, a human in a nice, air-conditioned office oversees the intrepid robots as they sort the garbage and route it to its proper treatment machinery. Each type of garbage will find its way back into society as fuel, fertilizer or other useful materials and objects.

At the source, waste managers from individuals to large corporations create separate streams for each type of waste. These streams transport the material to specialized centers where waste is processed back into useful products. One factory may use an old coal technology called the Ball Mill which pulverizes material. One by-product of this process called “flock” can provide the same energy as coal.

Another type of waste may be sent to tanks filled with epicurean microbes, who lunch happily for three weeks on 35 tons of gourmet garbage, finally producing a dessert cake used as soil conditioner, and methane which powers the machinery.

Paper makes up 35 percent of landfill garbage. Recycling one ton of copy paper saves two tons of wood.

One of the most odious members of the electronic waste group are batteries. They can be really toxic, as can be a lot of rubbish in this category. No problem for the robots; they work around the clock, separating and reclaiming metals and chemicals from those batteries that corrode and leach into ground water when thrown into a landfill. The robots never get sick from being exposed to such toxic materials.

In the future, collection will be different. Pneumatic systems will suck the garbage right out of your house. Sensors will analyze it and keep records of your waste…another privacy loss there. Waste centers remotely run by humans and staffed by robots will “handle” everything. No trucks necessary. Hey, when was the last time you saw a garbage man actually touch your bucket?

Just one thing though. I don’t believe there is one Topangan who would truly trust an electronic system to work 100 percent of the time. While husband, George, would love not to drag our buckets to the street each week, we who live with a regular phone, internet and television outages, are a cynical lot. What happens when the pneumatic system hits a power outage? Hey! Would we be open to a new type of cyber warfare, Rubbish Interruptus? Attacks? Always have plan B .

Did you know there is trafficking in garbage?  Europe imports cheap goods from China and the ships that bring that stuff in take Europe’s waste back, often illegally. With 97 percent of the population growth to 2050 predicted to happen in Asia and Africa, a lot of people are going to be competing for space with…garbage?  

Viva education!! We have to encourage emerging cultures to help prevent open landfills where vultures feast on new consumerism. One can only hope that emerging circular methodologies of waste management will keep pace with the population explosions.

World connectivity through the internet is the main hope of the environmental movement on this issue. The technology is there, and getting more exciting every day.

Meanwhile, be the change you want for this planet. It starts with…you!

Vamos a ver!


Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace.

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