Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A rough sketch of the future of recycling

When I was a young man, I read the following statistic: Every year, Americans throw away enough aluminum cans to to build the entire fleet of commercial aircraft in existence today.

Reading that passage made a lasting impression on me. For much of my life, I've been thinking of recycling and how I use what I buy. I think about the consequences of breaking something. For example, I drop a glass, it breaks, I clean up the mess and throw the shards away. I go to Ikea to buy another glass to match what I already have. With that purchase, the computer records the purchase as demand. That pulls a string to ask someone to send another glass. That pulls another string to ask someone to make another glass. That pulls another string to ask someone to mine the resources necessary to make that glass. That leads to the original claim to the territory where those resources are located.

As I look to the Oquirrh Mountains southwest of Salt Lake City, I see the scourge of a mining operation where they have completely despoiled the once beautiful mountains there. I wonder of the benefits of mining that range and who, exactly, enjoys the greatest financial rewards for such depraved behavior. Is it really necessary to wipe out such beauty when so many treasures can be found in the landfills far and wide across the globe?

In the hopes that someday, we might transcend the need to mine this great earth in the most ugly and unpleasant ways, I offer here, a vision of what complete recycling might look like.

Imagine a world where we have built something that could best be described as a universal recycler. You put garbage in, anything at all, and out the other end, come pure elements from every corner of the periodic table. Of course, this would take tremendous energy to accomplish. But with thorium or even fusion power - perhaps we might learn to tap the more than 1,000 terawatts of power we receive from the sun every single day - we could recycle everything. I mean everything, no matter the source.

Setting energy sources aside, imagine a future where nothing, absolutely nothing goes to waste. Anything and everything, from gum wrappers and the gum balled up inside to car bumpers to hearing aid batteries, all of it, goes into the universal recycler.

The concept of the universal recycler draws upon something I learned from a company called "The Big Green Box". They started out just recycling batteries, but then they said that we could send them all of our electronic junk, phones, tablets and other gadgets. They take these items, sinter them down into the basic elements and sell the results on the commodities markets. This would include elements like gold, silver and the rare earths.

We could do this with everything that we no longer need anymore. No matter how noxious or bulky, no matter the composition, we could put it all through the universal recycler and get pure, raw materials out that can be used for new products. Once such a system scales, then we're talking about ripping up every landfill there ever was and disgorging all that refuse to the universal recycler for the return of the elements therein to the manufacturing sector. We could even go after that floating island of plastic in the north Pacific, you know, the one that is larger than the state of Texas? Yeah, we could clean that up, too.

How would it work? We concentrate a lot of heat in many crucibles, enough to melt everything down to their constituent elements so that the lightest float to the top as liquids or gases and we collect and separate each element according to density or atomic weight. This could be very similar to how oil is cracked to give us diesel, gasoline and butane.

I know, it's science fiction. But we need to start thinking outside the box that we have built for ourselves so we can stop raping the mountains that were here before we were born and go after the mountains of trash that we have all over the earth. We have to start somewhere, and a vision is how it gets started.

For just a few minutes, close your eyes and imagine what this future would look like with me, and go on to enjoy another fine day.
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