Friday, November 8, 2013

I Pledge Allegiance to My Trash

Our world is a trash producing culture. We are so embroiled with our sense of entitlement with modern amenities, packaging and wasting that we ignore how precious our resources are and why we throwing away things unnecessarily. We package and consume and we let the trash collectors worry about disposing our shame. After all, out of sight, out of mind is how the general populace approaches the issue of trash and just like everything else, out of mind means there is no problem; or is there?

According to a 2012 World Bank report, the world’s cities generate about 1.3 billion tons of solid waste per year. The World Bank expects this volume to increase to 2.2 billion tons per year by 2025. The cost is even more staggering: collectively the world spends roughly $200 billion per year on waste management but by 2025, that number is expected to reach close to $400 billion per year.

Amongst the different types of waste generated, municipal solid waste is of particular interest. As the world’s population becomes more concentrated in urban areas, the 2012 World Bank report notes that municipal solid waste is growing faster than the rate of urbanization. In the early 2000s, there were 2.9 billion urban residents and they generate around 0.68 billion tons of municipal solid waste per year. Today, there are about 3 billion urban residents that generate an estimated municipal waste of 1.3 billion tons per year. By 2025, the World Bank report estimates there will be 4.3 billion urban residents generating 2.2 billion tons of municipal waste per year. Solid waste is also a large source of methane, which is a powerful Green House Gas that is particularly impactful in the short-term. Poorly managed waste has become a significant contributing factor to the health, environment and economic problem for everyone.

There is good news of course. Some of the smartest people around the world are inventing ways to put that trash to work by figuring out ways to produce energy from them. Some of the examples include using thermo-photovoltaic cells to convert radiation from any waste heat source into power; some scientists are thinking of using poultry industry waste (chicken feathers) to make biodiesel fuel; one Ohio State grad traveled across America in a 1981 Mercedes running on waste vegetable oil; and of course the waste-to-energy industry is blossoming with companies like Wheelabrator Technologies leading the pack, San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s Greencycle program setting the example, and the National research Council of Canada’s Biotechnology Research Institute vigorously trying to figure out ways to develop processes to extract hydrogen from organic waste, there is no shortage of hope for the years to come.

While all these smart people work their innovative oomph, I would like to remind you that the golden rule of sustainability is still “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Recycling waste into energy may be a good way of capturing the opportunity, but as consumers—average Joes like you and me—we have a responsibility to reduce and reuse.
“American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash--all of them--surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”
― John Steinbeck

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