Putting the life back in science fiction


Preludes to Sustainability
October 12, 2015, 10:14 pm
Filed under: futurism, Preludes, sustainability | Tags: , , ,

I guess there’s a theme to be mined here.

Going from the same idea as the previous blog post, Preludes to Space, it’s worth looking at how well our society is getting on with that whole, mysterious sustainability thing.

There are two problems with sustainability, at least in my weird opinion.  One is that we know how to do it, if we’re talking about your basic, semi-isolated, neolithic society, with some offshoots to your basic, isolated iron age society, and we’re talking about time periods no longer than a few centuries.  The “high tech” outliers are the Greenland Vikings, who made a go of it for around 500 years, and the Japanese under the Shogun, who pulled it off for around 200 years (note that Jared Diamond got weird about this in Collapse).  Otherwise, again, we’re talking about the Polynesians and other islanders, and all the “primitive” cultures that imperialist forces have conquered over the last 500 years, all of whom were more or less sustainable.  In other words, if we go low tech and low population numbers, we pretty much know what sustainability looks like, because that was the world a few thousand years ago.  With ten billion people and high tech, we’re pretty clueless about sustainability looks like, except we have this feeling that we’re better than we were before, so it should be easier to get to sustainable than it’s proving to be.

The other problem is that we’re kind of in outbreak mode right now, sort of like gypsy moth apes.  Technically, this is called the Enemy Release Hypothesis in ecology, where species that can evade or overcome their natural enemies (predators, pest, parasites, and pathogens) can dramatically expand their numbers.  This is almost always temporary, because eventually the natural enemies find their prey, and prey numbers crash.  In human terms, we’ve released ourselves through things like medicine and public health to control our pathogens and parasites, using veterinary science and plant pathology to help our domestic species avoid predators other than us, killing any predator that comes after us and our symbionts (aka our domestic species), and throwing billions of dollars at the industries that promise to keep doing this for the foreseeable future.

This situation is metastable in many ways.  Medicine’s chief tools–antibiotics–have a short effective lifespan, we’re amazingly stupid about maintaining public health infrastructure like sewers and water lines, and all of it depends on fossil fuel sources that are running out.  We could, very easily, open ourselves to our enemies, and then disease and famine would reduce our population down to sustainable levels of a hundred million or so.

Still, simple-minded sustainability is the notion that we can make our outbreak permanent, keep our population fairly high indefinitely using renewable energy and recycling all our stuff.  Crashing back to sustainability is idea of civilization collapse, which I’m going to get to in the next post.  In any case, there are precedents for us turning the outbreak of a new clade into the new normal.  The cyanobacteria did it, although it took them over a billion years to start running the biosphere’s oxygen atmosphere.  Ants, termites, and bees have done it in the insect world.  Mycorrhizal plants did it 400 million years ago.  There’s no physical reason we can’t keep human populations high and run them sustainably.  However, there’s no physical reason to assume that we can pull it off either.  We’re in unknown territory, and there are many species on Earth right now that can expand into outbreaks but not sustain their high numbers.  Sustainability at high number is very unlikely, but fortunately, it’s not impossible.

What does sustainable technology look like?  The most restrictive case is what I talked about in Preludes to Space: we can only colonize space on a sustainable basis, so if we want to colonize other planets, we have to solve the sustainability problem too.  Still, there are many technologies which are sustainable here but which won’t work in space.  It’s rather more possible that we’ll get to sustainable and find out that we still can’t colonize other planets.

There are huge number of complexities involved with sustainability, but there a couple of general problems.  One is that we have to learn how to power our civilization off renewables, and nuclear fusion, if that’s possible (sorry, I’m not interested in entertaining the eternal nuclear-uranium-thorium-we can do it–don’t tell me to shut up discussion here) . Another problem is that we need to recycle basically every element.  Since we can argue about power endlessly, I’m going to focus on the recycling issue here.

As I’ve noted before, I’ve got a relative who deals with solid waste issues on a regular basis, and I can tell you that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of schemes to recycle just about everything.  Most of them are unworkable, because they demand that the trash coming in is very homogeneous: it has to be all greenwaste from yards, or fluorescent bulbs, or used diapers, or used lumber from construction, or whatever.  Throw a broken fluorescent bulb in the greenwaste, and it’s unrecyclable for both.  The trash stream most cities deal with is extremely heterogeneous, which is why a lot of it ends up in landfills.  Polluters range from careless to stupid to evil, and there are two generally proven methods for dealing with waste: dumping it (which we do with trash and sewage) and hand sorting it (which we do with recyclables, many of which end up in the trash anyway because they’re not cost-effective to remanufacture).  To get to sustainable, we need to be able to recycle everything, so (for instance) nutrients go from farms to food to compost and sewage, to fertilizer back on the farm.  This would be great, if a large hosts of pathogens and contaminants didn’t ride along on the recycling stream and contaminate our food supply and the supply of every other resource.

Still, it can be done, and it is routinely done in Third World cities, where sewage is used as cheap farm fertilizer and the desperately poor sort through the trash for anything they can sell.  Our problem in the developed world is that we see the resulting disease, discrimination, and poverty of such cultural recycling as environmental justice issues that often are inflicted on minorities.  We want to find ways for to do it equitably, so that everyone gets to be healthy and not poor, even if they’re dealing with waste.  That’s a much harder problem.

Actually, just keeping streams of materials homogeneous is the most difficult problem here.  Every time we can figure out how to recycle something cleanly, it becomes a reasonably good industry. The problem is when recycables get contaminated.  For example, back 50 years ago, glass bottles for wine, milk, and soda were routinely recycled.  One perennial problem is that someone would, say, use a milk bottle to store used motor oil until he could dump it somewhere. Then he’d turn the polluted bottle back in for a refund, sticking the recycler with the chore of decontaminating the bottle before it was refilled with milk, or throwing the bottle out and losing the resource.  It’s a ubiquitous problem with recycling.  Recycled steel needs to have steel in it and not a lot of silicon from dirt, recycled medical supplies have to be sterile, glass has to be all the same composition, recycled electronics chips have to be pure, and so forth.Again, it’s a difficult problem, not necessarily an impossible one.  We can hope that there are some technical solutions out there, as well as cultural ones.

Still, as with a culture that is preadapted to colonize space, a society that is high tech and sustainable will look strange to our eyes.  Their social mores will be different, especially around handling waste materials.  They’ll be much more sophisticated and thoughtful about recycling, and they’ll probably be disgusted by different things than we are.  Indeed, they won’t be consumers in the modern sense, because consuming stuff and throwing it out won’t be the cornerstone of their identities.  They might come off as a bunch of enviro-prigs compared to us, but they’ll think we’re pretty disgusting too.

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33 Comments so far
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My sister lives in Portland where stores can’t provide plastic bags any more and where everyone is expected to separate recyclable materials, compostable greenwaste, and outright trash that doesn’t fall into one of the other two categories. It is a bit of a culture shock every time she travels outside the city and sees disposable plastic bags all over the place, or even worse recyclable materials thrown straight into the trash. Maybe in the future that waste separation model, and the demand for every individual to play their part, spread everywhere.

Or maybe the Portland model is just a transitional phase until machines get good enough at sorting mixed waste streams and sniffing out which bulk-recyclable materials are hopelessly contaminated at the micro level. People of the future might express horror when copper wiring and lead solder end up in a landfill, but not be horrified at the mere act of throwing a broken VCR into a bin, because they expect central facilities to figure it out.

By analogy: Americans of today and of 150 years ago both are/were generally horrified by defecation in the open. But today the majority of Americans are served by sewer systems with centralized processing. There’s a lot less personal involvement with chamber pots and the construction/maintenance of privies. The universal provision of sewage treatment and clean water have really succeeded when non-experts don’t need to be especially mindful to make the system work. A really successful recycling program should also, so far as possible, minimize the cognitive burden on ordinary people. Of course if you can’t get high separative efficacy without a lot of human labor then perhaps everyone will need to think more… predicting the future is hard.

Comment by Matt

On the subject of recycling phosphorus from waste streams: the US EPA is not really concerned about a phosphorus production crunch, but it is concerned with phosphorus discharge in waste effluent. This recent study has some very encouraging numbers: http://www3.epa.gov/region10/pdf/tmdl/awt_report.pdf

These are waste treatment plants already in commercial operation. If you look at e.g. the Iowa Hill example, the incoming waste stream has about 6 mg/l of phosphorus. The outgoing stream has no more than 0.13 mg/l. That’s at least 97.8% phosphorus removal, in the form of phosphorus-rich biomass and in the form of mixed aluminum-iron flocculent sludge. Both forms of recovered/trapped phosphorus could be reprocessed to produce fertilizers again.

Comment by Matt

I would like to stress the cognitive burden issue, and add that there’s a social-conditioning limit there too. In western societies we all know that murder, assault, robbery and such are wrong yet we still need professionals whose job is to deal with people who do these things everybody knows you shouldn’t do and which will lead to punishment by the most onerous sanctions our society has. The reason these problems continue to occur despite everybody knowing the prohibition on murder (for instance) are some combination of, “My judgment was situationally/chemically impaired,” “I was too (fill in the blank) to make the right choice and decided to make the wrong choice,” and, “I didn’t think I’d get caught/I’m supposed to be above the law!” So I’m going to posit the murder-socialization theory of maximum social conditioning:

Comment by anonymous coward

No matter how hard you try to socialize any particular behaviour, someone will always fuck it up at least until we get to the point we’ve eliminated murder as a social/criminal issue. Consider recycling/pollution issues like metal poisoning (for instance mercury and heavy metals) of the air and sewage where one incompetent/underperforming/selfish actor can sabotage the positive work of millions. In light of the murder-socialization hypothesis we just have to look at the fact that our murder rates are higher than one in a million per year in most places in the world, and know that human conditioning as it has existed to date cannot be expected to solve the problem.

Comment by anonymous coward

Murder is not a very serious problem in the USA. It’s currently around 4.5 per hundred thousand per year. For the average American, every couple of years somebody he kind of knows gets murdered, and every 20 years or so somebody he thinks of as an actual acquaintance gets murdered. We can live with that. We think of it as a big problem because it’s high compared to civilized nations, though compared to places where society has broken down like Russia and Honduras it isn’t so bad.

We could live with a certain amount of inefficiency at recycling. The problem comes when a few actions have terrible consequences. Like, say you have a big vat with a million tons of ice cream in it, and then one malicious or ignorant person dumps one ton of arsenic into it and mixes it thoroughly. Then the whole thing is unfit for human consumption and must be thrown out.

But if it was only one kilogram of arsenic then it wouldn’t be a problem and they could still sell it.

We just need to arrange our recycling so that lots of small mistakes don’t stop it from working.

Comment by J Thomas

“We could live with a certain amount of inefficiency at recycling. The problem comes when a few actions have terrible consequences.”
I’m focused on sewage, air, water, soil and biosphere pollution issues that need full recycling to be solved. For those, isolating potential problems may sound like a good idea but I doubt it’s more than a part of the solution. With sewage treatment for instance, that would be eliminating the efficiencies of scale, and therefore creating new problems. Worse, containing contaminants is not the same as solving contaminant problems with heavy metals. Failing to recycle them leads to more mining, pollution, bioaccumulation, cancer….

Comment by anonymous coward

“I’m focused on sewage, air, water, soil and biosphere pollution issues that need full recycling to be solved.”

We won’t need full recycling for a very long time. By then our available technology will be very different.

Let’s review the bidding. We cut down on energy costs by arranging to start out with raw materials that are concentrated. If you can start with iron ore that’s 70% iron, then it costs less to preprocess it. We started preprocessing lower grades of ore when we couldn’t get enough that was concentrated enough.

We get phosphates from places where it’s highly concentrated. Seabird guano, special ores, etc. If we had to concentrate it from dilute sources that would cost more.

We tend to grow corn in dense monocultures, because that’s easiest and cheapest. If it was spread out and mixed with other crops we’d have to separate them at greater effort.

We do things cheaper by increasing entropy. We find stuff that’s concentrated and grab it, and then we put it where we need it, and afterward it’s scattered. If we have to concentrate it again we lose the benefit we got by finding it concentrated.

Our water pollution problems come because we start with clean water from upstream, and we get it dirty (for example by washing something else), and we then discard the dirty water downstream. If we had to re-use the dirty water, purifying it until it was good enough to re-use and then pump it uphill and use it again, that would cost more.

If we had access to a whole lot of energy, we could do all that stuff and not worry about starting with purified sources and ending with contaminated sinks. We could for example start with very low quality ores — landfills, say — and separate out everything we wanted from everything we didn’t want. It would cost us energy but we wouldn’t care.

Without that energy we’re talking poverty. We get wealth from concentrated ores etc, and when they’re gone the wealth is gone. We can use it up slower, or we can choose not to use it, but we can’t create that wealth anew. Like fossil aquifers, once it’s gone it’s gone.

While we have concentrated resources to exploit, of course we’ll exploit them. When we run out, we’ll have to do something else. The obvious solution is to reduce our population to something that’s easier to provide for, but we don’t like that solution. Maybe we’ll find unobvious solutions that work for the long run, or that work long enough that the population decline comes slowly.

Full recycling isn’t the solution to a problem. It’s the reductio ad absurdum that shows we have tried to solve the wrong problem.

Comment by J Thomas

“Without that energy we’re talking poverty. We get wealth from concentrated ores etc, and when they’re gone the wealth is gone.”
You’re right about the current-day reasons for original mining over full-recycling. I would beg to differ where you see full-recycling as poverty though. Instead, I’m seeing a use case for solar/wind output overflow that threatens to break down the power grid thanks to the runaway trends of increasing peak output.

Comment by anonymous coward

“I’m seeing a use case for solar/wind output overflow that threatens to break down the power grid thanks to the runaway trends of increasing peak output.”

Given enough cheap energy, we can do lots of things. We can do things that look like reversing entropy.

Given sufficient energy, we can harvest any sort of sea life, remove the excess sodium, and transport the remains to wherever we want fertilizer. DNA is rich in phosphates, and life has DNA.

Given enough energy and enough engineering, all of our problems go away except dealing with excess heat. and our habit of solving the wrong problems.

Comment by J Thomas

Harvesting nuts for phosphorus might be a lot less energy intensive, although what a waste of nutrition. Cheap and abundant energy does solve a lot of problems, as long as it isn’t polluting and the heat generated is well within our means to disperse. From a purely technical standpoint, we could intercept all the energy arriving at the Earth, convert it to energy and ultimately heat, leaving the Earth in balance if CO2 concentrations are regulated. It isn’t impossible to dump the waste heat directly to space, bypassing the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere. It would be interesting to speculate the limits of this trapping much more sunlight, using it on Earth, and effectively refrigerating the Earth to keep it cool. We then get a very high energy civilization without the limiting effects of heat death. It strikes me that space elevators are one way to do this, offering both low cost access to space as well as a heat dump to space based radiators.

Comment by Alex Tolley

If at some point we get serious about recycling etc, we’ll probably put in a big effort at the source. Like, put a big tax on plastics that don’t fit into the recycling scheme, being available for general consumption. In the ideal case we would for example allow only polyethylene for consumer use except inside sealed units that consumers should recycle as units.

(I say polyethylene because it’s something we have a lot of experience with that can be used for a big variety of applications. Maybe use something that’s easier to make from renewable raw materials, but anyway choose something that’s easy to work with, safe, and relatively easy to separate from contaminants, and figure out how to recycle it.)

We could make a big effort to have consumer packaging be paper or plastic, no combinations and particularly no laminated combinations.

Designing products with recycling in mind could make a big difference.

Comment by J Thomas

There are places in North America that have packaging reduction laws, like British Columbia, which could (and probably should) serve as case-studies and models for wider regulation. That would be a positive development if it ever happened, but a more fundamental problem is planned obsolescence: Consider reducing the number of smart phones full of poisonous waste being consumed from a replacement every two to five years to every twenty-to-fifty years, reducing the amount of electronic waste by a factor of ten, and the packaging just as much. Packaging control laws are probably an easier measure to implement though, regulatory capture aside.

Comment by anonymous coward

The 50 year cell phone is viable after the exponential progress in microelectronics and electromagnetic communications is thoroughly dead. Otherwise, mandating that products can last for 50 years means that you spend more resources building for longevity but they’re still rapidly replaced. You would just be building sturdier, heavier waste streams.

Imagine, for example, that Betamax players had been built with a 50 year lifespan requirement. Or VCRs. Or the analog mobile phones of the early 1990s. Or the iPhone of 2007.

I still have a laptop from 2002 that works fine if all I want to do is circa-2002-activities. It’s not breakage of old electronics that keeps me upgrading — it’s the still-rapid progress in capabilities. Though with computer hardware the pace of improvement is notably less rapid than it was 10 or 20 years ago, so I believe that we will eventually reach the point where consumer electronics turnover is as slow as e.g. washing machine turnover.

Comment by Matt

“Though with computer hardware the pace of improvement is notably less rapid than it was 10 or 20 years ago, so I believe that we will eventually reach the point where consumer electronics turnover is as slow as e.g. washing machine turnover.”
You’re right, but now consider it as part of the class of planned obsolescence consumer products like electric shavers, automobiles, lighting, power tools, kitchen appliances and cookware. The spectrum of these things does vary from slim improvement in decades to significant regular change, but aside from construction we’re talking the vast majority of residential-use metal pollution issues here. That’s worth reducing for many reasons.

Comment by anonymous coward

“the class of planned obsolescence consumer products like electric shavers, automobiles, lighting, power tools, kitchen appliances and cookware.”

Not sure about this list; I grant electric shavers. Cookware pretty much lasts forever when used as instructed. How can anyone use up or ruin a stainless steel saucepan? Automobiles last longer and require much less maintenance now than in the past. The CFL lasts longer than the incandescent bulb and LEDs last longer than the CFL. Average automotive age in the USA is higher now than ever. If they’re planning for early failure they’re doing it all wrong.

On kitchen appliances, I have anecdotally noticed a lot of complaints about how long e.g. a new electric mixer lasts compared to Grandma’s mixer. But if you’re willing to pay like your grandparents paid, adjusted for inflation, you too can have a mixer built like a tank. This might be true of power tools too actually. I’ve never broken any tools except with severe stupidity but I’ve never tried to buy new-and-cheap.

Comment by Matt

There has been a trend to suggest that buying longer lasting, but more expensive tools and appliances is the way to go. Not sure how much this is taken on board given the cheap and cheerful product in the stores. It is discouraging that as manufacturing has been outsourced, products have become poorer in quality and unrepairable. I suspect that the core personnel at HQ cannot even understand what exactly they have built as they no longer have the expertise to understand manufacturing processes. Lack of corporate loyalty acts against building brands with traits such as long lasting and quality.

Having said that, there is no doubt that the profit motive acts in a Darwinian selective manner to reduce costs. This includes reduced material and energy inputs, as well as reducing waste. Another thread of course is reducing labor costs with automation. Foxconn is saying they want to eliminate most of their one million workers with robots (which might also reduce aggregate consumption and hence recycling volumes).

Comment by Alex Tolley

“Another thread of course is reducing labor costs with automation. Foxconn is saying they want to eliminate most of their one million workers with robots (which might also reduce aggregate consumption and hence recycling volumes).”

Automation is a powerful trend but the Foxconn eliminate-a-million-workers-with-robots announcement from 2011 was clearly a negotiating bluff against their employees. I called it as such at the time. Things that can be done with automation instead of human hands don’t get outsourced from high-wage countries to Foxconn in the first place. If machines could replace Foxconn workers at competitive cost, Apple would just put an automated assembly plant nearer their component suppliers in Taiwan, South Korea, or Japan.

Comment by Matt

Interesting comment Matt. calling their workers “animals” makes more sense in that context.

Comment by Alex Tolley

“There has been a trend to suggest that buying longer lasting, but more expensive tools and appliances is the way to go.”

When you buy it, you know how expensive it is but you don’t really know how long it will last.

It might be somehow better to rent some stuff. You pay for it while it works. But that gives you no incentive to take good care of it. Nobody wants to waste time arguing whether it broke because you abused it or because it was defective. So that usually isn’t a solution.

Comment by J Thomas

“When you buy it, you know how expensive it is but you don’t really know how long it will last.”. True, but as we accumulate data and disperse it, that changes. Ignorance is slowly reduced as we accumulate knowledge and pass it on. Amazon reviews sometimes impart that information. Expect it to be much more sophisticated over time.

Comment by Alex Tolley

“If machines could replace Foxconn workers at competitive cost, Apple would just put an automated assembly plant nearer their component suppliers in Taiwan, South Korea, or Japan.”

You pay for the machines up front, and if there’s a recession they sit there, unused but paid for.

You pay for the workers by the day or the week or the month, and if there’s a recession you can lay them off and rent more when you need them.

When you build automated factories it’s easy to build in too much capacity. If there’s too much competition, prices fall to the variable cost of the least efficient competitor. But variable cost is lower compared to fixed costs, than it is when you use cheaper machines with human workers. So prices fall very low until somebody loses. Prices stay low until the competitors figure out how to collude, or until enough of them are gone. This is not the kind of business that people enjoy investing in.

Industrial automation tends to come in slowly and haltingly, because it isn’t compatible with capitalist market structure.

At least in theory. In practice, maybe the theory doesn’t quite fit reality.

Comment by J Thomas

“Industrial automation tends to come in slowly and haltingly, because it isn’t compatible with capitalist market structure. At least in theory. In practice, maybe the theory doesn’t quite fit reality.”
In practice, managers assume that human plant has many, significant, costs and risks that machinery won’t have directly like security, liability, cultural and hostility problems. They’d rather minimize those even without comparative projections in many cases. They also have immense fear of employee compensation increases and abandonment where they either agitate successfully, competitors poach each other’s talent, or the stupid humans just walk away or die after you’ve sunk good money. Human employees are just too risky if there’s a tenable alternative.

Comment by anonymous coward

“Human employees are just too risky if there’s a tenable alternative.”

Yes, but the low-level low-skill jobs are the easiest to automate, and they’re also the easiest ones to replace cheap humans with new cheap humans. The fixed costs of automation are high. It can be cheaper to rent humans than to buy robots, especially when you can’t predict sales well. Of course nobody wants to assume that they’ll go out of business, but if your business does fail it’s better to fail without a lot of sunk costs.

Machines can work more precisely without getting repetitive strain injuries. Quality control is valuable. Less wastage, less down time, etc. But it costs a lot upfront.

This is part of why wage slaves were more profitable than whip slaves. When you own your slaves, you have to take care of them even when you can’t find profitable work for them to do, because they’re your property which requires maintenance regardless. When you pay them wages, then any time you don’t need them you can tell them to go away and then replace them from the unemployed pool whenever you need more. In the face of market uncertainty, it comes out cheaper.

Comment by J Thomas

“When you pay them wages, then any time you don’t need them you can tell them to go away and then replace them from the unemployed pool whenever you need more. In the face of market uncertainty, it comes out cheaper.”
No, because you’re ignoring cost to hire, espionage, regulatory/lawsuit landmines, incompetence, infighting, turnover, and the labour market supply and demand issues. Human employees have upper cost bounds without limit and management challenges that are irreducible. One is the learning curve to make them productive in an organization. Often new hires are less than productive during their first three months and they generally require more than a year to become fully useful. Infighting and security issues scale as some function of the number of employees with an exponent above 1, as well.

Comment by anonymous coward

Is part of the problem the mismatch in how we recycle? Let’s assume a magical set of bugs that can digest and convert all organic material. This would leave the waste stream with only inorganic materials except where CHO is too energetically bound, e.g. carbon in steel. Next assume a high energy furnace that will fractionate all elements from a plasma to create pure streams of elemental material.
These methods would go a long way to ensuring long term sustainability of our industrial civilization.

From the opposite direction, making more of our manufactures recyclable and biodegradable would help alleviate the existing problem of recycling and uncaptured waste streams.

The continuation of our high-tech, high population civilization is dependent on supplies of new materials that are lost in unrecycled waste streams. The Earth is very big and therefore the supply of raw material could last a very long time, even without recourse to asteroidal materials. Sustainability based on high efficiency material recycling may therefore not be necessary for many thousands of years. More of a concern are the wastes that change biological systems, such as drugs accumulating in bodies of freshwater, or even toxic compounds and metals in sediments. These are a minute fraction of our wastes, but have an inordinate impact on biology that we need to maintain.

While I’m not sanguine that the current US social system will improve our recycling, I am encouraged that Western EU seems to be doing better, and might possibly show us the model of what works, even if it comes at a price of less “freedom”.

If we cannot solve these problems to a “good enough” level, then our shiny, high tech Kardashev I or even KII civilization will emerge only briefly in cosmic time, before disappearing.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Ah yes, plasma-arc incineration. Lovely technology that they’ve wanted to implement in Los Angeles for decades now. Here are the problems they found with it:

1. The ashes get classed as hazardous waste. There’s just enough stuff like cadmium, lead, mercury to make the ashes a real nuisance to dispose of. Presumably you could refine the ashes again, but no one’s thought that would be cost effective, and you’d still have to deal with the slag from that. It’s a problem worth solving, because if you can efficiently process such material, it’s a good step towards refining small asteroids.

2. Bigger problem: the waste stream coming in is extremely heterogeneous. It turns out that burning, say, construction debris requires different burning conditions than, say, a load of kitchen waste, old diapers, greenwaste, or whatever. The normal result of suboptimal burning conditions is that it’s inefficient in terms of energy production, a lot of crap goes out the exhaust (the killer problem in smog-ridden Los Angeles), and the resulting ash isn’t fully combusted. And, of course, all the carbon ends up in the air in either case.

In any case, there is high temperature incineration out there, but it’s far from a panacea.

Incidentally, there are a bunch of reasons why it’s easier for neolithic farmers to recycle their stuff. They’re using a smaller palette of materials, most of which break down without outside help, they’re living and working at lower densities, and they tended to endure chronic diseases, rather than thinking of them as curable.

Comment by Heteromeles

Everything you say is true – today. But we don’t have to invent these efficient recycling systems today. We have time. What we do need to do is improve our waste production and handling cycle to reduce the pollution and resource loss problem to manageable levels and then put in place advanced recycling technologies.

We can certainly posit imaginary tech to see if that will work or not, or whether other problems then emerge. For example, suppose there is no resource shortage, just a pollution problem. That can be solved in a number of ways without requiring recycling.

If we have super cheap access to space, the hazardous waste problem from all industries is solved.

So I don’t think we need to solve the sustainability problem completely today. We have time to resolve it. AGW is probably far more pressing in that we may be irrevocably causing a catastrophe that we cannot reverse, even with aggressive geoengineering, especially of the oceans. IMO, this seems far more problematic that local toxic metal deposition or even eutrophication caused dead zones.

If it is true that 4% of US landfills are used diapers, we can solve that problem quickly with newer materials that either biodegrade quickly or can be burned to ash in a home or community incinerator. Plastic packaging is another major waste stream that can be reduced by simple legislative changes. We already recycle newsprint and cardboard, but we could also shred it and use it to carbonize soils.

Some wastes are more problematic, and contamination is an issue. You mention storing motor oil in recyclable glass bottles. Food contaminated cardboard like pizza boxes are similar. We can’t solve every problem, especially those deliberately caused, like illegally disposing of oil down storm drains, but we can make it easier to do the right thing to reduce the size of the waste stream and make it easier to recycle. Over the long term, even biology requires geological processes to recycle or store some materials. The trick for our civilization is to get most of the problem solved with the right carrots and sticks so that the residual problems are easily manageable.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Why so hypothetical? Fractional distillation columns, filters, electrolysis, and centrifuges are all proven technologies that exist and work successfully to separate heterogeneous inputs. The unproven parts are dealing with specific inputs and contaminants, and the cost/benefit/hazard ratio at scale with those inputs.

Comment by anonymous coward

“The unproven parts are dealing with specific inputs and contaminants, and the cost/benefit/hazard ratio at scale with those inputs.”

We know it’s expensive. Sales of the resulting purified components will presumably not pay that expense. Are the hazards of leaving stuff unsorted that bad? Fore many things, we could mine our current landfills in another 50 years about as effectively as we can now — maybe better, because we’ll have 50 more years of new technology to work with. Maybe we could wait and separate stuff out when we need it?

Can you see that the argument for waiting is kind of seductive? Regardless of the benefits, if the cost is more than we can afford then we won’t do much of it.

Comment by J Thomas

The problem with waiting is that, while landfills are anaerobic and not that reactive, they’re not inert. Chemicals still react inside them, and they still leak a lot of contaminated water (aka leachate).

Depending on what the chemical is, it may or may not be profitable to mine it. For example, landfill methane often isn’t profitable, because the gas that comes off is highly contaminated methane. It costs more than the methane is worth to purify it for sale, so it ends up being treated as a pollutant rather than a resource.

Depending on the landfill, waiting may be a viable option. On the other hand, there’s a lot less landfill space than people think there is, so source reduction (aka recycling, upcycling, reusing) is very popular–when it works.

The general problem is that if you want an highly adaptable expert system that runs on a few hundred watts, you’re talking about a human garbage picker. We don’t have low-energy technology to match a poor person picking through the trash. I’m not being ironic when I say that forcing people to scrounge is generally considered an environmental justice crime, and ideally we should clean up after ourselves. Unfortunately for us, it’s the kind of task we’re fairly good at, when we’re not being poisoned by working with trash.

Comment by Heteromeles

“The general problem is that if you want an highly adaptable expert system that runs on a few hundred watts, you’re talking about a human garbage picker.”

Yes. I remember a story from about 30 years ago. A woman from India (It might have been Mrs. Gandhi, I forget exactly who) looked at a US supermarket with an electric eye that opened the door. (We use ultrasound or microwaves for that now, right?) At first she was impressed, and then she said “In India we get the same result using a small child.”.

It may *become* feasible to do this with robotics. The hardware may get cheap enough, and we may find justification to do the software. If we have enough destitute humans then it would make sense to use them as garbage pickers instead of automating away those jobs for them. That’s a political decision on multiple levels. There’s the question whether we want to have those destitute people, and then there’s the question whether that’s what we want to do with them. Also there’s the question whether we should try to think about that issue, or if instead we should think only about other questions and let the level of destitution adjust itself in response without us making any conscious choices about it.

Comment by J Thomas

“Can you see that the argument for waiting is kind of seductive? Regardless of the benefits, if the cost is more than we can afford then we won’t do much of it.”
Balance that against un-measured health issues from metal poisoning (which definitely include cancer and many other degenerative conditions), salinization of soil, dangers in the food supply and pest control issues, and species extinction threats. The cost of not doing it is that all those Chernobyls worth of radioactives and other heavy metals from coal burning will keep cycling through the biosphere without limit, killing species we don’t even know about and may depend on much more than we know. The reduced cancer and geriatric condition incidences alone might pay for the difference.

Comment by anonymous coward

Concerning recycling, in Finland we already have separate waste bin for paper, cardboard, compost, metals, glass, and mixed waste, which is burned to produce energy. I think there will be bins for plastics next year, cutting down the mixed waste even further. Of course, this is in cities, in the countryside it’s a bigger logistics problem. And as you pointed out, it only takes one person who doesn’t care which bin he throws his trash in to contaminate, for example the compost bin. But still, this isn’t rocket science.

Comment by Mikael




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