Americans have grown accustomed to the steady march of new technology. Many challenges that face our country seem to be solved using new ways of thinking. Can technology resolve the problem of trash?
The average American produces nearly 130 pounds of trash a month. A recent article in the magazine “Nature,” asks people to consider that global solid-waste generation will triple by 2100, to 11 million tons a day.
Our country does not do a good job of composting and recycling. Some experts estimate that 70 percent of the trash that winds up in U.S. landfills could be diverted. Some municipalities no longer require residents to separate paper from plastic and use machines to do much of this work. Technology similar to facial-recognition software could further automate sorting by helping machines distinguish the type of waste and separate it for composting and recycling.
Another idea is to convert food to fuel through anaerobic digestion. This is a natural process where microbes break down organic matter and become heat. Farmers have used this process for years to make biogas out of manure; now new technology makes this process faster. Anaerobic-digestion facilities are expensive to build, but they can be profitable if companies have a steady supply of food waste. A growing number of cities and states have banned restaurants and grocery stores from sending large amounts of leftovers to landfills; if diverted, this material can feed new digesters.
A company called Terreform is working on a plan to crush trash and mold it into “Tetrisesque” blocks that could build islands and buildings. Current technology converts water bottles into fleece, plastic bags into deck material, roofing into pavement. Pura Vida, a company in Guatemala already is working on a low-tech version of the same idea. It promotes the use of a building material it calls an “eco-block” (just a plastic bottle stuffed with trash) that it says makes excellent insulation and is safe in earthquakes.
Some environmentalists want to prevent companies from making non-recyclable materials at all. Proposed “producer responsibility” laws could require manufacturers to fund and manage the recycling of their goods, giving companies an incentive to make products last longer. The beginning of the cycle, not the end, might be when we can most effectively eliminate trash.
What is clear is that companies are finding ways to reduce garbage and creating a more responsible waste stream. Restaurants can do their part today by using compostable and recyclable materials, especially for carryout where they can make disposing easier for customers.