Can we think about landfills as a solution to resource scarcity, instead of as a trash problem?
This article on GreenBiz by Mikhail Davis of InterfaceFLOR (pioneer in sustainable flooring under the late Ray Anderson) could change a lot of people’s thinking about how to design industrial processes and industrial machinery for sustainability.
Davis argues compellingly that a lot of our difficulties with reducing waste, reducing raw materials, and reducing carbon impact stem from the way we’ve historically designed our machinery from the premise that raw materials will be not only abundant, but very pure. These 19th and 20th-century machines need a constant stream of very pure raw materials, and that is unsustainable. In fact, he cites a contract between a town and a trash-to-energy incinerator that inflicts monetary penalties on the town if it fails to supply enough trash. Can you say “goodbye, recycling!”?
He proposes that as a society, we change our society’s thinking about this: that we design machines that don’t require more and more pure, virgin raw materials, but instead can use mixed ingredients (such as those we might find in landfills or plastics recycling stations), even if the mix changes in composition and quantity. This works on several levels:
- To a large degree, we’ve already extracted the easy stuff. Mining and drilling will continue to produce lower-grade, lesser concentrations that need more work and energy, increase carbon footprint, and produce more waste, to get usable raw materials—getting more and more expensive in both dollar and environmental measurements. Look at the horrible process of extracting oil from tar sands, if you want an example.
- Designing machines that can run on waste streams turns landfills into abundant sources of raw materials. When we start mining landfills, we have lots to feed the machine—as long as the machine can run on a mixed and inconsistent stream of materials. If we can mix together several kinds of plastics even as the specific mix constantly shifts, our landfills become resources, right along with our reycle bins. Our trash problem goes down; the environmental consequences of mining are also much-reduced.
- A logical corollary: instead of designing a machine to make one output from one consistent input, we can design machines that create multiple kinds of materials depending on what sources are being harvested at the moment.
In contrast, the machines of the next industrial revolution must be, above all, flexible: flexible enough to function with multiple inputs and flexible enough to generate multiple outputs. On the extraction side, our abundant “landfill ore” (or diverted post-consumer products) provides valuable, but mixed materials and cannot be mined efficiently with the old single-input, single-output mining technologies. The most modern recycling factories, like those of MBA Polymers and the best e-waste processors, take in a wide range of mixed waste materials and then produce a diverse range of usable raw materials as output.