TECH BUZZ ||ENERGY BY MICHAEL E. WEBBER MECHANICAL ENGINEERING | NOVEMBER 2014 | P.16
MONEY IN THE
GROUND. IT'S TIME
WE REALIZED IT.
The world of waste is innovative in ways most Americans would never imagine. Advanced recycling
centers in the United States, for instance,
use multi-million dollar machines with
high-tech conveyor systems to automatically sort different materials using lasers,
optical scanners, blowers, magnets, rakes,
crushers, vacuums, and other devices. Unsorted trash enters the system, and neatly
separated bales of like materials exit.
As David Scott, the executive director of
economic and energy affairs for the United
Arab Emirates, once said, “Waste is what
you have when you run out of imagination.”
We can use our imagination to rethink our
relationship with waste.
In spite of generating more than 20 percent of the world’s trash, Americans are
pretty unsophisticated in the way we deal
with it. Less than half of the 250 million
tons of municipal solid waste produced annually is recycled, composted, or incinerated for energy. Most is buried in landfills.
Europeans, conversely, produce less
trash per person and send very little of
what they do make to landfills. Why?
To begin with, they do not have much
space for landfills. Europeans also have
a different cultural approach to resource
Americans generate a lot of trash and stick
most of it in landfills. We need to recover
more value from what we throw out.
make each ounce of material go further.
Americans often associate consumption
with power and conservation with weak-
ness; in Europe it’s the other way around.
Importantly, the European Union has
strict regulations about the end-of-life
for different consumer goods, including
electronics and automobiles. These regulations mostly prohibit landfills as an option
for a majority of the materials and puts a
responsibility on manufacturers to create
designs that can be disassembled and separated after
the product life into useful
materials. The result? Many
of those expensive, high-value systems that automate
the recycling process are
imported from Europe.
Compared to Europeans, who build high-tech machinery to recover valuable materials, Americans seem backwards. We’re
essentially burying money in the ground.
It's time we realized it.
For example, baby diapers and some
other plastics are hard to recycle and
decompose slowly in landfills, but they
have energy density the same as coal’s or
better. These plastics can be converted into
fuel pellets and used at boilers and cement
plants to displace fossil fuels. Many plastics
also can be liquefied into fuels that displace
petroleum products. Fibers can be used
as fuels or as input for building materials.
Metals can be melted down and used again.
Cities still pay recyclers millions of dol-
lars to take away trash. But those costs are
dropping as the separation and recycling
technologies improve and the value of the
harvested materials increases.
Changing the way we look at trash will
require changes at every level of govern-
ment. At the state and local levels, decision
makers must recognize the value in trash;
we could be charging companies for the
right to “mine” our waste streams instead of
paying them to haul it away. Federal R&D can
bring down the costs of sorting and recycling
our trash and help improve scrubbers for
trash incinerators. Federal policymakers can
also implement strict, European-
style end-of-life requirements for
The U.S. military is already
operating in the new waste para-
digm. For the Department of De-
fense, waste is a strategic liability:
In some forward operating bases,
every pound of waste needs to be trucked
off site. And those trucks are soft targets
that put human lives at risk, so that reducing
trash isn’t just good for the environment—it
provides operational security.
Stateside, Fort Bliss and Fort Carson are
both pursuing zero-waste initiatives. Doing
so reduces the footprint of those bases and
helps the military develop the expertise it
needs in theater.
If reducing our waste and managing it
better is good enough for our soldiers in
harm’s way, it’s good enough for civilians
here at home, too. We can push to turn our
trash into treasure, and mechanical engineers should lead the way. ME
MICHAEL E. WEBBER is the Josey Centennial Fellow in
Energy Resources and associate professor of mechanical
engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.