The Future of Trash

Jonathan Strickland

Many of us would love to just forget about garbage after we throw it away. But the truth is that how we deal with our trash is something we need to think about. Incineration can create toxic fumes that are hazardous to our health and environment. Landfill space, while relatively plentiful in parts of the world like the United States, isn't an ideal solution either. So what can we do?

In this week's episode of Fw:Thinking, I mention plasma waste converters. They use electricity to create incredible temperatures that's so intense it can break the molecular bonds of the stuff in garbage. Anything organic turns into gas. Inorganic material melts down into a slag. Both byproducts can be useful in various applications.

A plasma waste converter located adjacent to a landfill and power generation plant could be pretty useful. Build a big enough facility and you could treat all incoming garbage and even mine the landfill for more. Eventually, decades down the road, you could empty the landfill of trash.

These facilities are rare -- only a few exist in the world. They're expensive to build and you still have to treat the gas to scrub toxins out of it and turn it into a useful fuel. But they are one futuristic approach to dealing with trash.

Another is the use of bacteria. Two Canadian students, Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, discovered bacteria in the Fraser River that could break down plastics in a matter of months. They won a prestigious award for their discovery and hope to continue investigating the possibility of using bacteria to deal with discarded plastic.

It might not be possible to scale that approach up to an appreciable level, so how about making plastic with bacteria in the first place? That's the potential of polyhydroxybutyrate, a plastic made from bacterial fermentation. It's completely biodegradable, making it an attractive alternative to our petroleum-based plastics.

Personally, I think composting, recycling and reusing as much stuff as possible is the best way the average person can cut back on our garbage problems. One thing is for sure -- we won't be blasting trash off into space. Transporting anything into space is incredibly expensive and we'd be adding to the already non-trivial problem of space debris, which can be hazardous to satellites, space stations and spacecraft. So don't even think about suggesting it.