We need to advance solid waste technology
New York City is gradually rolling out food waste recycling, and it’s long overdue. Anaerobic digestion and composting technology is known and available. We should do everything we can to use current technology to recycle as much as possible: especially food waste, aluminum and rare earth metals that have market value and are profitable to recycle today. But the reasons why various recycling efforts have often failed are (1.) the difficulty of ensuring a “clean” waste stream uncontaminated by materials that do not belong, (2.) the uncertain market for materials recycled, and (3.) the cost of multiple garbage pickups.
In the United States, more and more of our waste is being “treated” rather than landfilled, but America still has a huge problem with solid waste generation and disposal. According to APE:
“Over the past few decades, the production and management of MSW (municipal solid waste or garbage) has changed significantly. MSW production has increased… from 88.1 million tonnes in 1960 to 292.4 million tonnes in 2018… The production rate in 1960 was only 2.68 pounds per person per day. It rose to 3.66 pounds per person per day in 1980. In 2000 it reached 4.74 pounds per person per day, then decreased to 4.69 pounds per person per day in 2005. The rate production was 4.9 pounds per person per day in 2018, an 8% increase from 2017… Over time, recycling and composting rates have increased from just over 6% of MSW generated in 1960 to around 10% in 1980, to 16% in 1990, to around 29% in 2000 and to around 35% in 2017… Landfilling of waste has fallen from 94% of the amount generated in 1960 to 50% of the quantity generated in 2018.”
Garbage should be collected and then taken to some facility for treatment, burning or disposal. As our population has grown and our consumption has increased, so has our waste. While production waste per capita seems to have stabilized, it represents a huge amount of material, and it is essential that we find ways to reuse it. Recycling is a great environmental education tool, and it helps divert waste from landfills, but it won’t get us closer to a circular economy. To achieve a true circular economy, we must systematically and automatically reuse most of the materials placed in our bin bags. In my new book, Environmentally sustainable growth, I discuss the idea of extracting resources from a single mixed waste stream. As I wrote in this book:
“The solution to waste management will be based on new technologies. One of the most promising of these allows the collection of a single waste stream and then mechanically separates the garbage. With artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, we can expect this infrastructure to become operational and profitable over the next decade. Today, part of the sorted waste is sent to an anaerobic digester, part is recycled, part is burned to produce energy and the residues of the incinerated waste can be used as building material. However, we can expect advances in sorting infrastructure.
Specific infrastructure advancements needed would include waste sorting plants to separate food, plastics, paper, metals and chemicals, then sending those clean waste streams to reprocessing plants. These factories will be the logical connection points to a true circular economy. While some US cities have very low waste management costs, all of them pay to collect and dispose of waste. These costs can be shifted to a system that, instead of dumping and burning waste, will sort and sell raw materials such as plastic raw materials, paper and fertilizer chemicals. These recovered raw materials could pay for part of the disposal costs in the future. But the cost of this sophisticated waste management system will be high, and in its early stages it will require federal research grants, pilot projects and the cost of capital.
This type of technology is not a fairy tale: elements of it are already tested and some are actually used. Jason Calaiaro, president of Amp Robotics in Louisville, Colorado, explains how his company’s AI-based system works in an article in IEEE Spectrum. According Calaiarohis company:
“…develops hardware and software that uses image analysis to sort recyclables with much higher accuracy and recovery rates than conventional systems. Other companies are working in the same way to apply AI and robotics recycling, including Bulk handling systems, MachinexAnd Tomra. To date, the technology has been installed in hundreds of sorting facilities around the world. Expanding its use will prevent waste and help the environment by keeping recyclables out of landfills and making it easier to reprocess and reuse them.
In Italy, IBM is working with Hera, this country’s largest waste management and recycling company, to use video and AI to improve waste sorting and recycling. Academic literature on the elements of automated waste management systems is increasingly common. A recent article (2022) by Pravin R. Kshirsagar et al. is called “Robotic technique based on artificial intelligence for reusable waste”. This article reports a study that identified:
“…measures to be taken to maximize the use of garbage. This book describes a reusable industrial robot arm for picking up and sorting objects according to the resources they contain. Gripping, motion control, and object material categorization are all integrated into a fully automated and reusable system architecture in this study…Motion in terms of moving the robot in the most efficient way possible, grasping the robot and categorization have been incorporated into the process design movement.”
When the waste management system includes electric vehicles and is powered by renewable energy augmented by waste-to-energy electricity generation, elements of the circular economy based on renewable resources can move from theory to reality. operational reality. The goal should be to replace the extraction of natural resources from the earth with the extraction of the waste stream. The business model holds promise due to the rising cost of waste collection and disposal and the increased scarcity of some key natural resources. Recycling aluminum is already less expensive than making aluminum from raw materials.
Although the economics of waste extraction are promising, as with most new technologies, the financial risk of developing the technology is far from negligible. Moreover, we face the difficulty of overcoming institutional inertia to replace current practices with new ones. Sanitation utilities are not known for their voluntary adoption of new technologies and waste management techniques. Moreover, elected officials do not see much benefit in trying to solve waste problems. No mayor is eager to cut the ribbon for a new waste management facility. Finally, new technologies will require new waste management facilities, and few neighborhoods are eager to be the site of these facilities.
The technologies themselves are still under development, and the US federal government may consider funding engineering and management studies to accelerate the development of automated waste management and mining technologies. Given the number of private companies already working in this area, tax credits could also be used to encourage efforts to develop public-private partnerships between cities, regions, states and private management companies. garbage. Attracting capital and private investment in new waste treatment facilities may initially require either tax breaks or direct public investment. Cities like New York have the scale to invest their own capital budget in building a state-of-the-art waste management facility. If a modern New York City waste facility were to be located outside of the city, a riverside city (to accommodate barge transportation of waste) could be offered low-cost access to the facility to reduce its own waste management costs.
While advanced waste management is essential to urban sustainability, it would take a visionary public leader to see the need for innovation, and it would take a highly skilled political communicator to turn the waste problem into something more than the losing problem. that it has generally been. As the mining of the planet becomes more destructive and more expensive, I think the need for waste mining will become clearer. By then, the technology may well be more proven and the waste management revolution we need may become a reality.