Americans like to believe they lead the world, but in one category they may wish they weren’t so noticeable. In 2000, the 275 million citizens of the United States produced 201 billion kg. of garbage – that is about 730 kg. for every man, woman and child in the country. This is the equivalent of the weight of water filling 68,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. And that’s not all. American industry produced an additional 1.1 billion kg. of dangerous materials, so you can add another 400 pools of toxic waste to the total.
The really frightening thing about this development is that much of the rest of the world appears to be following America’s example. The consumer economy is on the rise from Bangkok to Buenos Aires. Moreover, within 25 years the world population is expected to increase from 6 to 8 billion. By 2050, it will reach 10 billion. Where will we find room for all the garbage these people will make? We must find a way to deal with this problem or we may quite literally find ourselves buried under it.
“Either we need to control ourselves or nature will,” says Gary Liss, an expert in recycling based in California. Ideally, argues Liss, we ought to copy nature rather than fight it. In nature, after all, there is no such thing as garbage. An ecosystem is seamlessly woven together. When one portion of it dies, it becomes the food of another part. A rotting apple is lunchtime for the microbes. Nothing is wasted and nothing is left behind. Creating such a system is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. It is a difficult, but not an impossible challenge. To meet it, however, we must make the best use of new forms of organization, of technology, but most importantly we must develop new ways of thinking. Let’s look at some examples.
One group of businesses began an “eco-industrial park” that shows how much can be gained by sharing and recycling resources. Within the park, a power company, a pharmaceuticals firm, a wallboard producer and an oil refinery make use of each other’s wastes to make their own products. The power plant sells the sulfur dioxide it produces as waste to the wallboard company, which then uses it as a raw material. Moreover, all the companies share in the production and use of steam, gas and cooling water, selling excess heat to nearby homes and greenhouses. This benefits both the producers, the consumers and the environment – the kind of “win-win” solution the future needs if humanity’s needs are to be met on a sustainable basis.
New technologies like those being developed within bioengineering may also help. Scientists at Monsanto Corporation in the USA are working on genetically engineered corn plants with stalks containing the kind of fiber content paper companies would find attractive. If they are successful, they will make use of today’s waste product and in addition ease pressure on the world’s shrinking forests. Similarly, efforts are being made to develop microbes that can eat toxic substances in industrial waste, turning them into harmless by-products or even raw materials. So long as such genetic tinkering does not itself threaten the ecology, it promises to be a powerful tool in the battle against garbage.
Another approach is, of course, to increase the amount of recycling already in use around the world. Of the 201 billion kg of garbage produced yearly in the US, only 25% is currently being recycled. But there is a growing market for this garbage among recycling industries which can turn discarded plastic bottles into jackets, worn out tires into briefcases and bottle caps into belts. Similarly, new products may be produced which may be more easily reused. For example, Jesse Ausube, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, believes that today’s concrete bricks will gradually be replaced by new types of foamed glass that can be made unusually strong but still kept lightweight. Glass is a very recyclable material made from sand, and it can be crushed back into something very like sand again, ready for another round.
There is a limit, of course, to how many times materials can be reused. In the long run the only solution is to reduce the amount of material we use in the first place. That is a difficult task in a world in which the population is growing and the consumer economy expanding. What may be required is an entirely new form of production. Prophets of the future spy a potential manufacturing process that may eliminate much of the waste found in production today. It is called nanotechnology – the technology of the very small. Using nanotechnology, researchers in the field expect to be able to create products by building them from scratch, atom by atom, molecule by molecule. There would be no waste or garbage left over. Moreover, the products manufactured would be much smaller and more energy efficient – imagine a computer the size of a sugar cube powered by batteries smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence. That could add up to substantial savings for everyone.
Lifestyles and attitudes
Technology is not in itself enough, however. Just as critical are changes in lifestyles and attitudes about what constitutes the “good life”. It is simply not possible for everyone in the world to have two cars and a home of their own. Or to live in a city. Yet more that half of humanity will soon live in urban areas. Most of these will be in the developing world. By 2015, twenty-seven of the world’s 33 largest cities will be Asian. Jakarta, to mention just one, will overflow with nearly 37 million inhabitants. How can such crowding be managed?
Perhaps it could be avoided. Information technology and the Internet could end the centralization of production that has been at the heart of the growth of cities for the last 200 years. We could stop having large factories employing thousands of persons to mass-produce millions of the same “widgets”. Rather than moving people to the work, the Internet could move the work to the people. Decentralized production could allow people to make a decent living where they lived, rather than having to move to cities to find work. Cities might stop growing. In time (assuming we have time), they might even begin to shrink.
Quality of life
Taken together, the ideas outlined above lead to a 21st century in which there might be what Brad Allenby of AT&T has called a “dematerialization” of society – a shift in our view of what makes our quality of life better. Rather than material goods, perhaps we can learn to put more value on things that don’t swallow up resources. In the future our wish list might be different. We might want the fastest browser on the net rather than the fastest sports car on the road. Rather than fly to London for a conference, we may prefer to teleconference in cyberspace. Rather than join a car pool, maybe we’ll work in a virtual office or factory on the Internet to which we can telecommute (think of savings in gasoline alone!). Rather than wish for an apartment facing Regents Park, imagine bringing the variety of London into your own home in the countryside.
What’s more, as society becomes more information-rich, the easier it may be to find uses for the diminishing amount of garbage that is still produced. After all, one person’s trash may be another person’s treasure. Like an enormous garage sale, the Internet could potentially help bind consumers and producers together into one seamless system of recycling, finally fulfilling Gary Liss’s desire to see garbage become a vile thing of the past.