The world is in dire need of solutions to help us all curve and reduce our environmental footprint. Carbon emissions from transportation and energy production, deforestation and water quality are some of the most pressing challenges we are trying to address today. Yet, there is another significant problem that we need to get our arms around, which is waste.
Mountains of trash left unattended in unmanaged landfills and dumping sites are a significant source of methane emissions from materials decomposing and left in open air. These sites are environmental hazards also producing highly toxic fluids that can and often do contaminate valuable water. Even managed landfills pose a significant risk to watersheds. Landfilling methods are essentially 2,000 years old.
The treatment of waste is crucial to limit the increasing environmental impact that humans are causing and resulting in global warming. And it is a problem that can be solved part with good policy and part with technology. Policy is key and fundamental to create an environment for investment in infrastructure that will enable populations to have appropriate means to dispose of waste. It is also a mechanism to regulate and prevent the occurrence of catastrophic events that could harm the Environment.
The stakes are high. Misaligned policies and infrastructure can produce instances where not all the waste that is collected can be recycled or treated. Or, it can result in low levels of recycling and misapplication of technologies not capable of treating all the different types of waste produced. Another complicating factor is that waste is composed of multiple materials varying throughout the year from season to season and from location to location.
In an ideal world, we would need to parse our waste many times into many different components and treat each separately and differently to convert them into new materials. Japanese residents, for example, have ten different bins to separate their waste to be treated appropriately. Much of their waste is recycled and a significant portion is then incinerated or burned to produce heat converted into electricity.
Most technologies that treat waste are focused on a limited portion of the total volume produced by a community. Some recycling centers may deal with paper and plastic but not with glass and electronics, for example. Many communities do not have an appropriate way to dispose of paints or chemicals they end up being mixed as part of the waste dumped in a landfill.
So, how can we deal with such complex issue effectively and avoid damaging the Environment?
There are commercially available and proven technologies that can enable us to finally address the waste problem in an efficient and environmentally sound way. A centralized site where all forms of waste is received and treated accordingly could well simplify the problem.
For instance, we can build a waste management facility that has two process lines for recyclable and non-recyclable materials. The first line made of various commercially available sorting technologies will separate recycled materials into various piles of paper and different types of plastics and metals, for example. This line can also separate inert products such as stones, dirt, bricks, which could be recycled into other construction materials.
The second process line would be similar to a combination of a power plant and a refinery together. The non-recyclable material is subjected to a high temperature gasifier and converted into a gas. The gas can then be used to run a turbine and generate electricity or recombined into liquid fuels, which by their own nature will be cleaner and renewable! Newer gasification technologies are more efficient and cleaner than existing incineration plants. All this technology is available and working around the globe. This should make the concept appealing, quicker to execute, and less risk prone than inventing something new!
The key to improving waste management to eliminate emissions and environmental impact is to educate and disseminate this information. However, we need doing it quickly since time is truly of the essence.