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How tech is trying to solve America’s trash pile-up

Some scientists believe that existing microbes in the ocean may already be eating plastic both on the surface and on the ocean floor

November 25, 2019

10:58 AM

25 November 2019

10:58 AM

Households in America produce 254 tons of trash annually and only 34 percent is recycled. Every person creates 1,316 pounds of trash destined the landfill, about the weight of a grizzly bear. America represents 4 percent of the world’s population yet produces 12 percent of the world’s waste and Germany recycles around twice as much as the US. 

The statistics tell one story. A different tale is that recycling programs across the country are failing as companies struggle to make money and the amount of waste that ends up as landfill is growing every year. It’s a depressing story of failed ambition confronted by market realities that has left the mountains of trash growing as a monument to American excess and unchecked environmental pollution.

China used to be the dumping ground for the world’s waste, but two years ago it began to clean its own house and turned away everyone else’s garbage. Since then, the world has swirled in a mess of its own creation, unable to process even a tiny fraction of the trash.

Since canceling recycling contracts with the world, China’s plastic imports have dropped by 99 percent and waste paper by 33 percent. The result is that national recycling programs have been set back 25 years. Across America, cities have reduced or scrapped recycling programs and instead are choosing to just dump collective waste into landfills. The Chinese recycling decision means that over the next 10 years, 110m tons of plastic will have to find a different recycling home.

Part of the challenge is that dumping waste into a landfill has historically been much more profitable than recycling. That didn’t matter so much when China was happy to ship manufactured goods to developed countries and then ship back waste in what would otherwise have been empty vessels. Now that economic model has been destroyed, cities and states are seeking more creative solutions.

One answer is the SamurAI, a robot waste sorter invented by Machinex a Canadian company. The robot arm can pick 70 individual items every minute compared with less than half that for a human and far greater accuracy. Artificial intelligence algorithms ensure that it is self-learning and so improves and it never needs to take a coffee break. 

A company called Closed Loop Partners, which includes investors from 15 of America’s leading companies including Amazon, Unilever and 3M, is creating a new business model that is designed to create what the company calls the ‘circular economy’. This means instead of a linear process where consumption creates trash that goes straight to the landfill, Closed Loop’s solution means that that trash is collected, processed and then repurposed into consumer goods.

An investment by Closed Loop in a recycling company in Chicago has increased recycling rates from 20 tons a day to 20 tons an hour. Over the longer haul, Closed Loop wants to eliminate 16m tons of greenhouse gases, 8m tons of landfill and improve recycling for 18m US households and save cities $60m a year in waste management costs.

The Closed Loop model can attempt to break the traditional supply chain but even the most idealistic of investment firms will struggle to change the global habits of generations. Instead, solutions are more likely to emerge from technology developments that can match and exceed the scale of the challenge.

For example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers an area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area three times the size of France and hovers in the ocean between Hawaii and California. It is made up of plastic bottles, LEGOs, old shoes and even plastic computer monitors which don’t degrade in the ocean and are trapped by swirling ocean currents that create a vortex within which all the trash is suspended.

The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean. 

A study by the environmental group Eco Watch estimates that 40 percent of the world’s oceans are no longer ocean but instead floating plastic debris. There are currently an estimated 5.25 trillion tons of plastic debris in the ocean and that number is expected to double in the next 10 years. While the clean up ask may seem impossible, help is on the way.

Some scientists believe that existing microbes in the ocean may already be eating plastic both on the surface and on the ocean floor. Research has not yet revealed just how this might be happening but scientists are convinced this may explain just why the plastic that has been found in the ocean is far less than is known to have been dumped there. 

A different solution created by a project called Ocean CleanUp involves deploying miles of floating line with a skirt suspended underneath that embraces the floating plastic debris and concentrates it into a smaller space where it can be extracted by a garbage ship. Successful trials show that the system works and the organization estimates that 50 percent of the Great Ocean Garbage Patch might be cleaned up within five years.

A more hopeful avenue being followed for waste on land and on sea is the concept of artificial life (AL) which is being explored by a number of new companies around the world. These companies are seeking to develop life at a cellular level using both artificial intelligence and biotechnology to create life with a number of very specific applications. One would be a collection of cells that would be programmed to digest plastic and other forms of waste to create a usable end product.

A bipartisan group of US senators has introduced legislation known as Save Our Seas 2.0 Act which is intended to tackle ocean pollution while finding innovative ways to improve recycling at home. This is a first attempt to generate domestic and foreign awareness of the scale of the waste problem and finding money to come up with creative solutions. In the current political climate, it is unclear if the legislation will pass White House scrutiny.

Many of the solutions to waste management being discussed right now are a race between deployment and the growing mountains of trash on land and at sea. Most answers are too small to make much difference. What seems most promising is the research into large scale answers such as microbes that can digest plastic or more efficient recycling techniques that are cost effective. 


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