Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The 3 best pieces of news about trash you'll hear today

Recent awareness about waste over the last few decades, in the form of recycling, reusing products, and manufacturing better packaging, is paying off. As The Economist reports:

"… the pace at which the rich world churns out rubbish has been slowing. Between 1980 and 2000 the amount of waste produced by the OECD countries increased by an average of 2.5% a year. Between 2000 to 2005 the average growth rate slowed to 0.9% … well behind the rate of economic growth (2.2%)."

The way we get rid of the garbage we do produce might soon be radically changed, too. Lots of new, high-tech disposal methods are being developed. One particularly interesting one is called “plasma gasification,” and uses electricity to make plasma so powerful it can disintegrate any trash into its constituent molecules. We’re talking about banana peels, aluminum cans, dirty diapers, and even chemical weapons. The only output from that process is a black glass that can be used for many different types of construction and a synthetic gas that could be converted into fuel. Even more of a miracle, it’s self-sustaining: electricity gets it going, but then as long as you put in trash the plasma keeps on working.

More down-to-earth technology is partially responsible for the trend to less trash. As the computer age dawned, many people predicted a “paperless office”—but instead, as information was disseminated more easily, printing was in much higher demand. But it’s finally coming true. Since 2001, American office workers’ paper use has been in steady decline. A new generation is entering the workforce, one more comfortable with storing information on their computers, and increasingly, on the Internet. High-end paper remains in demand, for specialty uses such as printing photographs. But using paper for mundane tasks such as forms and memos is increasingly antiquated. Why risk losing a piece of paper when you can store something online, accessible to everyone and easily indexed and searchable? It’s now commonplace to pay bills online, file taxes online, and use Google to find restaurants—unused Yellow Pages books lie lonely in apartment building lobbies.

“Less is more,” The Economist, A Special Report on Waste, p. 16, February 28, 2009; Michael Behar, “The Prophet of Garbage,” Popular Science,, March 1, 2007; “Not dead, just resting,” The Economist, p. 18, October 11, 2008.