Can We Make Garbage Disappear?

Through the magic of recycling and modern alchemy, we will move swiftly toward a world without waste

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Whoever said "waste not, want not" hasn't had much influence on 276 million Americans. In 1997 we gave a collective heave-ho to more than 430 billion lbs. of garbage. That means each man, woman and child tossed out an average of nearly 1,600 lbs. of banana peels, Cheerios boxes, gum wrappers, Coke cans, ratty sofas, TIME magazines, car batteries, disposable diapers, yard trimmings, junk mail, worn-out Nikes--plus whatever else goes into your trash cans. An equivalent weight of water could fill 68,000 Olympic-size pools.

And that's just the relatively benign municipal solid waste. Each year American industries belch, pump and dump more than 2.5 billion lbs. of really nasty stuff--like lead compounds, chromium, ammonia and organic solvents--into the air, water and ground. That's about 400 Olympic poolfuls of toxic waste.

The really bad news is that most of the planet's 6 billion people are just beginning to follow in the trash-filled footsteps of the U.S. and the rest of the developed world. "Either we need to control ourselves or nature will," says Gary Liss of Loomis, Calif., a veteran of recycling and solid-waste programs who advises clients aiming to reduce landfill deposits. As he sees it, garbage--maybe every last pound of it--needs to become a vile thing of the past.

That may seem impossible, but it's not unprecedented. In nature, Liss points out, there is no such thing as waste. What dies or is discarded from one part of an ecosystem nourishes another part. Liss says humanity can emulate nature's garbage-free ways, but it will require innovative technology and a big change in attitude.

We can get a glimpse of a less profligate future in Kalundborg, Denmark. There, an unusual place called an "eco-industrial park" shows how much can be gained by recycling and resource sharing. Within the park, a power company, a pharmaceuticals firm, a wallboard producer and an oil refinery share in the production and use of steam, gas and cooling water. Excess heat warms nearby homes and agricultural greenhouses. One company's waste becomes another's resource. The power plant, for example, sells the sulfur dioxide it scrubs from its smokestacks to the wallboard company, which uses the compound as a raw material. Dozens of these eco-industrial parks are being developed all over the world.

Biotechnology is giving us additional tools to cope with waste--and turn it to our advantage. We now have microbes that can take toxic substances in contaminated soil or sludge--including organic solvents and industrial oils--and convert them into harmless by-products. Soon we may be using genetic engineering to create what Reid Lifset, editor of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, calls "designer waste streams." Consider all that stalk, or stover, that every corn plant grows along with its kernels. Scientists at Monsanto and Heartland Fiber are working toward engineering corn plants with the kind of fiber content that paper companies would find attractive. So long as the genetic tinkering poses no ecological threat, that approach could tap into a huge stream of agricultural waste, turning some of it into an industrial ingredient.

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