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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In consumer markets, recycling has already spawned an army of alchemists. Jackets are being made from discarded plastic bottles, briefcases from worn-out tires and belts from beer-bottle caps. Even though the U.S. has barely begun to get serious about recycling, about 25% of its 430 billion lbs. of municipal garbage is now salvaged, at least temporarily, for some sort of second life.

Recycling will gain momentum as we develop materials that are easier to reuse. For example, Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, predicts that architects will increasingly rely on new types of foamed glass that can be made unusually strong but still lightweight. Glass is a very recyclable material made from sand, and it can be crushed back essentially into sand. Ausubel thinks we could see foamed glass replace much of the concrete in today's buildings.

There are limits, of course, to how many lives you can give a pile of debris. In the long run, we have to reduce the amount of material we use in the first place. Some progress is being made--aluminum cans and plastic soda bottles have become thinner over the years, for example--but more sweeping reductions will require a whole new kind of manufacturing process.

That, says Lifset, is where nanotechnology plays a role. In this emerging field, which employs just about every kind of scientific and engineering discipline, researchers expect to create products by building them from scratch, atom by atom, molecule by molecule. This bottom-up nanotechnological way of making things differs from the traditional drilling, sawing, etching, milling and other fabrication methods that create so much waste along the way.

Researchers have made headway toward molecule-size transistors and wires and even batteries thousands of times as small as the period at the end of this sentence. These laboratory feats make talk of sugar cube-size computers less speculative than it was a few years ago. Says Lifset: "A lot of the consumer goods and industrial equipment could become dramatically smaller when nanotechnology comes online. That, plus more efficient recovery of the discarded goods, ought to translate into huge reductions in waste."

But technology is not enough. Just as critical are changes in attitudes and lifestyles. Brad Allenby, AT&T's vice president for environment, safety and health, believes our move from the industrial age to the information age could help enormously. At last count, he says, 29% of AT&T's management force telecommuted, meaning less reliance on cars. This, Allenby speculates, could be part of something bigger--a shift in our view of what enhances our quality of life. Maybe we'll put less value on things that use lots of materials--like three cars in the family driveway--and more on things that don't swallow up resources--like telecommuting and surfing the Internet. Maybe downloading collections of music from the Web will reduce the demand for CD cases. And while visions of a "paperless office" have proved wildly wrong so far, we still have an opportunity to use computers to cut consumption of paper and the trees it comes from.

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