New Technologies Could Revolutionize Waste Cleanup & Disposal Environmentalists Hope For A Cleaner, Greener, Trash-Free Future
We need to change how we think about trash. The average American produces about 254 million tons of trash in a year and recycles or composts around a third of it. Globally, we generate about 2.01 billion metric tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually. Overall waste generation could increase to 3.4 billion tons by 2050, according to the World Bank.
Our trash problem poses serious risks to the environment and human health. As world population grows, we’ll need to improve our waste cleanup and disposal methods. Here are some of the technologies and methods that may become important moving forward.
To protect the environment, we need to move toward a circular economy, meaning we need to recycle more. One challenge to increasing recycling rates is improving methods by which we distinguish different types of plastics. A technique called near-infrared spectroscopy could help with this. It involves measuring the spectral differences between the polymer types that make up the various kinds of plastics. Incorporating this technology into trash sorting equipment could make recycling programs more effective and reduce the costs associated with them.
Pneumatic Tube Systems
In the future, we may see fewer curbside garbage cans and fewer garbage trucks emptying them. Instead, we may throw our trash down chutes into a system of underground pneumatic tubes that whisks it away to a processing facility. In fact, these pneumatic systems are already in use in cities around the world, including New York’s Roosevelt Island. They may become more common in the future due to their ability to streamline trash collection.
Various industries use radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems, and they’ve started to gain popularity in the waste management sector recently. These systems can help waste management companies and local governments to collect data about waste management. Applying an RFID tag to each trash can allows garbage collectors to track who puts out garbage for collection, how often they do so and how much material they dispose of. This can help them to monitor the success of recycling programs, better optimize trash collection and more.
RFID tracking can also help to enable pay-as-you-throw programs, which involve charging customers based on how much trash they throw out. This can help incentivize people to reduce the amount of trash they produce and increase their recycling rates. Waste management companies can track the amount of waste each resident disposes of using the RFID tags for their bins and scales affixed to trash collection trucks.
Over the years, substantial amounts of waste have collected in the natural environment. Dredging is one process that can help us clean up our natural world. It involves using a machine called a dredge that creates a vacuum and sucks up sediment and debris from the bottom of a body of water. This process can be useful for removing trash and other pollutants from waterways. In addition to cleaning up the waterways, this also restores them to their earlier depth and condition.
The process of anaerobic digestion is useful for reducing waste volumes and creating useful byproducts from waste. Anaerobic digestion is the natural process through which microbes break down organic matter when there’s no oxygen available. The process generates biogas that can be used as fuel, creating value from trash. Local governments and businesses can use anaerobic digesters as a source of revenue. Michigan State University, for example, has a digester it uses to turn food waste into 2.6 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.
The Ocean Cleanup System
There are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, much of it accumulating in floating garbage patches. Cleaning up this trash is a major challenge, but the non-profit the Ocean Cleanup thinks it has a solution. The cleanup system consists of a large U-shaped net that traps plastic in its center. A vessel can then come out and collect the trash. The Ocean Cleanup recently launched its first system and ran into some hiccups but plans to relaunch soon.
Waste management is a huge challenge. Our landfills are overflowing, and you can find litter everywhere — even in the middle of the ocean. To meet the challenges of the future, we’re going to need to upgrade how we collect and dispose of our trash. These methods and technologies could help.