HOW SCIENCE WILL HELP US GET RID OF Our Mountain of Junk (Apr, 1971)
HOW SCIENCE WILL HELP US GET RID OF Our Mountain of Junk
Researchers are developing astonishing ways to deal with one of man’s stickiest problems—taking out the garbage
By C. P. GILMORE
ILLUSTRATIONS BY RAY PIOCH
Some of the most exciting ideas and devices I’ve seen and heard of lately are designed to deal with one of the least exciting substances in existence —garbage. Thousands of top scientists and engineers around the country are turning their talents toward just one goal: getting rid of the tidal wave of junk that threatens to drown us and, at the same time, salvaging at least some of the millions of tons of valuable materials that we toss into our garbage cans each year.
It’s about time. Dumps in hundreds of cities pollute groundwater, spread disease, fill the air with black smoke when they burn. Beer cans litter highways, trash fouls the bottoms of once-clear streams. Rusting hulks of abandoned cars decorate the landscape coast to coast. The Public Health Service calls the situation “a national disgrace.”
Says Charles C. Johnson, the Service’s administrator of consumer protection and environmental health: “The only real improvement made in waste disposal in the last 50 years was putting an engine instead of a horse in front of the garbage truck.”
With our present dilapidated system, we’re trying to do an awesome job. Last year, communities hauled away 360 million tons of trash: 30 million tons of paper, four million tons of plastic, 48 billion cans, 26 million bottles, seven million TV sets, and vast quantities of grass clippings, dead cats, empty boxes, old clothes, discarded refrigerators and furniture.
Crisis threatens our cities. It’s already reached San Francisco, Washington, and New York. Tucson, Ariz., will run out of dumping space in three years. Says Karl Wolf of the American Public Works Association: “The major metropolitan areas are standing in front of an avalanche, and it threatens to bury them.”
The problem splits into two parts:
1) The immediate crunch. Tomorrow morning, sanitation departments around the country will be faced with one million tons of new garbage. They’ve got to do something with it before sundown, because the next day there will be another million tons to deal with.
2) The long-range squeeze. The present system can’t handle the job much longer—even in its present haphazard way. So, as we struggle with the daily flow, we’ve got to find better means of dealing with it for the future.
Best bets for doing something now? Widespread expansion of sanitary landfill and modern incineration. Properly designed landfill areas can be useful—for parks, for example. And a modern incinerator not only doesn’t pollute, it can even be used to generate electricity, an increasing need.
But landfill and incineration, even when used to generate power, destroy garbage. The long-range goal is to salvage valuable components. Richard Vaughn, director of the Public Health Service’s Bureau of Solid Waste Management, calls garbage a “resource out of place.”
Tapping treasure in trash. This isn’t a new idea. Many valuable metals-lead, copper, and aluminum, for example—are recycled to some extent. Twenty percent of the paper we use is reprocessed to make new paper.
Bottle-making companies launched a clean-up campaign last year, installing about 100 glass-collection centers in 21 states and paying a cent a pound for glass. Collections jumped from six-million to almost 23-million bottles a month in just three months.
The empties they collect are a valuable resource. The glass industry can stir in as much as 30 percent old glass when making new batches. And Bureau of Mines engineers at the University of Alabama have made bricks and glass-wool insulation from waste glass.
Both Reynolds and Kaiser Aluminum have begun similar collection campaigns around the country, paying 10 cents a pound for aluminum. Continental Can and National Steel recently got together and melted down 30 tons of scrap steel beer cans to show what can be done.
All such programs can be helpful, and should promote clean-up of the litter along America’s streets and highways, as well. But for the final answer we need something better: the Giant Greedy Garbage Gobbler. Into its gullet would go garbage. Out of a series of spouts at the other end would pour iron, glass, aluminum, paper, and other valuables, all neatly separated and ready for industrial re-use.
No such machine now exists. But’ in recent months, I’ve seen early versions of several that might hold just such promise.
Iron-digestion giants. At the Stanford Research Institute in Irvine, Calif., Dick Boettcher, project manager of solid-waste technology, and William B. Hauserman, an enviro mental research engineer, introduced me to their version of the universal garbage eater—a gangling, angular eight-foot-high machine called an air classifier.
Hauserman put a can of garbage through the machine twice with the air set at different velocities. Each time, a different fraction was separated. The first cut contained pieces of newspaper, cardboard, and styrofoam. The second was made up of wood chips, pieces of aluminum, and some light plastic. Left over was steel, glass,, and heavier plastic.
Boettcher is now trying to get the money to build a bigger machine. It would separate many materials through a variety of techniques, as shown in the sketch at the beginning of this article.
Another approach: a device at the Bureau of Mines Metallurgical Research Center in College Park, Md It puts refuse through a many-staged process that shreds, screens, vibrates, grinds, hammers, and subjects it to magnetic fields. It gets about 50 pounds of glass (separated by color) and 30 pounds of metal from every 100 pounds of incinerator ash.
Still another potentially important project is underway in the Agriculture Department’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis. Researchers there have been separating waste paper from the city’s garbage and using it to make new paper. The lab- oratory’s director, Dr. H.O. Fleischer, says the U.S. is still producing slightly more paper fiber than it is using. But in the next decade that will change. Dr. Fleischer thinks we should double the amount of wood fiber being recycled.
Madison may become the scene of one of the country’s first comprehensive attempts to get all the good out of garbage. Within the next few years, the Forest Products Service hopes to team up with two other government agencies to build a really complete recycling plant.
The Bureau of Solid Waste Management would grind garbage. Using an air classifier, the Forest Products Service would cull out paper and use it to make boxes, corrugated board, tissue paper, and other items. And the Bureau of Mines would extract metals and glass from what is left. The hope is to have a pilot plant in operation within the next few years.
Even recycling most of the useful substances won’t cure all of our solid-waste problems, since municipal garbage is just one of the problems.
Heaps of “heaps”. This year about six-million cars will be scrapped. Of these, some five million will be recycled—hauled back to the steel plant and remelted to make new steel. But the other million will be left to mar the countryside, where they will join the other 12 to 15 million already rusting there.
Virtually all old cars used to be reclaimed. But in the late fifties steelmakers began a switch. From the open-hearth furnace, which could take charges containing up to 50 percent of reclaimed steel, they went to the basic-oxygen furnace, which could take a maximum 30 percent.
The price of scrap fell, and often a man whose car had died found that if he had it towed to the nearest wrecking yard, he wouldn’t even get back the towing charge. Millions of cars began to be abandoned.
Now there’s a new kind of furnace —an electric one—that can use a 100-percent scrap charge. But there are only a few around so far. And hauling charges are still frequently more than the car’s value as scrap. Marvin Pesses, a metallurgical engineer who has studied the problem, says: “You can take a map of the U.S., and knowing the prices that mills will pay and the freight rates, draw circles beyond which little or no auto scrap will move to market.”
And car gobblers, too. A new machine now going into use will help change the picture. Some 100 giant car eaters have been set up around the country. They reduce an entire car to fist-size chunks in less than 60 seconds. Magnetic separation weeds out other metals, giving steel of about 98-percent purity.
These machines will make more cars salvageable. But many jalopies still won’t be picked up unless the communities involved treat them like any other garbage—and pay to have them hauled away.
What about tires? That’s another problem. We wear out 100 million tires a year. Richard B. Stone of the Sandy Hook (N.J.) Marine Laboratory says they can be made into artificial—and beneficial—reefs.
Goodyear has developed a method of making carbon black—one of the principal ingredients of tires—out of the old discards. And Firestone is building a plant to get oil and gas from them. Texas A&M research-engineer Douglas Bynum has tested asphalt made with ground-up tires. He claims it has added flexibility and resists cracking.
Despite such progress, there are still unsolved problems. Take plastics: Nobody really knows what to do with them. They don’t degrade; some, when burned, produce corrosive acids that can damage an incinerator.
Some experts recommend that a company selling disposable plastics should organize collection or advise a buyer how to get rid of the item. Another suggests that if we just wait around a million years or so, microbes that can break down plastics will probably evolve.
But there is no shortage of ideas about how to deal with many other products. For example: • One engineer says New York City should sink its garbage problem by barging waste out into New York Harbor and there use it to construct an island for the proposed fourth jet airport.
• Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have mixed garbage and sewage waste together and used the result as the aggregate in a new type of concrete. It’s said to be stronger than the regular kind.
• The Japanese put garbage into a powerful hydraulic press, squash it into dense blocks, and encase the blocks in a thin coat of concrete or steel. They’re exploring their use as building blocks.
• Scientists at the University of Illinois have found out how to turn garbage into methane gas. And researchers at the Interior Department and Bureau of Mines have made oil.
• At plants in Johnson City, Tenn., Houston, Tex., and elsewhere, experimenters are making garbage into compost—the same kind you make out of grass cuttings and garden waste in your backyard. The big question is: Will it sell?
• Researchers at North Carolina State University are experimenting with turning the cellulose in garbage into animal feed; so is a team at Louisiana State University. And Dr. A.O. Converse of Dartmouth says you can make sugar from the cellulose.
Taking a tip from the stars. Undoubtedly the most far-out idea of all—and the one that might solve the entire problem permanently—was proposed about a year ago by two Atomic Energy Commission scientists, Drs. Bernard Eastlund and William Gough. They call it the fusion torch.
Physicists have been working for years to produce a self-sustaining fusion reaction—the reaction that takes place in the heart of a star or an H-bomb. If they ever achieve it, we’ll have limitless, nonpolluting electric power.
Fusion could be the ultimate answer to garbage disposal, too. Eastlund and Gough suggest that a small part of the superhot plasma—ionized gas—from the fusion reaction could be directed into a special chamber. Anything thrown into the chamber would be instantly vaporized by the 50,000,000-degree plasma, and turned back into its constituent atoms.
Thus absolutely pure iron, sulfur, silicon, carbon, and scores of other elements could be extracted for recycling. Nobody knows how long it will take to achieve a self-sustaining fusion reaction, but garbage salvage could be one of its major benefits.
Of course, not all of today’s problems stem from lack of proper technology. The garbage-handling industry is fragmented and inefficient. Experts say we’ll never do the job right until our individual communities quit struggling and turn their garbage problems over to huge, regional garbage utilities.
Still, the costs would be high. Today, we spend $4.5 billion for waste disposal. Richard Vaughn, chief of the Bureau of Solid Waste Management, says it will take another billion a year to do it.
Finding the money. There have been a lot of ideas on how to pay for better garbage service. “To the extent possible,” President Nixon said in his State of the Union speech, “goods should be made to include the cost of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment.”
He was short on details, but some lawmakers have suggested that as one step, car buyers might be assessed a junking charge of, say, $10 when they buy a new car. This would pay for hauling it to the junkyard years later. Another proposal is to pay owners a small fee for turning in their old cars to junkyards.
By far the most comprehensive idea has come from a former New York City environmental protection administrator, Dr. Merril Eisenbud. The average cost for garbage disposal is about $20 a ton—one cent a pound-so Dr. Eisenbud recommended a penny tax on every disposable purchased item. The money would be disbursed to municipalities on a per-capita basis for handling their garbage. He believes his plan would also discourage use of unnecessary materials such as no-return bottles, extra packaging.
Whatever the outcome, the situation won’t change drastically until everyone realizes that “throwing it away” isn’t free, and that our present system is inadequate, expensive, and wasteful of natural resources. We’ve got to do better fast, or that avalanche of garbage we’ve been hearing about may come crashing down on our cities tomorrow.