Is There Gold in Garbage?
Someday soon, communities may brag about being the Saudi Arabia of old, discarded milk jugs.
Waste products—old packaging, used tires, broken electronics, waste streams from breweries—are starting to look like gold, according to a small, but growing group of investors and entrepreneurs.
Axion International, a company out of New Providence, New Jersey, has come up with a way to craft pilings, beams and other building components out of recycled plastic. How strong is it? In Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army has erected a bridge for tanks out of railroad ties fashioned from Axion’s beams made from recycled high-density polyethylene.
“Plastics were the Great Satan,” bellows Axion CEO Jim Kerstein. “It takes less energy to produce our materials than it takes to produce wood or steel.”
Think about it for a moment. Plastic and rubber come from petroleum, a substance that’s been at the center of geopolitical conflicts since at least the 1920s. Lehigh Technologies says its factory can produce recycled rubber to generate 4 million tires a year, curbing demand for oil by hundreds of millions of gallons.Bioplastech, out of Ireland, says it can take old plastic, feed it to a genetically modified organism, and get new, more easily recyclable plastic that can be made into bottles.
Strategic analysts worry about future supplies of nickel, copper and rare earth elements. When China threatened to stop exporting, Toyota and Mitsubishi announced metal recycling projects.
Garbage giant Waste Management harvests enough methane (natural gas) coming from its dump in Livermore, California to power its garbage trucks in the region.
And these are just the obvious examples where natural hazards find a new life. Joe Jones, CEO and founder of Skyonic, has come up with a way to convert carbon dioxide spewing from smokestacks into baking soda. In Moss Landing, California, Calera says it can convert flue gases from power plants into cement filler. Pollution is reduced with these technologies and the need to mine these materials declines.
Meanwhile, Oberon FMR produces food for fish farms from waste streams at breweries.
It might sound smelly, but if we can afford mining, and landfills, and imported petroleum, it might be the way to go. Then again, cost/benefit calculations can be cruel.
What valuables lurk in your garbage can?
Michael Kanellos is the Editor in Chief at Greentech Media, where he covers emerging technologies and companies in the green world. He has appeared on 60 Minutes, NPR, Al Jazeera, Fox News among other media outlets and speaks often at tech conferences. A graduate of Cornell University and the University of California, he has worked as an attorney, a travel writer and a busboy at a pancake house.