minding and mining
the human garbage
TURNING TRASH INTO TREASURE
Froetschel is managing editor of YaleGlobal
Online. She is the author of five mystery novels
that examine globalization and public policies at the local level.
world is drowning in garbage with rising consumerism. Global urbanization
and a swelling middle class contribute to higher volumes of waste
and increasing costs due to regulations.
have tolerance for landfills or toxic fumes associated with incinerators,
and developing countries are no longer willing to serve as dumping
grounds. Seeking to reduce costs of waste management, governments
promote recycling and impose regulations at every stage from production
to packaging. Sustainability and reducing waste of a growing population
remains a priority for governments and multinational organizations
like the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Co-operation
growing awareness of the challenges of huge stockpiles of waste,
researchers develop new technologies, working with entrepreneurs
and designers to transform waste into new products which are then
sold back to consumers. Plastic bottles are pulverized to become
soft fleece jackets. Glycerine from biodiesel fuel production
is fed to farm animals. Animal waste is heated and sterilized,
then shaped into pellets for use as fertilizer or animal feed.
Electric impulses separate contaminants to purify wastewater.
Architectural firms use old tires, drums and pallets for playground
equipment and decks. Blast furnace slag in Japan is sold for making
cement, and recycled plastics are used to make ammonia. Swedes
burn garbage for energy, and other nations invest in facilities
that heat sewage sludge to kill bacteria before compressing the
material into bricks for construction.
suggests that shoppers respond positively to labels touting recycled
goods or packaging. A 2015 Nielsen global survey on corporate
social responsibility reported that 66 percent of global online
consumers across 60 countries expressed willingness to pay more
for sustainable goods from companies committed to positive social
and environmental impact: Respondents earning $20,000 or less
expressed more willingness to pay for such goods than those earning
$50,000 and more. Likewise, respondents in the Middle East, Africa,
Asia and Latin America expressed greater willingness to pay more
for such goods than consumers in North America and Europe.
of waste removal vary widely around the world depending on regulation.
Industries anticipate more regulations, and thinktanks like the
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which supports a regenerative economy,
hunt for new opportunities to reduce and reuse waste. The task
of sorting through waste, regarding it as a resource, is no longer
reserved for poor or undeveloped nations. Scavenging has gone
high-tech – and the circular economy, industrial symbiosis
and industrial ecology come with new regulations and initiatives:
Governments have targeted food waste since the World Bank suggested
in 2014 that about one third of all food produced for human consumption
is lost or wasted. France became the first country to ban retailers
form disposing of expired food products, and Italy followed suit.
Both countries lifted barriers on redistribution to encourage
donations and composting, and many stores around the world already
sell items near the expiration date to discount stores.
Union encourages markets and restaurants to use ingredients nearing
their expiration date in prepared meals and to apply new dates
for products not yet spoiled. The United States does not prohibit
markets or restaurants from using ingredients beyond their expiration
date for prepared dishes.
has worked with US regulators to end the practice of tossing out
an entire carton of eggs if just one egg is broken. The company
sends flawed fruit to jam suppliers, and also funds research on
turning food waste into animal feed and compost.
The World Health Organization points to the win-win opportunities
of managing animal waste for fertilizer, fuel, building materials
and animal feed.
from pigs, cows and other animals are used as fertilizer for non-vegetable
crops. The World Health Organization has issued guidelines on
treating human waste for use in agriculture and aquaculture: “The
ancient practice of applying human excreta to the land has maintained
soil fertility in many countries of Eastern Asia and the Western
Pacific for over 4000 years, and remains the only agricultural
use option in areas without sewerage facilities.” The document
notes that most of the world yield of farmed fish comes from ponds
fertilized with human and animal waste, and WHO also offers a
manual on safe practices.
extension agents guide farmers on using poultry excrement. Chicken
litter is “an acceptable source of protein for beef cattle"
and "typically inexpensive relative to other high-protein
feedstuffs,” report Jay Daniel and K.C. Olson for University
of Missouri Extension, though they offer a caveat: The practice,
“while a sound nutritional management option, carries with
it certain stigmas that may cause beef consumers to become alarmed.”
AND HAZARDOUS WASTE: Singapore, with limited land, tracks hazardous
waste, banning some substances and encouraging reliance on those
that can be recycled. Industries regularly reuse chemicals like
sulphuric acid, ammonia and more, and Singapore’s National
Environment Agency organizes exchanges of spent acids, solvents,
oil and other materials.
than half of US states have reported making some use of one or
more types of mining and mineral processing waste for highway
construction and riprap ground cover near bridges and overpasses
to prevent erosion. The US Federal Highway Administration has
noted that “Depending on the mineral waste processing operations
and parent rock involved, acidic leachate from sulphide-based
metallic ores, low-level radiation from uranium host rock, or
radon gas generation from uranium and phosphate rocks may be environmental
agencies like the Department of Ecology in Washington do not require
businesses to “obtain permission to beneficially recycle
a dangerous waste.” The regulator encourages businesses
to review their projects closely and determine that “the
recycling is legitimate and does not amount to disposal of a dangerous
waste without a permit.”
A goal for the non-profit Council for Textile Recycling is to
eliminate textile waste to landfills by 2037. New secondary markets
are opening for recycled cotton. An international consortium of
200 companies collects used clothing and textiles to sort and
grade them: 45 percent is reused as apparel; 30 percent as industrial
wiping or polishing cloths; and 20 percent for sound-proofing,
carpet pads and furniture stuffing while 5 percent is unusable.
resist fast-fashion trends by frequenting second-hand stores and
choosing clothing that won’t quickly go out of style. Recycled
clothing is a $1 billion industry worldwide, according to the
Association for Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles.
1990s manufacturers began inserting microbeads made of polyethylene
– the most common plastic and the most valuable for recycling
purposes – into cosmetics, soaps and personal care products.
A decade later fishermen realized that the beads entered lakes
and streams after passing through drains and water treatment systems.
Canada, the United States and Europe took steps to ban rinse-off
products containing microbeads. Many companies have voluntarily
phased out production and are replacing the small beads with natural
substitutes like pulverized nutshells, an agricultural waste by-product.
circular economy, turning trash into treasure, promises innovation
and sustainability. Consumers appreciate recycling, reuse and
other ways to protect the environment, but they also expect to
be treated as partners – fully informed through adequate
labeling, regulatory and safety reviews, and education campaigns.
© 2016 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center