Friday, March 26, 2010
(Picture from here.)
One of the big issues facing people in the coming years is what to do with waste. I don't mean just industrial waste. I mean waste of all sorts: industrial, residential, medical, personal. Essentially, over the last couple of thousand years, we've taken advantage of disposability.
This isn't so surprising. There's a lot of utility in it. The Romans on occasion diverted streams to run through toilet systems. It was bad for those downstream but great for those using it. Physiologically, disposability is built into our systems. We dispose of CO2, urine and feces. We trust the rest of the world to use what we've produced.
Disposability has been extraordinarily helpful in medical procedures. We used to have to sharpen and sterilize scalpel blades. Now they're disposable just like shaving razors.
We are now in the position of being the primary producer, consumer and disposer of material on the face of the earth. There's nobody out there to pick up what we leave.
So: we're going to have to do it.
Part of the problem is the way we dispose of things. Disposability in the natural world implies there's some organism downstream that's going to pick up the material and consume it, likely producing something we like. Bacteria consume urea and sewage, turning it into plant consumable material. We consume plants. This is a good thing.
But bacteria haven't really stepped up to the plate for used syringe needles and Clorox bottles. We're going to have to do it ourselves.
One approach to this is a life cycle energy analysis. Simply put, such an analysis is intended to describe the total energy required for a product from manufacturing to recycle. This is often discussed under the rubric of green manufacturing.
In the natural world, there is a trophic cycle for energy, waste products, etc. But the energy levels between trophic levels are comparatively small. Antelope eats the grass, tiger eats the antelope, bacteria degrade the tiger is just a small piece of the puzzle and a fairly tight ecology. Consider the ocean where sunlight drives the phytoplankton which are eaten by the small mesozoans, both of which are eaten by the small crustaceans and animal larva. These are then eaten by small fish or other small sized organisms, then eaten by larger fish, etc. It takes a while to get to the barracuda or the shark.
Humans come along leaping entire trophic levels in a single bound: we take a dredge net and pick everything up anything larger than a thimble and discard what they don't need. This is horribly inefficient. But, as I said, unsurprising considering our heritage.
Now, we have to grow beyond that heritage. Can we?
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