“Mine Landfills Now” is the most recent publication of Captain Charles Moore and the Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research, based in Long Beach, California. Moore is credited with discovering the ‘garbage patches’ in the world’s oceans in 1997 as described in Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans, Penguin Group/USA, 2010. Moore continues to undertake oceanographic research and is an international activist for Zero Waste. Moore and ILSR’s Neil Seldman serve as co-chairs of the Save the Albatross Coalition, a project of the Zero Waste USA.
This article was written in an effort to reclaim utopian possibilities being pushed aside during a dysfunctional period in today’s global society, created by a peaking irrational, yet profitable global economy. It has become increasingly clear that transition to a steady state or circular economy will not be smooth. The near permanence of technologically initiated deleterious changes to essential planetary systems will require long transition times in order to reach a fully functional, yet undeniably possible utopian future. Waste, in all its forms, is the determinant negation of the global modus operandi. Like bacteria that consume agar-agar on a Petri dish until their waste causes their collapse, the waste of our profligate consumption will continue to build up in the atmosphere, on land and in the sea until natural forces collapse the status quo’s global system. To keep our eyes on the prize we need to envision a totally different paradigm, one which recognizes no such thing as waste, only resources in different forms needing to be understood and used renewably. “Mine Landfills Now” is a transitional attempt at that type of understanding.
Mine Landfills Now!
Enough with the dystopian present! The box our civilization has made for us sucks! The very simple desideratum for humans, formulated by philosopher Barrington Moore, Jr. to maximize pleasure and minimize pain over time, is not being delivered by modern civilization. We’re trending in the opposite direction. Our amazing technology cries out: “We can fix this,” but it doesn’t. Why? Because our systems of production and distribution are too remote from local controls that would ensure we make things for ourselves, not for an increasingly irrational market, driven by devious advertising based on short term satisfaction of false, rather than true needs. The resulting “throw-away society” has burdened the entire world with difficult or impossible to recycle waste, Collection systems, even where they exist, cannot capture it all. What is captured is taken to landfills or unregulated dumpsites. In the global south’s rapidly developing urban areas, for every million residents, it is estimated there are a thousand waste “scavengers” (truly recyclers), living in and around the dumpsites. Given the billions living in these new metropoles, there are millions of waste pickers constituting what is euphemistically called the “informal sector,” who all too frequently die on the job.
The International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), with member organizations from many developed nations, representing 100,000 “formal sector” waste management professionals, responded to this reality with a plan to close uncontrolled dumpsites, and turn them into “modern” controlled landfills (tombs for wasted resources that emit methane). We don’t need to close dumpsites to make controlled landfills, we need to open them both up to modern technology. As we used to say in the western United States, “There’s gold in them thar hills.” If closing dumpsites was such a good idea, wouldn’t ISWA’s GoFundMe for this purpose have raised more than 305 Euros? Mining landfills and dumpsites will be difficult, but extracting resources from them will develop the technology for the truly circular economy, which won’t process discards for a reluctant market, but for products to fill vital local needs. The resistance to creating Resource Recovery Parks must be overcome. As I said in my keynote talk at ISWA’s Congress in Bilbao, Spain, “You need to change your name to the International Resource Recovery Association.” This utopian vision’s time has come, and it need not compete with the waste pickers of the present, at least not at first. Entire cities have grown around today’s landfills and dumpsites. Closing them means throwing vast numbers of “informal” solid waste professionals out of work.
Let’s think about how to change dumpsites to resource centers, and let’s showcase healthy competition between waste pickers on one side and modern sorting technology on the other, literally. When they meet, the dumpsite will have been completely mined, with both sides having learned from the other. After a preliminary design for the Resource Recovery Park (RRP), we make the organics productive rather than putrescible. They fertilize the greenscape necessary to make the recovery park beautiful! I have forty-six years of experience growing organically. In 1974, I started my first garden by creating a meter-high mound of shredded greenwaste, putting a small amount of soil on its peak, and planting my seeds there. The results were phenomenal. As the plants grew, the greenwaste decomposed and its loose character made root penetration easy.
Along the roadsides of the RRP, trenches are dug for greenwaste and foodwaste with about 3 times as much greenwaste as food waste. All the greenwaste doesn’t have to be shredded. Larger branches are cut to lay down in the trenches. This mixture, with a carbon/nitrogen ratio of 20-30/1 is first lightly covered with soil from the excavation and poked to get air and soil organisms into the mix. After a few weeks, more soil is heaped on and the roadside is planted with trees and local landscape or food plants. Remember, this is a park where resources are recovered, and created.
For the large composting area, the greenwaste needs to be shredded, but here manual labor is also a good fit. A worker with a machete working on top of a waist high tree stump cuts greenwaste into 15cm or less pieces and mixes with putrescibles in the meter high pile or windrow, where temperatures rise to around 60c. This will kill human and plant pathogens. When the pile is turned, the outer layer becomes the inner and reaches sterilizing temperatures. Turning can be done mechanically or manually, and a greater frequency results in faster finished compost. Ideally, the compost area is shaded by trees, because less water is required. The resulting “brown gold” is the fertilizer for the adjacent farm, which can be vertical, and/or horizontal. If space is at a premium, we go up, if not, we go out. Compost tea can feed the plants in a vertical farm.
A simple earthworm test will indicate if the compost is compromised by harmful chemicals. Earthworms are added to a compost sample and monitored for mortality. Composting is the low-cost remediation measure for brownfields, and if it takes more than one round of aerobic decomposition to remediate the toxics, so be it. I take green waste from local gardeners and food waste from neighbors on my urban farm, and have experienced earthworm death from unknown toxics, however, with continued composting, my earthworm population recovered and remained healthy as more people have decided to “not panic, go organic,” and the list of banned toxics continues to grow.
Packaging accounts for about 50% of plastic production, yet is very difficult or impossible to recycle in the current economy. What can be done with mixed plastics? They can be made into building blocks. I helped build a lifeguard shack on Manhattan Beach with mixed plastic blocks made by a local company, ByFusion.
Blends are based on the type of molds and the temperature melting the blocks. Contaminants like metal, glass and rubble at low concentrations are not deal breakers. The buildings at the park can be made of this material, and covered with siding or plastered if needed. Windows in those buildings can come from a small glass plate manufacturing operation on site. The panels will let in light, but won’t be see-through quality if made from mixed glass. If made from color sorted glass, they could support a stained-glass artist workshop. Whole panes that come to the landfill can be cut and installed where needed for a clear view.
The explosion of 2755 tons of ammonium nitrate in Beirut recently turned the city’s windows to shards. The “formal” waste management industry needs an emergency response team. In the oil industry, an international response system responds to spills. Resource sorting equipment as well as manufacturing systems can be containerized and deployed for rapid response. In my opinion, the ammonium nitrate should have been quickly sent out to farmers and gardeners in small batches as a soil amendment. Although not an “organic” practice, it is better than blowing up your city! Ceramics and glass shredded together can aid in paving the park’s roads or serve as a soil amendment. Shredded plastic should not be used to avoid generation of microplastics.
Textiles need to be sorted into natural or synthetic/blends. Natural fibers have many roads to recovery, but synthetics are problematic. The clothing industry needs a wakeup call. Polyester fibers are invading the biosphere, and when they reach the nano scale, they can pass into the circulatory system and even through the blood/brain barrier. As they are insulators, they don’t belong in electrical organs like the brain. Studies in fish have shown that with nanoplastics lodged in their brains, they spend less time feeding and don’t go as far looking for food. Polyester fibers are a huge industry, but unfortunately, like many other technological marvels, they need to be phased out. The entire plastics industry needs a complete overhaul, with the first R=Reduce at the forefront. In the meantime, mixed plastic bricks for construction will have to do.
Wood unsuitable for construction can be chopped up and used as mulch. Recovered paper seems to have a market nearly everywhere. Metals pose sorting challenges like plastics, especially in E-waste, but offer great rewards. There are limits to extraction of raw materials from the earth, and recycling of precious metals and rare earths needs to be ramped up. Mining the Moon and Mars will come long after the mining of the seafloor, which itself poses big challenges and environmental hazards. It makes more sense to mine landfills and dumpsites! The valuable materials they contain have already been purified, and once isolated, are ready for reuse as those highly desirable “technical nutrients” that feed the circular economy. A disassembly area for E-waste increases the recovery rate and provides jobs.
Hazardous and difficult to recover waste creates the need for the Resource Recovery University (RRU). The RRU stands proudly at the entrance to the RRP, with faculty and students taking on the challenges of the most difficult to recycle materials, and perfecting the recovery and reuse of the rest. The heroic images of the explorer, the prospector, and the wildcatter need to be transferred to the new heroes, the recyclers, who merit their own Nobel Prize. As they develop new recovery technologies, a new society emerges. Modern “brick and mortar” institutions will be very different from those in the past. The NGO community occupies the moral high ground, and is tied to the needs of the local community. Since 2013, the Post Landfill Action Network has been an activist leader in this space. They provide curriculum, and work with universities to create zero waste campuses. They will lend valuable experience to the creation of the RRU.
The key to success will be the ability of the Resource Recovery Park to produce products needed by the local community. One of the functions of the RRU will be the creation of a Regional Reliance Inventory (RRI). This tool will be in the form of a simple ratio. The number of essential products (e.g., food, shelter, clothing and energy) produced locally is the numerator of the fraction and the number of essential products that must be imported from outside the region is the denominator. The object is to increase the RRI value. When importation of resources is required, the preferred payment is from products made locally. What we need, we make, what we can’t make, we get from the nearest source, and pay with what we make. Naïve perhaps, but the pragmatists and market gurus have failed big time in the fight against global warming and plastic pollution. Local production diminishes both of these existential threats by eliminating the fuel and packaging used in transportation of goods. It is time for idealists to lead the way, because our utopian solutions are not idealistic technologically, only politically, economically and socially.
The political climate in recent decades has never been less stable. Mature economies are flirting with negative interest rates, and the value of petroleum recently went negative. The Polis is confused and following pseudo leaders. Planning, on an international scale is not possible when reason is useless to much of the political class. Unplanned plastic production makes controlling plastic pollution impossible. One would have thought that showing solid evidence that the generation just born will experience an ocean half plastic, half fish would have mandated significant change. No way my friends. Plastic production and pollution are growing more rapidly than ever due to declining petroleum needs for fuel. Electrification is good for reducing greenhouse gasses, but not for reducing plastic pollution, because the petroleum industry ramps up plastic production in response. What will an increasingly plastic planet with a chaotic climate be like? I predict a Dante’s Inferno here on earth of destroyed and ugly environments, including the one within our fragile bodies; but we will not hang a sign on the RRU saying, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” because, not only will the RRP be beautiful, it will be FUN! and, it will be a shopping center/amusement park.
About 5% of discards are reusable. These can be sold at unbeatable prices inside a repurposed shipping container until a shop can be built with reincarnated materials. This is not a “pie in the sky,” proposition. Several successful examples of reuse shops and repurposed materials amusement parks exist. My favorite reusable shop is on Hawaii’s Big Island at the Waimea recycling center. Appliances, sports equipment and clothing are big sellers for customers who typically drop off their recyclables at the conveniently designed horseshoe shaped drive-through with containers placed below grade for each material type.
In Antofagasta, Chile, Parque Reciclado Eco Rayen has created an oasis in the Atacama Desert built entirely from discards and powered by reject solar panels. Chairs and tables are made from empty wire spools, Children play on the creatively made rides, and make their own products from bottle caps and other discards. As I told my audience of international solid waste professionals in Bilbao, if you can’t make it fun, you can’t make it big, and this initiative needs to be HUGE! As we all know, hugely successful initiatives start small. The two mentioned above are small, but can be scaled up and one way would be to let the Waimea site become a park and let the Eco Rayen site receive solid waste (resourses).
What stops this idealistic vision from being doable worldwide? Oh, just politics, economics and the social reality. But remember, no political, economic or social system in world history was eternal. All these systems are in play in today’s reality.
None of this will work everywhere, but all of it will work somewhere, and lessons learned will drive RRP creation worldwide. Circular and steady state economic models are in demand, and the World Happiness Report is taken seriously. Why, because formerly subjective and metaphysical notions can now be quantified based on developments in modern science itself. What was formerly the province of the individual and her priest, therapist or guru is now objectively measurable. While the human body has been relegated to the status of a market for big pharma, it is also more easily understood by the individuals that live in it. They want to maximize pleasure and minimize pain over time, and a brand new political, economic and social reality is necessary to reach that goal. Waste free living will be part of that reality, but its future form can only be revealed in the struggle to create it. We will make this happen, if only we try.
Photo provided by Charles Moore