[GRRN] Time Magazine Article On Zero Waste

Gary Liss (gary@garyliss.com)
Wed, 01 Dec 1999 16:48:58

This article appeared in the November 8, 1999 Special Issue of Time
Magazine, with the cover "Beyond 2000: 100 Questions for the new century -
the first in our VISIONS series. This issue: Your Health, Our Planet.

I just got the URL for the article on Time's website:


I've written to Time to request permission to post on the GRRN website.

Gary Liss

Can We Make Garbage Disappear?

Through the magic of recycling and modern alchemy, we will move swiftly
toward a world without waste

Whoever said "waste not, want not" hasn't had much influence on 276 million
Americans. In 1997 we gave a collective heave-ho to more than 430 billion
lbs. of garbage. That means each man, woman and child tossed out an average
of nearly 1,600 lbs. of banana peels, Cheerios boxes, gum wrappers, Coke
cans, ratty sofas, TIME magazines, car batteries, disposable diapers, yard
trimmings, junk mail, worn-out Nikes--plus whatever else goes into your
trash cans. An equivalent weight of water could fill 68,000 Olympic-size

And that's just the relatively benign municipal solid waste. Each year
American industries belch, pump and dump more than 2.5 billion lbs. of
really nasty stuff--like lead compounds, chromium, ammonia and organic
solvents--into the air, water and ground. That's about 400 Olympic poolfuls
of toxic waste.

The really bad news is that most of the planet's 6 billion people are just
beginning to follow in the trash-filled footsteps of the U.S. and the rest
of the developed world. "Either we need to control ourselves or nature
will," says Gary Liss of Loomis, Calif., a veteran of recycling and
solid-waste programs who advises clients aiming to reduce landfill
deposits. As he sees it, garbage--maybe every last pound of it--needs to
become a vile thing of the past.

That may seem impossible, but it's not unprecedented. In nature, Liss
points out, there is no such thing as waste. What dies or is discarded from
one part of an ecosystem nourishes another part. Liss says humanity can
emulate nature's garbage-free ways, but it will require innovative
technology and a big change in attitude.

We can get a glimpse of a less profligate future in Kalundborg, Denmark.
There, an unusual place called an "eco-industrial park" shows how much can
be gained by recycling and resource sharing. Within the park, a power
company, a pharmaceuticals firm, a wallboard producer and an oil refinery
share in the production and use of steam, gas and cooling water. Excess
heat warms nearby homes and agricultural greenhouses. One company's waste
becomes another's resource. The power plant, for example, sells the sulfur
dioxide it scrubs from its smokestacks to the wallboard company, which uses
the compound as a raw material. Dozens of these eco-industrial parks are
being developed all over the world.

Biotechnology is giving us additional tools to cope with waste--and turn it
to our advantage. We now have microbes that can take toxic substances in
contaminated soil or sludge--including organic solvents and industrial
oils--and convert them into harmless by-products. Soon we may be using
genetic engineering to create what Reid Lifset, editor of the Journal of
Industrial Ecology, calls "designer waste streams." Consider all that
stalk, or stover, that every corn plant grows along with its kernels.
Scientists at Monsanto and Heartland Fiber are working toward engineering
corn plants with the kind of fiber content that paper companies would find
attractive. So long as the genetic tinkering poses no ecological threat,
that approach could tap into a huge stream of agricultural waste, turning
some of it into an industrial ingredient.

In consumer markets, recycling has already spawned an army of alchemists.
Jackets are being made from discarded plastic bottles, briefcases from
worn-out tires and belts from beer-bottle caps. Even though the U.S. has
barely begun to get serious about recycling, about 25% of its 430 billion
lbs. of municipal garbage is now salvaged, at least temporarily, for some
sort of second life.

Recycling will gain momentum as we develop materials that are easier to
reuse. For example, Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human
Environment at Rockefeller University, predicts that architects will
increasingly rely on new types of foamed glass that can be made unusually
strong but still lightweight. Glass is a very recyclable material made from
sand, and it can be crushed back essentially into sand. Ausubel thinks we
could see foamed glass replace much of the concrete in today's buildings.

There are limits, of course, to how many lives you can give a pile of
debris. In the long run, we have to reduce the amount of material we use in
the first place. Some progress is being made--aluminum cans and plastic
soda bottles have become thinner over the years, for example--but more
sweeping reductions will require a whole new kind of manufacturing process.

That, says Lifset, is where nanotechnology plays a role. In this emerging
field, which employs just about every kind of scientific and engineering
discipline, researchers expect to create products by building them from
scratch, atom by atom, molecule by molecule. This bottom-up
nanotechnological way of making things differs from the traditional
drilling, sawing, etching, milling and other fabrication methods that
create so much waste along the way.

Researchers have made headway toward molecule-size transistors and wires
and even batteries thousands of times as small as the period at the end of
this sentence. These laboratory feats make talk of sugar cube-size
computers less speculative than it was a few years ago. Says Lifset: "A lot
of the consumer goods and industrial equipment could become dramatically
smaller when nanotechnology comes online. That, plus more efficient
recovery of the discarded goods, ought to translate into huge reductions in

But technology is not enough. Just as critical are changes in attitudes and
lifestyles. Brad Allenby, AT&T's vice president for environment, safety and
health, believes our move from the industrial age to the information age
could help enormously. At last count, he says, 29% of AT&T's management
force telecommuted, meaning less reliance on cars. This, Allenby
speculates, could be part of something bigger--a shift in our view of what
enhances our quality of life. Maybe we'll put less value on things that use
lots of materials--like three cars in the family driveway--and more on
things that don't swallow up resources--like telecommuting and surfing the
Internet. Maybe downloading collections of music from the Web will reduce
the demand for CD cases. And while visions of a "paperless office" have
proved wildly wrong so far, we still have an opportunity to use computers
to cut consumption of paper and the trees it comes from.

Allenby thinks of such trends as "dematerialization." The deeper
dematerialization goes in society, the less stuff there will be to discard.
What's more, as society becomes more information-rich, the easier it will
be to find uses for the diminishing amount of discarded materials. Maybe,
with the help of brokering services on the Internet, we can generalize the
principle that governs garage sales: One person's garbage is another's
treasure. When that attitude goes global, the human beings of the third
millennium may be able to look back on their former garbage-producing ways
as a forgivable error of their youth as a species.

Ivan Amato, a free-lance magazine and radio reporter, is the author of
Stuff: The Materials the World Is Made Of.


Gary Liss
Fax: 916-652-0485