Future of Waste Technology

Market forces drive changes

As we settle into the new century, waste management pundits are gazing into their crystal balls to describe the future of waste technology, infrastructure and programs. These forecasters fall into two camps—the incrementalists and the visionaries. After a century of incremental changes in waste management, it might seem safe to bet on the incrementalists. That would be a mistake. Big systemic changes may be on the horizon.

Futurism is perilous, because imagination is always bounded by past trajectories and present experiences.

Prognosticators have a habit of being wildly wrong

Over a hundred years ago in a futurist project focused on the new century, one pundit predicted, for example, that during the 20th century the law would have been so simplified that the number of lawyers per capita would decline precipitously. Another thought the cost of political campaigning would plummet with the advent of radios and telephones. Most of these 19th century forecasters did not dream of commercial flying machines. Trains, they thought, would crisscross the United States and be the transportation mode of choice within cities and between them.

Even with technological know-how at hand, prognosticators misread their tea leaves. Alexander Graham Bell—s telephone, many thought, might become a household novelty for listening to music concerts. No one imagined it becoming a near-necessity in daily discourse.

Bell Laboratories invented the transistor in 1947. They figured-sometime way in the future-it would replace vacuum tubes in consumer electronics. But Akio Morito, president of a near-unknown Sony Corporation in Japan, had other ideas. He paid a trivial $25,000 for a license for the Bell Lab transistor. Within a few years, Japan had captured the radio market with a technology that proved revolutionary, not incremental.

But why expect transformational changes in waste management?

After all, Bruce Parker of the Environmental Industries Association is correct to observe that the history of 20th century waste management has been a matter of “improvements, add-ons, rather than technological changes.” The industry, he observes in a Waste Age article, “is not a high-tech industry and never has been … There’s something very fundamental about the industry, just like they haven’t improved on the zipper for design and functionality.”

But Parker’s lens is too narrow. True, since the dawn of civilization, mankind has had four options for dealing with waste. We could burn it, bury it, or transform it into usable materials or energy. Or, with forethought, we could avoid producing quite so many leftovers by changing production processes and consumption patterns. And it is true that those leftovers, once generated, usually must be collected and transported somewhere in order to be burned, buried, or transformed.

Technological changes that modify how we collect, cart, burn, or bury the waste are, as Parker notes, not really revolutionary. They are refinements. Into this category fall most of the inventions now in sight—bioreactor landfills, computerized hydraulics, optical scanners at recycling facilities.

Looking for transformation-in the right place

But, like his zipper example, Parker may be looking at the wrong place for the transformation. Zippers went through a series of improvements-what technology writer Henry Petroski calls “incremental variations and improvements on the same basic idea.” But the revolution came not in the improvements of zippers. It came-in 1948-with the invention by Swiss tinkerer George de Mestral of Velcro, an invention inspired by a cocklebur de Mestral removed from his trousers after a walk in the woods.

The world of fasteners looks dramatically different today than when zippers were the fastener of choice. Zippers could fasten boots and clothes-and still do, though Velcro supplants them in many uses. But Velcro also could seal the chambers of artificial hearts or hold objects in place in orbiting spacecraft.

The revolution in fasteners lies not in some marvelous new zipper, but in the advent of an altogether new fastener. Velcro did not eliminate zippers. But it changed its market share and transformed the mix of available options.

Views on the future of the industry

It is just such a revolutionary transformation that the visionaries among the waste prognosticators envisage. Kay Martin, deputy director of public works for Ventura County, California sees the old waste infrastructure “—biomass and duplicate products currently produced by oil; they can take organics and convert them to energy.” In a recent Waste Age augury, she foretells “new industries springing up in industrial parks, run by waste companies and waste processors, competing with landfills.”

In the same Waste Age article, technology expert Jesse Ausubel foresees a world of industrial ecologists in which business strategies center on fusing “economics and ecology.” In what I call a “viridian verge” industries will be minimizing waste-at the plant and in their retail products-and increasing their use of production residuals (formerly waste) as product and manufacturing process inputs.

Martin and Ausubel are on to something. Waste collection-and its burial grounds and pyres-may undergo only incremental changes of the sort Bruce Parker describes. But the revolution will, like the zipper tale, lie in the advent of new players. It will also lie in up front changes to industrial processes and products that alter the amount and mix of “rejectamenta” left over for old-fashioned waste managers.

This is no Pollyanna prediction

While Ausubel’s world of industrial ecology and closed-cycle economies may still lie some decades away, the precursors to this future are already underway. When Chaparral Steel bought a cement company, the firm’s management soon realized that the ash from their steel plant was an ideal input for the cement company. Building on that experience, they began looking for other synergies.

One example does not by itself signal a trend, but some folks from Chaparral Steel have gone on to create a new firm, Applied Sustainability. Its entire business strategy centers on bringing firms together to help them find synergies in which one firm’s waste is another’s feedstock.

Dell Computer has found a niche making modular computers than can be easily dismantled, reassembled, or upgraded-an endeavor with substantial potential to reduce electronics waste over time. Xerox redesigned its copiers for ease-of-disassembly and remanufacturing. Remanufacturing has become a $53 billion industry-trivial as part of the great U.S. economic juggernaut but a sign of what the future might portend.

Don’t get me wrong. Trash trucks and landfills will be with us for a good long time. But don’t bet on past trash generation trends to continue in a nice smooth line into the future. Don’t bet on the two “b’s”, burning and burying, dominating the scene far into the future. And don’t even bet on traditional low-tech recycling growing by leaps and bounds. Count, instead, on new kinds of transformation, new participants in waste transformation, and more industrial ecology. The driver won’t be some ecological crisis. It won’t be mandates. It will be competitive market forces.

Lynn Scarlett is president of Reason Foundation.