Waste Not Want Not: Cutting-Edge Green Technology in Waste Management
By Dixie Somers
Taking responsibility for the environmental impact of human waste, innovators are talking trash and saving the planet with improved technologies expanding into all areas of waste management. At this point, recycling is a well-known concept, but current trends target the ideals of waste-derived energy, clean water and “zero landfill” footprints with cutting-edge technologies that allow formerly un-recyclable wastes to be reclaimed or purified. Increasing efficiency offers ease of maintenance, safety, even financial incentive to increasingly implement these methods in future.
Across the waste management industry, there is a growing trend toward yard waste reclamation. Formerly incinerated or put in landfills, yard waste represents large volumes of organic material. Something that can be processed into high quality soil amendments, compost, and mulch. Dedicated grinders are used to shred clean wood and green waste, which is then aged, composted and screened into nutrient-rich garden soil-products or mulches. Planning for the future, it may be possible to further harness the resource by implementing emerging technology capable of capturing the heat energy generated by composting. This would mean creating additional capital from the same resource.
From zero-landfill pilot-programs in Singapore to US firms creating clean electric from unsorted refuse, trash is no longer something we just throw away. Maximum resource recovery technologies are improving sorting and processing of integrated waste management. Efforts to make the process more efficient focus on a smaller footprint (lower volume) as well as harnessing all the possibilities of waste-to-energy technologies. Advanced recycling and energy conversion plants use “waste gasification” technologies to convert different forms of waste into non-burning, non-polluting, clean energy. Specially designed steam autoclaves are capable of reducing all carbon materials into ideal compost material and/or compressed pelletized fuel. Unsorted waste fed into the machines is sterilized by using thermos-chemical decomposition to extract the recyclable materials and create synthetic gas. It melts plastics into smaller volumes, leaves metal cans bare and ready for refining, and runs electricity generators. Future applications will expand this technology to handle tires, medical and pharmaceutical waste, even industrial waste in a safe and revenue producing way.
While it is, admittedly, a huge improvement over using a river for a sewer, the fact of the matter is that mainstream wastewater technology has not improved very much since the innovations of the ancient Romans. And it needs to. Composting toilets offer one way to go. However, while the composting toilet is an improvement on the campground outhouse, it’s not necessarily the ideal choice for daily use. Fortunately, researchers are working to overcome the dated technologies and improve wastewater treatment options. Effluence-filtering septic systems and aerated wastewater treatment systems apply more highly advanced technology. They include the use of growth media bacterial elements to break down waste more efficiently. Multi-stage systems, like the Econocycle septic tank, use several processes of purification and filtration to release clean, clear, odorless water free of pathogens. Related wastewater treatment technologies look at combating the micro-plastic epidemic with in-line grey water filtration systems that remove the pollutants before they reach the septic system. Currently, washing machines and municipal filtration plants are not fitted to filter out the mostly invisible, toxic, micro-plastic-fibers from polar fleece and other artificial fiber textiles.
Uneaten food and food preparation waste accounts for over 36 million tons of municipal solid waste annually. According to the EPA, food waste is the largest single component of household waste and less than 3% is currently diverted to recovery technologies. That recovered food waste is typically re-processed into animal feeds and garden composts, but new technologies are emerging. A process involving aerobic composting followed by anaerobic composting is carefully guided to release methane gas and produce electricity. Grease recovery-devices use multi-stage hydrostatic technology to capture fat, oils and grease (FOG). Reclaimed FOG is increasingly used in the bio-diesel industry.
Latex is being extracted from old latex paints. Technology now exists to make aerosol cans reusable, and waste-derived energy technologies include ethanol fermented from the residuals of the beverage industry. Soda, beer, wine, flavorings, juices, even perfumes—basically, any sugar-based or alcohol-based liquids can be fermented into ethyl alcohol. As it becomes more widespread in future years, this environmentally sound recycling option should reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil. More importantly, these cutting-edge technologies create sustainable, environmentally-sound revenue streams, offer efficient reclamation methods and help recover the resources we’ve just been wasting.