Is a world without trash possible? - Living Environment


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Thursday, March 5, 2020

Is a world without trash possible?

“The vision of a circle economy”- where we use resources sparingly and recycle endlessly is inspiring businesses and environmentalists alike.

The trash silo at a new incinerator in Copenhagen holds more than 24,000 tons. Automatic cranes mix the waste to help it burn cleaner. Equipment to filter the smoke takes up much of the plant’s interior. A clean-burning, energy-generating incinerator is a better end for trash than a dump—but the circular economy aims to end trash by not producing it at all.

Copper, unlike plastic, say, can be recycled indefinitely without loss of quality—it’s a perfect circular material. The Lünen plant still processes bulk copper, mostly pipes and cables, but it has had to adapt to waste with much lower concentrations. As Europe has replaced landfills with municipal incinerators, a lot of slag is showing up containing bits of metal—“because someone threw their cell phone in the trash” instead of the recycling bin, Laser said.
An excavator drop bucket loads of electronic debris, including laptops, onto a sloping conveyor that carried it toward a shredder—the first of more than a dozen steps in the bewildering and deafening sorting process. At one station, a conveyor raced by, carrying hand-size shards of circuit boards. Some fell into an abyss; others leaped as if by their own volition onto a belt above. A camera system, Roth explained, was deciding whether each shard contained metal—and if not, activating an air jet under it at just the right instant.
Aurubis sells the aluminum and plastic it recovers to those industries; copper and other nonferrous metals go into its own ovens. In the tidy yard, the dust is swept daily and fed to the smelter. “We have no waste here,” Laser said.
Worldwide, only about a fifth of all electronic waste is recycled, according to a 2017 UN report. Aurubis even takes shipments from the United States. “But I do wonder sometimes why such a highly industrialized country would give up such resources,” Roth said. “They’re sitting on billions.” That’s starting to change. Apple, for example, encourages customers to trade in old iPhones; an intelligent robot in Texas dismantles them and extracts materials for new devices.
But copper exemplifies a general challenge: There’s a limit to what even aggressive recycling can accomplish. At Aurubis, recycled copper accounts for only a third of production; the rest still comes from mines. World copper production has quadrupled in the past half century and is still growing. The technologies we need to get off fossil fuels require a lot of copper; a single giant wind turbine uses about 33 tons.

Waste less stuff by keeping it in use. That choice hits many people most acutely in their closets. From 2000 to 2015, while the world population grew by a fifth, clothing production doubled, according to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, thanks to the explosion of “fast fashion.” With so many cheap clothes, the report estimated, the average item was worn a third fewer times by 2015. That year, the world threw away more than $450 billion worth of clothes.
People have the wrong idea about what happens when they drop clothes into a donation bin, they think the clothes are given directly to needy people. What usually happens instead is that companies like Boer buy donated clothing, sort it, and resell it—all over the world.
You need a lot of experience to know where you can sell and reuse a piece of clothing, I could see the rapid but practiced movements of women pulling clothes from conveyors, examining each item briefly, then pivoting and tossing it into one of 60 or so bags. Each woman sorts about three tons a day. Sorters must have an eye for fashion—especially for the best stuff, just 5 or 10 percent of the total, which makes most of Boer’s profit. In Russia and eastern Europe, prized items such as women’s underwear can fetch up to five euros a kilogram ($2.50 a pound). Most lower quality material gets shipped in 55-kilogram bales to Africa, where it’s sold for as little as 50 cents a kilo.
At one point Boer eyeballed my gray sport coat, which I felt quite confident of; he couldn’t see the ink stains on the inside pocket. “We cannot sell your jacket anywhere,” he volunteered cheerfully. “No one in the world wants to buy it.” Boer said he would actually have to pay someone to take my unfashionable garment away.
But they buy used underwear? I was miffed.
“That’s clean, used underwear,” Boer said. People normally don’t donate dirty clothes.
He gets more clothing these days than he can handle, mostly from Germany, which collects 75 percent of its discards: Town governments have gotten into the act.

There’s one form of recycling he makes a modest profit on. For decades Boer has shipped wool sweaters and other loose knits to companies in Prato, Italy, that mechanically tease the wool apart, recapturing long fibers that can become good-as-new garments. Woven cotton or polyester can’t be recycled that way; the fibers end up too short. Half a dozen start-ups are working on technology to chemically recycle these fibers. To spur its development, Boer thinks the European Union should require new clothes to contain, say, 20 percent recycled fibers.
“In 10 years it will be there,”
At Ellen MacArthur I heard enthusiasm for a different business model, one that might promote circularity in many economic sectors—a model based on renting rather than owning. Rent the Runway and other online clothes-rental companies make up less than a 10th of a percent of the global fashion market so far, but they’re growing fast.

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