Building A Future From The Trash Heap Of History

The image shows the character Hubert Farnsworth from Futurama (a VERY old man with no hair, thick glasses, and a lab coat), holding his finger up and saying,

It turns out we weren’t just burying all the trash we didn’t know what to do with! We were just creating resource caches for when we start running out of stuff that’s easy to mine!

When I was a kid, I read a story in one of my issues of Ranger Rick about a young space explorer who finds a very odd planet. The entire surface of the planet is covered, Wall-E style, in trash, and has been for so long that it has a stable cave network through the garbage. As she explores the caves, she finds a creature reminiscent of E.T. that is clearly adapted to living in this unique environment. Our Hero has a conversation, via universal translator, about how this planet got how it was. At the end of a tale of reckless consumption and disposal, as Our Hero is making her way back to her ship, the native creature cries out that he has remembered the planet’s old name! It used to be called Earth! This probably wasn’t my first encounter with this sort of plot twist, but it’s the first that really made an impression on me.

The state of garbage management has improved since then, at least a bit. We’re not exactly doing a great job, but neither are we on track to the near-term burial of humanity under mountains of trash. Of particular interest to me have been the systems developed to take organic waste like petrochemical products, and turn it into a series of useful materials. Now, a newly anointed Doctor of Philosophy has published a dissertation on the extraction of metals from glass waste:

“I developed a method that enables the extraction of 99% of the metals from the glass waste that was dumped at Pukeberg’s glassworks and published the results. It is the first published article in the world that deals with recycling of metals from art and crystal glass,”

This line of research is likely to be an important one over the next century or two as we run out of sources of raw ore, so it’s nice to see progress like this.

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