Beyond emissions: Shifting the burden of running society

Solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, magnets, batteries, waste reprocessing, mass transit systems, indoor food production, efficient buildings, relocating cities, flood-proofing cities, carbon capture and sequestration.

The discussion of taking action to mitigate and adapt to global warming often centers around the financial cost, but while the general public is increasingly willing to dismiss that as the non-objection it is, there is also a material cost to all of these actions that we would be foolish to ignore. Back in September, I discussed the rising environmental cost of extracting resources for photovoltaic power. For all sand may seem as cheap and plentiful as dirt, mining and processing it at the scale required to establish solar power as a major portion of our energy infrastructure is – like many modern human endeavors – changing the face of the planet.

This is not a problem that can be avoided, so it is one that must be considered, and planned for. If responding to climate change is part of a larger process of taking responsibility for how our species affects the planet on which we live – and I think it should be – then we cannot continue treating the side-effects of our industrial activity as we have done. For all the focus on the damage done by the fossil fuel industry, it is far from alone. In 2019, for example, Brazil suffered a major disaster when a dam failed, unleashing a flood of waste from an iron mine, and catastrophes like this are fairly common around the world.

In the comments on my recent post about vertical farming, there was some discussion of the problem of the materials that would be needed for the construction and maintenance of the massive, complex facilities that would be required to make such farming methods a meaningful portion of global food production.

In many ways, ending fossil fuel use and adapting to climate change means shifting the burden humanity places on the planet from greenhouse gases into a massive increase in the extraction and use of solid and liquid materials. Replacing even half of our farmland with facilities like the one I wrote about would require the creation of hundreds of thousands of buildings with associated machinery and power generation, where only a handful currently exist. It’s hard to predict how much of our current farmland will become unusable as the planet continues to warm. We currently produce more food than we need to end world hunger, but there’s a danger, in the midst of global ecological collapse, to simply taking more farmland from the wilderness if the land we’re currently using becomes unfarmable. Most deforestation happening today comes from clear-cutting for agriculture, and that process both releases a lot of CO2 from the cleared forest, and reduces the ability of that land to pull carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

So while world hunger could be solved now, by changing how we allocate our current resources, it’s not clear that that same possibility will exist indefinitely into the future. I believe that forms of indoor food production will be necessary, both to surviving climate change, and to mitigating the scale and speed of that change. For humanity to survive and thrive, we need to create and maintain a great deal of infrastructure to take on the various tasks that currently rely on either the burning of fossil fuels, or the presence of a stable, predictable climate. We must end the former, because our failure to do so already has destroyed the latter.

Solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, magnets, batteries, waste reprocessing, mass transit systems, indoor food production, efficient buildings, relocating cities, flood-proofing cities, carbon capture and sequestration.

I believe this is going to require more than just an increase in resource extraction. All that will do is replace the problem of “peak oil” with similar peaks for a thousand other resources. We also need to get better at re-using materials, rather than throwing them away, and fortunately there’s work being done on that front as well:

Environmental pollution, health threats and scarcity of raw materials, water, food and energy are some of the greatest challenges our world is facing today. At the same time, landfills and open dumpsites are still the dominant global waste disposal options, despite the fact that the long-term environmental impact in the form of emissions of greenhouse gases and contaminated leachates is significant. However, much of the environmentally hazardous waste that has been dumped at landfills can be recycled as energy or reused as valuable raw materials in different industries according to Yahya Jani, doctor of environmental science and chemical engineering.

Landfill mining — the tool of the future

In his dissertation, landfill mining is suggested as a tool to achieve an enhanced circular economy model. Viewing the landfill waste as a potential resource instead of as a problem is a common thread in Yahya’s research.

“More than 50% of the deposited waste dumped at landfills and open dump sites can be recycled as energy or reused as raw materials. These materials can be used as secondary resources in different industries instead of being forgotten or viewed as garbage,” Jani explains.

His research also includes the extraction of metals from Småland’s art and crystal glass waste and different fine fractions.

Extracting 99 % of the metals

“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,” says Jani.

In his research study at Glasriket, Jani also used chemical extraction to recycle materials from a mix of glass waste and soil fine fractions smaller than 2 mm. The technology involves mixing old glass waste with chemicals to reduce the melting point of the glass waste in order to extract the metals.

“The methods I’ve developed to extract metals from Småland’s glass waste can be used to extract metals from all types of glass, like, for instance, the glass in old TV sets and computers. Thus, this method can be further developed at an industrial facility for the recycling of both glass and metals of high purity. This can also contribute to a restoration of Småland’s glass industry by providing the industry with cheap raw materials. In addition, the extraction of materials from old landfills contributes to the decontamination of these sites and reduces the environmental impact and health threats” Jani concludes.

According to the European commission in 2017, 60% (that is to say, 1,800 million tons) of the annually produced waste from 500 million EU inhabitants end up in landfills. In his dissertation, Jani shows that the extraction of valuable materials from this waste could contribute to reducing the overuse of natural resources on Earth and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and contaminated leachates, which are responsible for pollution of water resources. Decontamination of these places will contribute to a significantly reduced impact on both human health and the environment.

Recycling and reprocessing materials takes energy, and while much of the matter in landfills could be used as fuel for the process, we’ll either want to sequester that material, or capture the emissions from burning it to sequester that. We’re not just shifting our burden from fossil fuel use to solid infrastructure, we’re doing that by shifting where and how we use the electricity or heat that we do produce.

In the earlier example of agriculture, rather than expending energy on irrigation, harvesting machinery, food transportation, pesticides, and so on (though some pest control will always be necessary), we’d be expending energy on building construction and maintenance, and artificial lighting. It’s possible – maybe even likely – that we will have to expend more energy on food production going forward than we do today, once the full cost is accounted for. That’s worth it if the results are better for a stable, human-friendly climate, but it’s still something we’re going to have to deal with. As I’ve said before, our species is now a force of nature on the surface of this planet. No matter what we do, our global society is going to have a global impact. Taking responsibility for our actions, and discharging our duty to fellow humans in the present and in the future (not to mention the rest of the biosphere) means we’re going to have to keep track of the effects we’re having on our environment, and actively work to balance those, just as we work to keep our homes and neighborhoods clean and safe.

I’m honestly more worried about the political changes needed, than the logistics of reshaping our infrastructure. By guaranteeing a basic minimum standard of living around the world, we can dramatically reduce energy consumption, and I think our goal should be to get to a point where the point of work is maintenance, innovation, and personal fulfillment, rather than profit. One of the reasons things like the intermittency of solar and wind power don’t worry me, is that I’m interested in powering a different way of life than the one that got us to this point. Constant production is driven by the capitalist obsession with profit, more than by any necessities of building and maintaining a high standard of living.

We will need a lot of materials to make the changes needed, and we’ll need to work at maintaining those changes. We’ll need to build new stuff to support a growing population, if it continues to grow, but that does not need to happen at the scale we’re doing it now. I don’t think that we can get the change we need within a capitalist system, but I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Despite everything happening in the world right now, life goes on, and I’m still required to spend money in order to live. My work is supported by a group of wonderful people over at, and I would be immeasurably grateful if you would consider joining their ranks. How much you give, and for how long are entirely under your control, and every little bit helps a great deal, as my household is very short on money right now. Thank you for reading, and take care of yourselves.


  1. says

    Extracting metals from landfills is not the biggest hurdle. The biggest hurdle is then purifying said metals.

    There is already a big issue with recycling steel for example. Steel is an extremely versatile material and for various applications, it needs to be made with various alloying components being present with precision to one-part-in-thousand. Chromium is one such component, having a huge impact on the final product. And it is already proving to be a problem in recycling. Magnetic separation does not work anymore, because there is a lot of martensitic stainless steel around in use nowadays. In manufacture, chromium and vanadium are desired components. In recycling, they re difficult to manage impurities. So as technology progresses, it requires further progress in order to recycle. And steel is one of the simpler problems, separating aluminum, zinc, tin, and copper from one another is no walk in the park either, and the amount of possible alloys and the range of their properties is huge.

    Biodegradable plastic is nonsense unless made from biomass. If made from fossil fuels, it is actually better to burn it afterward than to compost it, because burning it at least utilizes the energy in a more efficient manner whilst releasing the exact same amount of fossil carbon into the atmosphere as composting. Burning the material from landfills brings with it also a plethora of problems – it is non-homogenous, with inconsistent properties and, of course, mostly made from fossil organic material, thus burning it exacerbates climate change. Leaving the landfill be would be better from that standpoint.

    Controlled pyrolysis of waste materials without oxygen looks promising. It separates organic material from inorganic one effectively, it produces a mixture of small-molecule organic compounds that can be subsequently used for the synthesis of new polymers. But … Again, it is energy-intensive and it runs into the purification hurdle too.

    Theoretical solutions to all our problems are already known and sometimes have been known for decades. But basically, wherever we look, we run into a wall called “energy”. Without cheap, reliable, and abundant energy sources we are fucked. Or, shorter version, we are fucked.

  2. StevoR says

    Good blog post thanks.

    Sadly, it seems so much depends not on technology but politics.. 🙁

  3. says

    In terms of using stuff for fuel, I was more thinking of the various depolymerization processes. I believe some garbage processing facilities are already doing that, pre-landfill.

    In terms of energy costs, I think that either using excess power from solar/wind fluctuations, and/or building processing plants that use solar thermal plants for electricity/heat could be a good path forward.

    With the climate changing, I honestly worry about just leaving landfills alone – they already have problems with leaking and offgassing, and exposing them to progressively higher temperatures seems like a recipe for unexpected disasters.

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