Day #039: Pre-sorting trash, and landfill mining and reclamation

Turning today’s trash into the future’s treasure.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Presort trash for future repurposing and focus on landfill mining and reclamation. 
  • Difficulty: 3 — Logistics and capital would be significant, but the savings make the investment today worthwhile. 

It takes 3-4 weeks for a banana peel to decompose. It takes over a million years for styrofoam to complete the same process. A ton of diapers costs money to send to the landfill. A ton of recovered, un-charred aluminum is worth upwards of $1,500 plus the value of the saved space in a landfill.

Landfills are the next frontier, and for the entire course of industrialized history, we’ve thrown everything into one big rubbish soup–with diapers and banana peels covering up more precious ingredients like aluminum, rubber, glass, and other materials. All of this raises the important question, why do diapers end up in the same place as anything that is of value now or could be worth anything in the future?

The economics of landfill mining and reclamation (LMAR) are still a few decades from widespread profitability, but the costs of technologies decreases every day and the value of what’s buried beneath that heap increases every day.

In Maine, ecomaine has already mined 27,000 tons of metal worth $2.3 million from 240 acres of landfill while removing 10,500 cubic yards of waste which is worth $430,000 in cost avoidance. This is all in state that has done plenty to keep metal out of landfills in the first place.

LMAR isn’t without its challenges. Dumps from before 1976 are probably better left undisturbed because they lack linings, drainage systems, and new environmental protections. Landfills still have their challenges. They come in a wide variety of depths, compositions, have different hazardous wastes, and some still have leachate problems.

Despite these problems, it’s not impossible to imagine underground drones and advanced radar being used to map valuable resources in landfills for extraction. In addition to metals that missed our porous recycling net, everything from plastics to soil and compost could be of value. As science progresses, today’s trash could become tomorrow’s treasure–even diapers.

Moving forward, why should we leave this system to complicated excavation and expensive post-sorting. Instead, we should presort our waste. It could be as simple as three-part trash bins with receptacles for trash, recyclables, and compostables. 

If bins are standardized, trucks could easily transport the recyclables to the CVWMA in Chester, the compostables could go in a landfill designed for short-term storage, and the trash could be sent under magnets and further sorted before being placed in its own longer-term landfill. This way a banana ends up in a space designed for a few years while styrofoam ends up in a place designed to last longer than the entirety of the human story. 

In the near-future, this probably wouldn’t financially benefit Richmond or it’s waste management companies. Switching standards would be expensive. Convincing people to do more household work would be an uphill battle. It would require capital and logistics, but imagine the value of a semi-well sorted landfill twenty years from now? Value that could be easily realized by businesses, society, and the environment. 

It could be a gift that keeps on giving. As materials begin to be extracted and the waste-stream diminishes because new materials are repurposed, the expansion of landfills could eventually go the way of the telegraph. Virginia, already the #2 trash-importer in the country, could become the nation’s leader in waste management and profit because of its strategic location on the east coast. 

Conservation should still be at the forefront of every effort when it comes to waste management. Richmond should probably ban plastic bags1 and charge a small per-unit tax on all other non-reusable bag. Efforts should be made to increase recycling–particularly in large buildings where it isn’t a free option. Even Walmart has the goal of creating zero waste and is working with its suppliers to reduce packaging.

All of these goals and ideas make it feel like the future is here. It’s not. Talk is talk and anyone who has worked at a landfill (I’ve worked at the Chesterfield County Northern and Southern Convenience Centers) knows we’re nowhere close to sustainably handling our waste. The future isn’t here yet, but realizing it requires immediate work and investment. Addressing these issues could be the secret to turning today’s trash into the future’s treasure. 

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: Redwin Law

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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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