Waste disposal has always attracted ingenuity, though this may have as much to do with practices for escaping from waste than doing anything about it. However, since the 1930s, we’ve seen a steady stream of advances in waste management focused principally on protecting human health and safety, not just of the public at large but—particularly in the case of automation—of those who handle waste. So what’s next?
Well, for sure, there are right here and now some truly exciting activities, such as satellite-based locating and tracking systems; simultaneous voice and data communications; automated sorting equipment able to distinguish between various classes of metals, plastics, and glass; scales, sniffers, and discrete identification devices designed to manage the way we assess, clear, and direct the transfer of material through its various stages of passage through the system ... and, in the process, store, massage, post, and deliver a detailed accounting of each and every transaction to all parties involved in the effort.
Looming on the horizon are even greater levels of communications and information capabilities, giving rise to what will someday approximate the level of positive control of all waste activities, seen today in aviation... ready and able to bring us into the world of just-in-time that will be necessary if we are to convince those on the supply side of the material equation that our recycling efforts can fit into the real world of production.
On an accelerating basis, the materials we’re being asked to handle, as well as the societal expectation of their disposition, are undergoing change, adding challenge, complexity, and sometimes risk to our operations. In nearly every case, it has been the adoption of new technology that has underlain our success. Yet the creation of new chemical compounds on a never-ending basis and the exploding growth in the use of materials whose potential for environmental damage is a cause for concern are creating challenges that still force us to adopt costly and, in many cases, very labor-intensive, low-tech responses. Add to this the realization that today you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of recyclable materials that enjoy truly developed markets, and you can see there is much work to be done in the way of diversion practices.
In the future we assume that technology will present us with the increased possibilities for transforming materials currently fit only for disposal into marketable commodities. The key to this lies in our ability to add enough value to a larger portion of the wastestream to make these goods competitive with traditional materials in the supply chain.
So, yes, technology certainly has a role in dealing with trash, but that’s not all there is to it. I’d like you to consider technology as an important recruiting tool for attracting those who will fill our shoes tomorrow. While we know that waste management offers more opportunities and challenges than many more seemingly attractive careers, we face an uphill recruiting battle. So what can we do to lure “the best and the brightest?”
Showing that beneath the surface of a vibrant, vital, and challenging business, technology plays a leading role is important, and while we need to present our case in words, the most convincing approach lies in deeds.
There are many areas in waste management that can profit from greater technological efforts, but (are you ready for the editorial message?) none so visible as converting organic residuals to useful commodities, be they feedstock for new products or the production of energy.