You knew, of course, that it’s possible to recycle much more than what we can put out on the curb. Perhaps you have taken loads of batteries, electronics, etc. to your local hazardous waste recycling center. But have you every thought of recycling sewage, dirty diapers or cigarette butts? What will they think of next?
Three imaginative uses of sewage
For several years, astronauts on the International Space Station drank water from recycled urine, but the machine that performed the recycling took too much energy. On the final space shuttle mission, the astronauts tested a system that relies on forward osmosis and requires no power source.
The military uses something like it to make drinkable water for soldiers from a variety of dirty liquids, including urine. Don’t get squeamish about drinking treated urine. Everyone who lives downstream from a wastewater treatment facility already does. This kit could join the multitude of technologies developed for the space program or the military that have valuable civilian uses.
Speaking of wastewater treatment, the Olympics in London last summer essentially bypassed it and took water from the sewers to flush toilets, irrigate the landscaping, and provide water to cool its energy center.
The UK’s Olympic Delivery Authority decided to reuse sewage water only after deciding that gray water and rainwater were too unreliable in quantity and would require extensive extra piping and pumping infrastructure.
Sanitizing sewer water turned out to require less energy than treating groundwater. The facility, which remains in operation, enabled the Olympics to reduce its use of drinking-quality water by 58%.
The Snowbowl Ski Resort in Flagstaff, Arizona, has begun using treated wastewater to make artificial snow—1.5 million gallons a day. Unfortunately, after winning a lengthy legal battle for the right to do so, the technology turned out not to be ready for prime time.
I certainly hope that it can be fine tuned in order to satisfy all the various environmental and health concerns. Ski resorts often need to resort to artificial snow, but it seems a complete waste to use water treated to drinking water standards.
Uses for the grossest of trash
As I observed in an earlier post about using raw sewage, we need to get over the yuck factor.
We must learn to regard all waste matter as a resource, not a disposal problem.
None of these ideas is any more disgusting than our current waste management practices.
Imaginative ideas come from all over the world. Not all will prove practical, but the sooner the best ideas get scaled up, the sooner the world can approach sustainability.
Used diapers and other absorbent hygiene products, about the only waste matter that seems grosser than sewage, can be made into building materials: synthetic wood and roofing shingles.
A British company called Knowaste has devised a process for sterilizing these materials and then mechanically separating the wood pulp and various plastics and polymers in them. It forms these materials into pellets that become raw materials for building materials. The company also dries and gasifies the organic waste to create green energy.
This technology has the potential to make disposable diapers a much greener choice than it has been until now. A baby typically fills 6000 disposable diapers before toilet training is complete, and they can take 500 years to decompose in a landfill.
Recycled cigarette waste can also make useful products. They’re everywhere, and they’re as unsanitary as they are unsightly. An American company called TerraCycle sterilizes cigarette butts and mechanically separates the paper, tobacco, and filter. The paper and tobacco are composted separately. The company blends the filters, a cellulose acetate, with various other kinds of waste plastic to make pellets that, like the recycled diapers, form the raw materials for new products.
Mixing the filters with other waste plastic dilutes the nicotine and other contaminants. To be safe, TerraCycle uses pellets made with filters only for industrial products, not consumer products.
Weird Recycling: Gross or Green? / Earth911
Discolored Slopes Mar Debut of Snow-Making Effort / New York Times
The Truth behind Nappy Recycling / Knowaste
Brighton sewer: Some rights reserved by Dominic’s pics.
Bag of diapers: Some rights reserved by eurleif.