Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mining Garbage

by Richard Crews

There are thousands of cubic miles of garbage in the world, much of it piled into unsightly and unhealthy mountains near urban centers. Some of the best of these are land fills, bulldozed over and buried under a layer of dirt, perhaps overgrown with wild places or parks, built over with parking lots and malls, even supporting the foundations of buildings and urban or suburban sprawl.

These mountains of mixed, unattractive and toxic scats of civilization accumulate and grow year by year. They are always a municipal problem, often a blight on the landscape, sometimes a political catastrophe. A few years ago, for example, a series of huge barges piled high with garbage were stranded in the harbor outside New York City. They were not permitted to dump their loads out at sea any more, but also were not allowed to return to land. One charming headline reporting the dilemma read, "Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind."

These mountains of garbage contain a lot of foodstuffs, volatile chemicals, wood and paper products, etc. that decay and decompose in a matter of days to weeks. They also contain hardier metal and composite materials, plastics and manufactured substances that endure for months, even years, before gradually returning to smaller chemical components that can recycle to and through nature's processes. Some, however, are even more durable--aluminum cans, radioactive hospital wastes, heavy metals, and exotic components of electronic discards--that truly "laugh at the centuries."

But these mountains of garbage can be curiously valuable, too--under the right circumstances. They represent, for example, a far more concentrated and refined repository of copper, iron, and some rare metals such as gold, silver, and platinum, than the best ores found in nature. Some municipalities and private enterprises have undertaken to mine garbage dumps--to extract the valuable resources they may yield. But this can be a difficult matter, presenting both political and technological problems, hounded by both ecological and economic concerns.

We the public, both as civilized political animals and as hopeful custodians of wild places, need to take on--carefully, thoughtfully, and fully--the complex considerations attendant on mining garbage . Otherwise we, the civilized species that has gradually taken over the planet, will ultimately shit ourselves to death.