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Recycling the City

Ed Burtynsky: Densified Scrap Metal No. 3a
In email, Eric Townsend asks,

Hey Jamais,

Do you know anyone that can discuss all the stuff that's about to get thrown away and how it could possibly be recycled? Maybe someone in waste management and recycling at a city level that could do envelope calculations on how much trash Katrina created? How many cars are totaled, how many household appliances will need to be replaced? How many televisions and monitors loaded with heavy metals are going to get tossed? Will any of this crap get recycled or will it just become landfill?

These are really good questions, but they might not have good answers. (If any of you know the answers, or know where the answers can be found, please let us know in the comments.) The disaster is still too fresh for many people to think about something like recycling and trash disposal, but the cleanup efforts are already underway; by the time it's comfortable to think about the subject, it will be too late. We may not know what is done with the material remains of New Orleans until well after the fact.

Chances are, the vast majority of inundated buildings will be bulldozed, swamped cars will be towed to wrecking yards, and many tons (hundreds of thousands? millions?) of debris will be loaded into dump trucks and hauled off to landfill. As Eric suggests, much of the debris will be appliances and electronic gear filled with toxins. What kind of effect will putting a city's worth of metal into the waste stream all at once have on the environment?

And it would be a lot of metal. The WEEE Man sculpture represented a single UK citizen's worth of waste electric and electronic equipment (the "WEEE") over the course of his or her lifetime: 3,300 kilograms (or over 7,200 pounds) of devices, from washing machines to televisions to telephones. Most of these items are replaced only a few times in one's life; it's not unreasonable, then, to take a substantial fraction of that amount as a very rough estimate of the level of waste per person. Of course, then one has to add in the cars, home fixtures and wiring, and all the other pieces of industrial infrastructure surrounding us.

It might seem simplest to just dump these tons of debris into a landfill (or, more realistically, multiple landfills around the region or country) and move on. Simple, yes, but most likely to bite back some time down the road. Separating out the metals and electric/electronic trash from the rest of the debris would take more time, to be sure, but would reduce the toxic waste going into landfills, and would have the various salutary resource effects arising from recycling.

There would be some potential symbolism, too, if the materials used in rebuilding New Orleans included components recycled from the city's previous incarnation.

Finally, this suggests that a worldchanging recovery plan should include explicit guidelines for recycling and proper disposal of this kind of debris. Not a set plan, necessarily; as the saying goes, "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy." Instead, what would be needed are heuristics, flexible rules for figuring out the right plan once the context is understood, to let us get appropriate answers to questions such as: What kinds of materials should we be looking for in particular? How do domestic appliances and debris differ from industrial wastes, and how are they similar? What tools do we have already that could facilitate easier separation of metals, and what still needs to be invented?

Underlying all of these is the question of how we can make our waste material less potentially hazardous to begin with. One of the results of the new European Union rules on waste electric and electronic equipment and the restriction on hazardous substances is that producers are aggressively looking for ways to reduce or eliminate potentially dangerous substances from their products, seeking alternative materials or cleaner designs. And the design for disassembly movement seeks to make the recapture and recycling of product components simple and inexpensive.

Perhaps we need to be thinking about how to design for unanticipated disassembly -- how to make products as easy as possible to pull from the waste stream and recycle in times of disaster. Because, as bad as Katrina was, it won't be the last time we face its like. We should be certain that we know how to recover from catastrophe in ways that don't harm us further in years to come, and can, in fact, make rebuilding simpler.


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Comments (9)

I went down to Gulfport the other day to deliver some donated supplies and was shocked to see the amount of stuff that middle-class families (covered by insurance) were throwing out on the streets. Furniture, appliances, plasma-screen TVs, many of which were brand new... We asked about it to some of the householders who were utterly dismmissive of the idea that any of these coulud be reused, saying that the salt-water damage meant that the furniture was too damaged and the appliances wouldn't work.

But the furniture (at least, the non-upholstered stuff) was perfectly fine for any household that doesn't demand utter perfection (such as the low-income families I have been working with) and the appliances - well, we took a plasma-screen TV, a brand new washer and a brand new dryer (both the fancy computer-chip controlled models) back with us and got them working within hours, just by dismantling them, washing all the salt and mud out thoroughly with a hose, drying them in the sun and putting them back together. I only wish that we had the resources to collect up all the stuff that was being thrown out and recondition it, and give it the many families we know that could really use it.

PS - oops! forgot to selfpublicise - a longer post about our trip to the Gulf is at my blog, and some photos on my flickr stream.

In an article cited at Boing Boing, Laurie Garrett has something to say about it...

One past hurricane in the region produced so much debris that the cleared garbage filled an abandoned coal mine. We have never in history tried to dispose of this much waste. It is hoped that before any officials rush off thinking of how to burn or dump a few hundred thousand boats, houses and buildings, some careful consideration is given to recycling that material for construction of future levees, dams, and foundations. Looking at aerial images of the coastline one sees an entire forest worth of lumber, and the world's largest cement quarry. No doubt tens of thousands of the now unemployed of the region could be hired for a reclamation effort that would be rational in scale and intent. It would be horrible if all that debris were simply dumped or burned without any thought to its utility.

Buckminster Fuller predicted we would one day mine landfills for extremely profitable materials. That day may be just about here.

Perhaps a simple intermediate step forward could be to establish, as part of the New Orleans recovery, the first landfills that self-consciously expect to be mined, and are set up to make that hypothetical future activity easier.


You learn the hard way the best thing to do is toss 9out whats been damaged and take an insurance hit rather then risk the thing blowing or molding or whatever after the insurance wont cover it. All it takes is one margubalized part in a 5000 plsma screen to blow 7 months later and your kicking yourself.

As for recycling buldings they tend to use an electro magnet to snatch up the steel and often cart off the copper... alot of times they will also cart away toilets.. if 5 gal old models they are worth a ton...sinks tubs and such.

Very likely alot of it will be used as fill to raise land levels.. oh and expect a fair number of tall buildings to have had failure of thier foundations and also be demoed.With weeks of flood alot of foundations will sink under heavy buildings...

Dried Flower:

apparently there's so much toxic gunk washing about new orleans from neighbourhood toxic dumps & chemical factories that it's not just a matter of reusing/recycling/repurposing but of dealing with nasty toxins & therefore a lot of buildings will be bulldozed, regardless of whethe the building itself is structurally ok.

Mold is going to be a very, very, big problem.

I don't really know the area or any of the solid waste disposal sites, but as somebody pointed out no one landfill or landfills will be large enough to accept a demolished cities waste.

I've read somewhere that they are considering burning the waste. From an air quality view, that seems like a potentially deadly idea.

Mold is going to be a very, very, big problem.

I don't really know the area or any of the solid waste disposal sites, but as somebody pointed out no one landfill or landfills will be large enough to accept a demolished cities waste.

I've read somewhere that they are considering burning the waste. From an air quality view, that seems like a potentially deadly idea.

What kind of effect will putting a city's worth of metal into the waste stream all at once have on the environment?

It is worth pointing out that more than a single city was demolished - large portions of three states have this problem.


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