As populations grow, environmental issues start as minor concerns and grow into global crises. A striking example of this involves the waste management industry.
Waste management experts worldwide struggle with an ever-growing amount of trash produced on a daily basis. While rates of recycling and composting partly offset population growth and trash output, a better long-term approach is needed. Consider that of the 4.4 pounds of trash created every day by the average American, only about 1/3 is recycled. Much of the other two-thirds of trash will not bio-degrade, and sits in landfills for decades.
Many of today's landfills exceeded their original capacity long ago. For example, Kentucky's Big Run landfill was supposed to hold only a modest 7,000 tons of garbage. Yet today the single location receives over 3,500 tons of trash daily from cities across the East Coast. This underscores the lack of appetite among civic leaders to dedicate land or resources to new landfills.
Methane gas produced as a result of decomposition represents one of the most harmful byproducts of landfills. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and it has a destructive effect on the ozone layer. Sensing an opportunity, the BMW Corporation partnered with both the Energy Department and the South Carolina Research Authority. Through this collaboration, researchers created innovative fuel cells powered by hydrogen converted from methane gas.
The project continues today in its final phase. Representatives at a Greer, SC manufacturing plant use the new fuel cells to power a large fleet of forklifts. BMW expects the new source of fuel to reduce labor costs related to refueling by 80%. Additionally, they anticipate requiring 75% less space for equipment compared to lead-acid based batteries.
At Iowa State University, researchers explore alternatives to the common battery. Batteries are one of the hardest electronics to responsibly dispose of. Over the years, research on decomposing batteries has stalled due to their low power density. As a result, research shifted to a “hybrid”, a small lithium-ion battery that is capable of delivering 2.5 volts of power. This new hybrid will also dissolve in water within 30 minutes.
Although dis-solvable batteries have nanoparticles that do not degrade, they safely disperse into the environment. Though the project has not yet begun testing, it is a major breakthrough towards decreasing the amount of e-waste sent to landfills every year.
Silicone Circuit Boards
Aside from batteries, scientists also strive to make other common electronics soluble as well. After discovering that silicon is water soluble in 2012, researchers looked to use that new knowledge for good. One new innovation involves a common 1mm thick circuit board that will dissolve in a landfill within 3 to 6 months. Professor John Rogers, a project lead at the University of Illinois, stated that around 12 research groups around the world are making “really substantial” efforts in the area.
Bury trash, burn it or dump it in the ocean. For too long, this has been the popular approach to waste management. Trash can no longer be an "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" issue. Improved levels of recycling and composting, and innovations such as the ones above, are critical. Less trash in landfills means a more sustainable future.