An Investment Opportunity In Trash

As incredible as it might seem, processing trash may represent a future unique investment opportunity. Consider the new technologies that will operate on the micro scale, breaking the bonds of molecules through bio-mechanical means, which could be applied to recycling trash completely. It is quite possible that many of these innovations may emerge from our efforts to explore and live in space.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, we have polluted our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans with pesticide and fertilizer runoff, mining and oil wastes, petrochemical products and thousands of other dangerous products.

Pollution has reached the point where a cleanup of our environment — on a macro scale with heavy equipment — is impractical. Despite present efforts, humanity is losing the fight to manage trash.

Commercial and government-mandated recycling can’t cope with the sheer volume of trash, and these programs only excel at processing such material as paper, aluminum and steel. In essence, the present forms of trash collection and recycling are unacceptable.

The opportunity for investment in effective trash processing will be huge. We have discarded billions of tons of plastic across our planet in the last 60 years. So much debris has accumulated in the Pacific Ocean that it has been termed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Scientists believe that the trash has been sinking beneath the surface, making accurate measurement of the amount of trash difficult.

Plastics, whose durability, inexpensiveness and malleability make it an easy choice for consumer and industrial products, make up the majority of the garbage patch debris. In a process called photo degradation, which is caused by the ultra violet (UV) component of solar radiation (that is, radiation of wavelength from 0.295 to 0.400 um), the plastics have been broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. National Geographic states that scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of micro-plastic in a single square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — that’s about 1.9 million bits per square mile.

Now comes the age of our expansion into space, requiring that we conquer new and unique problems. Obstacles that were overcome in early space exploration have already made invaluable contributions to today’s technologies and helped tackle problems we have faced planetside.

Importantly, space exploration will not be a future of just probes launched to investigate asteroids and distant bodies — which I applaud — but, more importantly, the creation of long-term habitats, both government and commercial missions, which Buzz Aldrin appropriately calls “permanence.”

With the daunting challenges facing countries today — dwindling precious resources, effects of climate change, outbreaks of deadly diseases, long-term conflicts and mass human migration — 100 percent recycling/reclamation projects can’t be high on their lists of priorities.

However, long-term space exploration will have the priorities of food, water, oxygen, fuels, environment control, protection from solar radiation and a growing pile of expended materials … trash.

Ensuring humans live in an invigorating environment would not only be good economics, it would be the right thing to do.

Long-term habitation will demand extremely efficient resource management of water, air, organics and inorganics … those items that typically, when worn out, enter our trash piles and consist of everything from door seals to expended lubricants. Our scientists will have to approach the challenge of recycling with an eye toward 100 percent solutions, and recycling inorganics will present the greatest challenge.

Simply put, trash will cost too much to ship back to Earth, and it would be invaluable if this waste could be fully recycled into environmentally useful components. With Earth’s resources dwindling, the better we can recycle and reclaim what today we call “trash” and repurpose it in our commercial products, the more we can extend the lifespan of Earth’s resources.

Petrochemical products — from synthetic rubber and solvents to fibers and plastics — may be degraded by various micro-organisms, which break the carbon bonds to produce byproducts such as methane, carbon dioxide and water.

Space habitats represent an ideal environment to experiment with closed systems employing bio-engineered micro-organisms to recycle petrochemical products, where, in case of accidental release of the organisms, it might be opportune to open the test area to vacuum.

Why experiment with bio-engineered micro-organisms? Why not? There are plenty of examples that give credence to the concept:

  • Forty years ago, Shinichi Kinoshita, Sadao Kageyama, Kazuhiko Iba, Yasuhiro Yamada and Hirosuke Okada discovered a strain of Flavobacterium that digested certain byproducts from the manufacture of nylon-6, a form of nylon fiber that is tough and possesses high-tensile strength, as well as elasticity. The fibers are wrinkle-proof and highly resistant to abrasion and chemicals such as acids and alkalis. The fact that bacterium began using as energy sources these substances that didn’t exist before 1935 is a telling point. Microorganisms, with their prodigious reproduction rate, can quickly evolve to adapt to ever-changing environments.
  • A trip to the Amazon’s Yasuni National Park by Yale University students and molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel resulted in the discovery of endophytic fungi (mushrooms) capable of eating polyurethane plastics. A synthetic polymer, polyurethane is the basis of most of today’s plastics.
  • Methanogenic consortia, a diverse group of widely distributed archaebacteria that occur in anaerobic environments and are capable of producing methane from a limited number of substrates, including carbon dioxide, hydrogen, acetate and methylamines, have been found to degrade styrene, using it as a carbon source, and various fungi have broken down plasticized PVC.
  • An example of petrochemical degradation includes a rod-shaped bacterium, Alcanivorax borkumensis, found throughout the oceans. The bacteria consume alkanes, a form of hydrocarbon, as their primary form of energy, breaking down hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide and water. These ancient bacteria, resident since the planet began seeping hydrocarbons from the ocean bottoms, bloomed in heavy quantities after the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and contributed to the removal of hydrocarbons from the Gulf’s waters.
  • The attack of microorganisms on petrochemicals has been continual since the advent of each product. Even space station Mir was found to have been growing more than 70 species of bacteria, mold and fungi in free condensate, floating water globules, hiding behind such areas as the station’s electrical panels — and mold is capable of degrading rubber into digestible compounds.

Future space habitats, with their complete isolation, present an excellent opportunity for micro-scale waste management experiments that would involve genetically modified microorganisms. Unfortunately, these types of experiments will not be a priority in the early stages of habitats. Supplies will be too precious to be consumed in “nice-to-have” experiments.

However, when habitats graduate to the size of colonies, housing thousands of residents, “nice-to-have” may become “must-have,” and the pressure to develop efficient processes to recycle inorganics, such as plastics, will only increase as the colonies grow.

Creating and employing genetically engineered bacterium, fungi, yeasts, algae, lichens and the like to recycle petrochemical products — until such time as alternative, easily recyclable materials are developed — will be the responsibility of disciplines such as biochemists, geneticists and engineers — or collectively what I like to call waste management’s bio-alchemists.

Despite present efforts, humanity is losing the fight to manage trash.

Whatever new technologies long-term space habitats invent to manage inorganic wastes, recycling the material into reusable components, construction products or other practical purposes, it’s my fervent hope that they will translate into a boon for solutions to Earth’s problems. If they do, new techniques in recycling and pollution mitigation will represent a global business opportunity.

A first step on Earth might limit the applications to controlled facilities, processing trash from homes and businesses. Later, with subsequent iterations that limit the microorganisms’ life cycles, the solutions may be applied to Earth’s open waters and landscapes. Glory to the future of garbage management!

As an environmentalist, I do not see these future innovations as “nice to have.” I see them as economic necessities. If we wish to have the luxury of time to investigate our solar system, building habitats on distant planets and moons and involving commercial ventures, we must ensure the health of the global economic base from which the funds and resources will spring to feed our space exploration endeavors.

At present, our global population is estimated to be 7.27 billion people; by the mid-21st century, this number is expected to reach 9.6 billion. Regardless of the extent of our ventures into space, the overwhelming majority of these people will remain on Earth, and they will require a healthy and safe environment if they are to contribute to the global economy. Ensuring humans live in an invigorating environment would not only be good economics, it would be the right thing to do.

Perhaps in the future, commercial products may be created through technologies such as nano-manufacturing. It would eliminate much of the problem of inventing recycling methods or finding places to bury our trash, because these products could be repaired or recycled by reversing the nano-manufacturing process.