Sustainability through Massive abundance.

Episode 36: Recycling Everything

A complete tour of recycling in a city built to end the mass extinction... with a special destination at the end!

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Will there be trash cans in Edenicity?
Intro [music]
The old days
Reducing household waste
Reclaiming resources
Fiber life cycle
Daily life
You too!
Close [music]

Will there be trash cans in Edenicity?

No one has actually asked me that question, but they should have. The short answer is "nope, none at all." Everything will in one way or another be recycled. Remember, the goal of Edenicity is to cut our resource, energy and land use by at least the 95% that is necessary to end the mass extinction. Remember too that this mass extinction is starting to affect species like the honeybee that we depend on for our survival. Recycling is one of the most powerful ways to achieve that 95% goal.

Recycling steel for example, takes 95% less energy than extracting and processing it from raw ore. And simply reusing steel can multiply the energy savings many hundreds of times more.

In the last episode, I provided the permaculture definition for waste, which is a resource not used by system, and work, which is any need not met by a system.

Recycling, then, is all about matching needs with excess.

This is a design problem, and it goes much deeper than waste recovery. It's mainly about tweaking the structure of our built environment and the flow of our daily lives until there is much less waste and work. Only then is it efficient to focus on reclaiming the resources that would otherwise become rubbish.

When we're done, there will be no trash cans, only a variety of drop offs and exchanges that bear little resemblance even to today's recycling bins. Combine these with more efficient design in energy, housing, transportation and food, and we'll vastly exceed our goal and save the world that much sooner.

What's the best possible scale to make this happen? Well, the large city of course!

Intro [music]

Cities designed like modern Edens for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.

Welcome to Episode 36, where I'll discuss the Edenicity of recycling.

The old days

There's a cute little story floating around among the blogs. It goes something like this:

In the old days, we didn't have that "green" thing. We had reusable packaging: milk bottles and deposits on wine and soft drink bottles, which just went back to the bottling plant to be washed and reused.

We didn't have plastic bags. We used paper or cloth bags, and we would walk or take public transit to most places rather than having to drive. And so on. It goes on quite a ways.

But the important thing for me is that I actually remember those days! We used less than half the energy then that we do now.

Should we just go back to those days?

Nah. I mean, who volunteers to be the first to give up their smartphone? Let's just do something better instead.

Reducing household waste

As promised, let's start by redesigning our daily life to reduce waste.

This would be a good time to get out that Reference Design that you can download from the program notes.

Now, as I discussed in Episode 11 and many others, Edenicity has a farm to cafe culture that redirects all food waste back to compost, with daily pickup by Zone 3 farmers on their way to the fields. This eliminates the plastics, cardboard, metal and glass that you find in grocery packaging. That's a gigantic waste stream that doesn't exist in Edenicity.

Apartments in Edenicity generally won't come with private kitchens. You have a kitchenette sink with just enough room for a bar fridge, a microwave and a coffeemaker, and you'll take most of your meals in your ground floor cafe.

Now look, if you love to cook, you can schedule or rent access to a portion of the cafe kitchens dedicated to home chefs and their guests. I think you'll like it. Instead of buying groceries, you'll order the needed materials with a software agent that converts your online recipes into a pull list for the farmers and the stockroom clerk. Your food will be fresh picked and ready for you when you arrive.

Picnics and packed meals can be arranged ahead of time with the cafe. Packaging will be 100% reusable and washed by the cafe. I picture fabric bags, steel or plastic tins, optionally insulated, and durable dishware designed for lightweight and stacking in the tins.

As you can imagine, these materials will require a hefty deposit which you get when you return them.

One of the joys of my college eating club was having a small self prep area available at all hours. You could have a bowl of cereal or make a simple sandwich anytime you like. Everything was stored in bulk and the cereal, milk and juice were on tap. You'll find something like this in most rows of houses in Edenicity. And once again, this reduces packaging waste.

Okay, what about work and school environments? I haven't really talked about this so far in the series, but these would basically be relatively paperless environments that simply continue the present day trends to move more and more work online. There's just one downside: you need paper to archive the good stuff.

Wait, what? Isn't everything safer on the cloud than in hardcopy?

Sorry, no. As a former NASA archivist, and award winning software developer, I can state categorically that no software product has ever offered the durability of paper. Software just hasn't been around that long. Paper has been proven to safely preserve words and images for centuries. There is no digital document in my life that has lasted more than 23 years, and I sorely miss the thousands of images and emails I've lost to upgrades and updates. Since there will be paper and no doubt cardboard, which is still quite useful, it will be recycled with weekly pickup alongside other recyclables for each building. Same goes for print cartridges. It would also probably be wise to have one really great printer per building rather than everyone having their own cheap little unreliable model with super expensive cartridges.

And while we're talking about paper products, let's talk about tissue, toilet paper and paper towels. The problem with these is that they are responsible for the clear cutting of virgin forests worldwide, particularly the boreal forests in Canada.

Here are some fairly obvious design solutions for Edenicity.

First of all, Edenicity would have a bidet built into every toilet. My family installed them early in 2020 when there was a brief toilet paper shortage. Ours did not come with an air dryer, so we do need a cloth towel to dry off. There's one for each person in each bathroom. In our experience, they do not accumulate odors. We launder them every week. Of course, I'm sure some households would prefer to use a stack of much smaller single use cloth wipes and toss them in a storage bin after a single use to be laundered every week.

The young children in this household resisted and still use toilet paper from time to time. Even so, we've reduced my family's toilet paper consumption by 95%, which saves us about $330 a year. When I crunched the numbers, I found that the two bidets in our townhouse paid for themselves in the first four months. That's a 300% annual return on investment, tax free!

We actually feel much cleaner (thanks for asking), and now it feels icky to deal with toilet paper when we're traveling.

What about facial tissues? Well, I have a solution that I've used for about 30 years now. It's called handkerchiefs!

Okay, what about diapers? Well, cloth diapers with specialized laundry services are a tried and true solution, and this keeps thousands of diapers per baby out of landfill.

Now the plastics in pads and tampons and applicators take hundreds of years to break down in landfill. However, I'm told that washable pads and absorbent underwear are becoming more popular, but these aren't necessarily best for every situation. Disposable tampons with natural fibers already exist. These go to bio waste bins after use.

Let's talk about medical supplies. Syringes and medicine bottles get washed and autoclaved with steam. This requires materials such as glass and steel that can handle hot sterilization. But they can be reused hundreds or even thousands of times, I figure, with some modest updates to the old timey designs.

Fully recyclable bandages already exist and are mandated in Edenicity. Soiled fabrics are steam laundered with hydrogen peroxide. Unlike chlorine bleach, peroxide breaks down in a benign way. It just turns into water and oxygen.

As for cleaning products, forget about those disposable wipes and towels. You won't find them in Edenicity. Instead, we use wash rags which go to laundry. Now laundry services might offer wipes pre soaked in vinegar based cleaners or alcohol or peroxide disinfectants in reusable containers with return deposits.

Also brushes including toothbrushes would have wooden handles, as is already becoming popular today, and these would eventually be disposed of in the bio waste bins.

An increasingly popular alternative to toothbrushes and toothpaste is miswak, a chewing stick made from the root of the salvadora persica shrub native to Saudi Arabia, India and Egypt. This too would go into the bio waste bin after use.

Finally, there's the topic of gifts. In Edenicity. I would hope that we could establish a custom of making them fewer and simpler with reusable fancy cloth bags rather than gift wrap. In this area, I think it's important for highly visible people and culture leaders to model this early on.

Reclaiming resources

Okay, so much for reducing household waste. Now let's talk about reclaiming resources, starting with water.

The Zone 2 areas of Edenicity have basins that catch, store and soak rainwater into the landscape rather than simply trying to remove it. This technique has been proven in many installations throughout the world for decades, including more than 40 years in Village Homes in Davis, California. In Zones 3 and 4 of that Reference Design, swales or long trenches would be dug on contour to hold water in the landscape to grow trees, feed ponds, and most importantly, recharge aquifers, as discussed in Episode 10. This proven method helps ensure that there will be plentiful groundwater in Edenicity even during severe droughts.

One thing you won't find is storm drains and storm sewers, which are expensive and hard to manage when they feed into sewers that combine storm and sanitary flows as is so often done.

Now the sewage itself undergoes conventional water treatment using techniques that have long proven effective for recovering solids for compost and methane for specialized fuels such as in kitchens. The water outflow irrigates the Zone 3 fiber crops in the industrial areas. Speaking of compost, in Zone 3 areas around the villages, there would be compost areas that convert food waste, virtually any fiber product and animal manure into a healthy soil component.

Composting returns minerals and nutrients to the soil that would otherwise be lost. The Berkeley hot composting method uses bacteria to break down food and generate enough heat to kill most plant and animal pathogens. It takes about 14 to 18 days and can be quite labor intensive. People are always tweaking the Berkeley process to favor a finished product with more fungi for forest applications, or bacteria for gardening and crops.

A portion of the composted solids from the water treatment plant is also mixed with these materials to give them a boost.

Some items such as condoms are biodegradable, but take a few years to fully break down. These arrive at the industrial zone in the bio waste bins, where they get mixed with other compostable materials in a hot compost cycle to kill the pathogens. Then they're buried in the Zone 3 fiber crop areas of the industrial zones.

Since some of these items come in wrappers that don't break down, they would undergo an automated presort to extract the non biodegradable materials. A very small amount of these would not be recyclable, perhaps a few grams per person per year on average. More about that in a moment.

Fiber life cycle

Let's talk about the fiber life cycle. Many textiles, including those used in fabrics, carpeting and paper products, are very recyclable. Edenicity will probably grow a wide mix of fiber crops in Zone 3 in the industrial areas—bamboo, hemp, cotton—whatever grows best to supplement the wood fiber from the forests in Zone 4 of the industrial areas.

Intensive reuse and recycling multiplies the fiber resources, but eventually the fibers break down to the point where they reach the end of their lives. At this point, the non recyclable fibers can go into the skimmers in the water treatment plant, or other similar bulk applications, and then to compost or to myco- remediation, which is to say using mushrooms to break them down to build soil.

Now, let's talk about recycling itself. This is a huge industry. The goal of recycling is to disassemble every manufactured item to its raw feedstocks for full reuse. This will mainly require designing products for durability with easy disassembly at the end of their life. As automation improves in the recycling industry, used products will gain value as a resource. In my mind this is the number one growth industry worldwide.

Some products such as lead acid batteries are fully recyclable now: the plastic case is recycled, the acid is neutralized or chemically recovered for other applications such as detergents, and the lead is completely recycled. But typically the lead gets melted twice before it ends up in a new battery. An integrated recycle and manufacture facility could save this step and cut the energy costs in half.

Lithium ion battery recycling is just getting off the ground now, but it is projected to be a huge industry. No surprise there.

Metals, glass fiber and plastic were recycled even in Athens, the poorest county in Ohio, which offered a pickup service for unsorted recycling materials. Now they had people doing the sorting at their plant, but Edenicity would use automation. I believe the technology to do that exists today because of advances in machine vision and artificial intelligence in the automotive industry.

Recyclable plastic and natural fibers are excellent for furniture and carpeting. It's really all about the quality and care. I've seen 40 year old wool carpets that looked brand new.

Now, as a wish list item, I would ask for ways to really start closing the recycling loops for plastic. High density polyethylene, for example, can recycle maybe about 10 times; I'd like to see that multiplied by at least 1000 times, and then it might not be so bad.

Still a small but steady stream of plastics will find their way into Edenicity, for example, as a byproduct of tourism.

Building level bins collects these. Robots sort and disassemble them to recover recyclable components, and the waste is burned.

Bear in mind that this burnt amount is very tiny: a few grams per resident per year. That works out to maybe 10 to 20 tonnes per city per year. These plastics could be burned in small batches at high temperature several times a year with the heat stored in thermal batteries for industrial heating applications in the industrial zones at temperatures high enough to minimize toxic fumes.

I know that sounds terrible, but it has less environmental impact for the whole city than operating two or three cars. That's literally a million times less air pollution than today's large cities produce!

Now it's not just a consumer goods that can be recycled. As Edenicity renders highways obsolete, they will be recycled. Concrete gets a second life as a product called urbanite, which is basically a catch-all term for things like walkway slabs, retaining walls, landscaping stones and the like. And asphalt is already commonly and easily recycled. It would last a long time under a sheltered bike path.

Now the most difficult to recycle items—things like furniture, windows, solar panels, and especially consumer electronics—tend to have composite materials which are layered with glue, making it really hard to recycle them. But I believe that increasingly sophisticated lifecycle design and robotic disassembly should eventually converge to handle these.

Daily life

Here's how all this plays out in your daily life.

You'll have separate bins for cloth towels and bio or food waste in the bathroom and kitchenette. You'll exchange your sealed bio bins and compost bins for fresh clean ones in the exchange room next to the cafe. They'll take your towel bins and laundry there too. This is also where you'll drop off mixed recycling (mostly paper and toner cartridges: glass, metal and plastic will be rare).

Inside the cafe you can pick up durable beverage bottles and picnics packed for you in advance with a deposit refunded when you return everything in good shape. All of this cuts the routine waste streams down by a factor of 20 or more. So we're talking about something that could easily be pulled around by a bike or small electric cart.

There's no early morning wake ups to banging trash cans and loud backup alarms from trucks in Edenicity. Worn out furniture, appliances, fixtures, carpets and flooring get picked up upon delivery of new items. These are easily moved with an electric bike and trailer. The recycler pays a small fee upon delivery.

Your used clothes go to thrift or consignment shops, and you get a return deposit or payment upon sale.

Sounds convenient, right? And not so different from how we live today.

You, too!

But there's one more thing to recycle: you!

When you think about it, most cemeteries are miserable for the environment, like a suburban lawn that very seldom gets used.

Burial practices fight the natural cycle of ecology with toxic embalming fluids and caskets designed never to decay. The problem with these is they take up space and they don't cycle nutrients.

Cremation is polluting. I know because I once lived downwind of a crematorium!

What's the alternative? Forest burial in a natural fiber casket.

This happens in Zone 4 in areas that are thinned or harvested on a long rotation. Plots are about 4 meters apart. All are marked by a long lived tree planting. And some may be marked by a carved stone.

It takes about 600 years to rotate the cemetery through all of Zone 4, at which point the original remains have long since decomposed, returning their nutrients to the soil.

The soils themselves may have deepened by one to three meters over the centuries.

The cycle continues into a long, prosperous future for as long as there are people—and trees.

Close [music]

If you enjoyed Episode 36, please share the love by using that share button in your podcast player. And be sure to join me next time when I'll discuss manufacturing in Edenicity, which can support up to 20 Gigafactories per city.

I'm Kev Polk, and this has been Edenicity.


Edenicity 36: Recycling Everything

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