Does Trash Have a Future?

Hollywood gives us two very different images of garbage in the future. In Star Trek, the "replicator" makes things appear and disappear on command. Star Wars, in the scene where Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are trapped in a garbage compactor, provides the opposite view.

In these two visions of garbage's future we have zero waste vs. business as usual. In one vision, trash is sent to the ultimate "away;" in the other, garbage is our eternal companion.

I think Star Wars predicts a more realistic future. But don't ask me to predict what our trash will be like in a century. Like everything else, garbage will change. We might not even recognize it.

After all, just look at the way our trash has evolved in the past century.

Two of the biggest garbage problems of a century ago have gone away. In 1900, when coal and wood were burned for heat and energy, the resulting ashes equaled more than half of the garbage produced by households. Today, the only homes that produce ash are those with wood stoves.

A century ago, dead horses and the wastes produced by live horses were a reality in our cities. In 1880, garbagemen hauled away 15,000 horse carcasses from New York City. Maybe automobiles aren't so bad after all.

Modern packaging and food processing companies have eliminated a great deal of food waste from garbage. Before the age of refrigerators, watermelons were one of our most popular summer desserts. In New York City alone, 750,000 watermelon rinds were thrown away in the summer of 1897. That's a lot of compost.

And what about paper, the largest component of our waste stream? Will we still use paper 100 years from now? The short-term future of paper is bright. E-commerce is a boon for paper packaging because more paper is used to ship individual goods purchased online than is used to ship cases of those same products to retail stores. So far, paper tissues are unaffected by computers, at least until a cure for the common cold can be transmitted by e-mail (just think of that - a friendly computer virus!).

Printing and writing paper was supposed to be the victim of the paperless office. Yet a panel of experts chose paper, not computer disks or CDs, as the safest and best medium for preserving words and images in a New York Times millennium time capsule.

One absolutely safe prediction is that manufacturers will continue to find ways to use fewer materials to make more things. Lightweighting is a guaranteed reality.

Maybe I should give Hollywood the last word. Early in the movie version of Lost in Space, one of the characters says the reason for their space mission is, "they lied to us, recycling won't save the world."

That's right, but if we always have garbage, we always will be able to recycle.