We face many converging ecological, social, and economic problems, but real people are taking extreme recycling to a new level in a search for solutions.
Articles about small ways to “save the world” can be interesting and hopeful, but also about as useful as telling you to stop buying $5 coffee drinks every day to save money. Chances are, if it matters to you, you’re already doing them. In a time of declining resources, we need something more than light green Band Aids. Perhaps these examples of extreme recycling will be just the inspiration we need to kick it up a notch in our own backyards.
By now, that beautiful American eclipse has come and gone, and plenty of us are stuck with useless eclipse glasses. Another eclipse is coming to North America in 2024, but the glasses are only good for a few years. What to do? How about donating them to kids in South America and Southeast Asia, who have their own total solar eclipses coming up in 2019? Astronomers Without Borders is partnering with Explore Scientific to collect the glasses and make them available to children and schools who might not be able to obtain glasses otherwise. You can find the information here.
Sick of cleaning up plastic bottle trash on the River Avon, Natalie Fee began an extreme recycling campaign in Bristol, England. Her program, the Refill Campaign, aims to match thirsty people and empty water bottles with businesses who don’t mind people using their taps. To incentivize people to use the Refill app, they get points each time they reuse a “single use” plastic bottle, which they can eventually redeem for a stainless steel water bottle. The real winners, of course, are all of us. Around 200 cafés, pubs, and other businesses in Bristol have volunteered their taps, and the program is spreading across Europe. The Refill campaign estimates that if each participating tap in Bristol is accessed once per day, that would result in 73,000 fewer bottles thrown away annually in that city alone.
In Westerly, Rhode Island, Project TGIF (Turn Grease Into Fuel) began when a 10 year old girl named Cassandra Lin learned about climate change in school. She, and a bunch of her classmates, decided to launch a program where restaurants could donate their used cooking oil, which is turned into heating fuel for those in need. Now Cassandra is 19, and Project TGIF has taken off across three states. Their extreme recycling efforts have offset over three million pounds of CO2 emissions and helped warm the homes of 515 families.
There’s an old barge floating on the East River in New York. Not just any old barge, though: it’s the only legal place to forage for food in New York City. Using permaculture methods to create a sustainable food forest, Mary Mattingly started a project in 2016 to bring fresh, healthy, and unique foods to a diverse array of communities. Supporting the whole endeavor is Swale, a rusty industrial barge that used to haul sand to construction sites. Turning an old sand hauler into a garden paradise is some seriously extreme recycling.
On the road again! Eric Lundgren, founder and former CEO of ITAP, a recycling firm in Chatsworth, California, decided to showcase the potential in our discarded electronics. His extreme recycling project is an electric car made out of trash. Employees at ITAP take apart discarded tablets, smartphones, and other electronics, and then figure out how to repurpose the pieces. Lundgren used some of those components and the body of a scrapped BMW to build the Phoenix, 88% of which consists of recycled materials (by weight). It’s not the prettiest thing, but competing head to head with a Tesla P100D, the Phoenix went 382 miles before needing to recharge, compared to the Tesla’s 315 mile run. (Lundgren was later sentenced to 15 months in prison for attempting to defeat planned obsolescence, or distributing stolen yet free software, depending upon who you ask.)
In 1997, two ecologists in Costa Rica made a deal with an orange juice company. In exchange for donating some unspoiled land to a nature preserve, the park would allow the juice maker to dump its fruit waste for free on a heavily grazed, deforested wasteland nearby. Over the next year, more than 12,000 metric tons of sticky orange waste carpeted the land. Researchers returned sixteen years later to a nearly unrecognizable plot of land. Compared to equally barren land where no fruit pulp had been deposited, the land was a green miracle, lush with vegetation. Currently, most industrial food waste is landfilled, but imagine what this kind of extreme recycling could do if we changed our ways.
All around the world, several problems are converging. We are deluged with discards and wading in waste. We are pumping far too much carbon into the air, and we’re degrading our soil. This final story about extreme recycling addresses all three of these problems with an ancient solution. Pre-Columbian natives of the Amazon rainforest used to dig pits where they’d put their waste, burning it in low-oxygen conditions. The burned remains, called biochar, transformed the soil by providing long-lasting, porous shelter for all kinds of soil microbes, and the effects can be observed in especially fertile soil in the present day. We can copy their trick by burning our solid waste in a similar way and using the biochar to enrich our played out agricultural soil instead of adding to our landfills. A project much like this has helped Vietnamese coffee farmers save money and resources while improving their land.
Pyrolysis and Biochar, a climate smart solution for Vietnam’s coffee sector, posted by Sofies.
Extreme recycling is something we can all consider right now, wherever we are. It doesn’t have to be big to be beautiful. All it takes is a little thinking about how we can change our corner of the world, and the inspiration to bring those ideas into the real world.