Stories tagged recycling


The ATV-2: The astronauts filled it with trash, and then burned it. But, to be fair, they probably ate that trash several times before they finally tossed it.
The ATV-2: The astronauts filled it with trash, and then burned it. But, to be fair, they probably ate that trash several times before they finally tossed it.Courtesy NASA
I am adding a’s to the end of words to make them sound a little like “NASA.” Try it. It’s funa.

Anywaya, I thought I’d run a little idea I had by y’all.

I got trash. Who doesn’t? You use stuff, you make trash, and it just piles up. Under your couch, in the freezer, on top of the cat … what are you supposed to do with it? Put it on the curb? I guess, but what’s exciting and easy about that? So, my idea—which I got from the world’s various space agencies—is to take my trasha up to the roofa of my apartment building (three stories!!) and just drop it. If I’m at all accurate in my understanding of acceleration and atmospheric friction, all those Sears catalogues, plastic cups, and mouse skeletons should burn up before they hit the ground.

I mean, it’s what NASA, the European Space Agency and all of their ilk do, and it seems to work for them. Take the ESA’s recently launched ATV-3 (Automated Transfer Vehicle-3). The large, unmanned space capsule will deliver about 7 tons of cargo to the International Space Station (a few hundred pounds of food, water and oxygen, and about 6.5 tons of candy), stay docked for 4 to 6 month while the astronauts use it like a missing roommate’s walk-in closet, and then, once it’s completely full of trash, it will detach, fall towards Earth, and incinerate in the atmosphere. Easy peasy. Easya peasya.

Despite it being what I think is an elegant solutiona to waste accumulationa, there are plenty of folks out there, who may or may not be smarter than hundreds of NASA systems engineers, that believe this proves that astronauts are the worst recyclers ever. To this, I have three things to say:

1) You’re no fun.
2) Think about the fuel it takes to get those tons of junk into space. You’re worried about the waste that happens after that?
3) Wrong! In a lot of respects, astronauts on the ISS are the best recyclers in the histories of re and cycling.

See, here’s the thing about #3: astronauts may dump their candy wrappers, dead pets, banana peels and old undies (JK, they wear those undies for months) into a fiery and unforgiving atmosphere, but there’s a lot of stuff that they re-use again and again that you’d never even think of. Air, for one. And water.

When you’re breathing, farting, sweating and peeing for months on end in an airtight box floating in space, and a fresh glass of water costs between $10,000 and $15,000 for delivery, you have to be clever.

And the engineers of the ISS are clever! Consider the Environmental Control and Life Support System. Astronauts, like most of us, breath out poisonous carbon dioxide, fart out poisonous methane and sweat out poisonous ammonia. ECLSS filters out all of that to produce fresh air again. The system also splits water molecules apart to create breathable oxygen, and reclaims moisture from urine and other waist to produce more water for drinking (or ultimately breathing). I don’t know about you, but I rarely save my farts, sweat, breath and urine, much less reuse them.

All things considered, I think the ISS has a pretty sweet setup figured out. A two hundred and fifty mile trash drop-n-burn (awesome), and a system that can recycle pretty much anything that comes out of your body (also awesome). The rest of us should be so luckya.

It's cliche, but the social enterprise, A Liter of Light, is really a bright idea.

A Liter of Light is a sustainable lighting project that uses the eco-friendly "Solar Bottle Bulb" and science to bring light into the homes of communities nationwide. The Solar Bottle Bulb is the brain child of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students and is basically a plastic bottle filled with water (and bleach to prevent algae growth) that's installed in a roof. Refracting (bending that amplifies) sunlight, a single Solar Bottle Bulb, can provide the equivalent of up to 55 watts of light. For comparison's sake, many standard incandescent light bulbs in your home are 60 watts.

For more information, you can watch a short video clip of the project in action below, or check out the project's website.


This started as a reply to Bryan's comment on the Freaky Frogs post, but it quickly turned into its own blog entry...

Here's Bryan's comment:

I thought the whole BPA freakout was an interesting look at how we think about environmental and personal contaminants like this. People seemed to get all up in arms about BPA in water bottles and bought tons of new plastic or aluminium vessels to replace them. But that switch over raised some questions for me.

Where did all those old bottles go? In the trash?

How much energy does it take to make those aluminium bottles? Is it lots more than the plastic ones?

How many bottles can you own before it'd just be better to use disposable paper?

Bauxite: It takes a lot of energy to get the aluminum out of this rock to make a can.
Bauxite: It takes a lot of energy to get the aluminum out of this rock to make a can.Courtesy US Government

And my response...
It took some searching, but I did find one article discussing a life cycle analysis from Australia which showed that, in a comparison between aluminum, stainless steel, and plastic, plastic has the smallest carbon emissions footprint, uses the least water, and produces the least manufacturing waste. However, it was unclear whether this comparison included recycled metals in its evaluation. Steel and aluminum are 100% recyclable (vs. plastic, which loses quality every time it's recycled), so over time and on a large scale, their use would lead to less material waste.

Steel plant: This place is probably recycling steel RIGHT NOW.
Steel plant: This place is probably recycling steel RIGHT NOW.Courtesy Matthew Baugh

It's also interesting to note that recycling metals uses significantly less energy vs. what it would take to smelt "new" metal. To paraphrase this reference, recycling steel and aluminum saves 74% and 95%, respectively, of the energy used to make these metals from scratch. As it turns out, we recycle about half the steel we use in a year in the US, and so almost all the steel we use contains recycled content. In contrast, we recycle just 7 percent of the plastic we use.

And then there's glass--we have lots of options, really.

Bottled water: Probably the least efficient option all around.
Bottled water: Probably the least efficient option all around.Courtesy Ivy Main

I can't speak to how much material was wasted when people discarded all those bottles (I think I recycled mine?). Personally, I do think that making reusable bottles in general uses less energy than is needed to make all those disposable plastics and recycle them--at least in terms of lifetime footprints. Of course, when it comes to a strict comparison between reusable bottles, switching to a new bottle will always consume more energy than just sticking with your old one.

Unfortunately, it turns out that most plastics, even the ones labeled BPA-free, leach estrogen-mimicking chemicals. So if you're looking for a long term solution, it may be best to just avoid plastics altogether. This does seem to be one of those cases where we have to consider our own health vs. the environment and pick our battles wisely. If people want to switch once to avoid health problems, at least they're still sticking with reusable bottles. Readers, do you agree?

Ice cold water: Wait, what's in here?
Ice cold water: Wait, what's in here?Courtesy Clementina

Of course, it would be great if choosing a water bottle were the only drinking water issue we faced. The other day I read about a study by Environmental Working Group, which found that the carcinogen chromium-6 contaminates tap water throughout the US. Are we exposing ourselves to this toxic metal by drinking tap water instead of pre-bottled water? Or is chromium in the bottled water, too? What about other unregulated pollutants in our water?

I guess my point of going into all this is that it's complicated to make these decisions, and we'll probably never be able to avoid every single toxic substance. But does that mean we shouldn't try to make drinking water safer?

For now, I'm gonna stick with the steel and aluminum bottles that I already have and try to get the most out of them. Luckily, I live in the Twin Cities, which don't rate high on EWG's chromium map. Every day, I learn more about my health and the health of our environment, and hopefully by searching, I'll find a direction that hits on a fair compromise.


Very much like this
Very much like thisCourtesy Jeff Henshaw
Chill out, everybody. I can tell you’re all stressed out about the future, and why it’s not here, and where the flying cars are, and the laser-powered washing machines, and the genetically engineered dog-faced cats, and all that other stuff we were basically promised.

You feel like you’ve been cheated. I can see it on your faces.

Well don’t worry. The future is here, and it’s called Japan. Check it out: a machine that recycles regular old office paper into brand new toilet paper! Finally! A solution to our office paper surplus/toilet paper shortage, and a great new reason to be absolutely horrified of staples!

The new machine, called “White Goat” (because, duh, like a goat, it will eat almost anything, and it excretes something you want to rub on your orifices), will turn 40 sheets of office paper into one roll of toilet paper in about 30 minutes, at a cost of about 11 cents a roll. I’m not sure if this cost includes only the paper, or also the electricity and water the machine needs. That’s sort of important.

White goat costs somewhat more than a real goat (about $100,000), and will likely be much more difficult to eat when it has outlived its usefulness. Still, it seems like a clever in-house recycling thing, and it makes me wonder what sort of similar, and perhaps more practical, devices could be made for organizations with lots of a particular kind of waste.

Here’s the White Goat in action:


Recycling plastic: A patent on sorting, grinding, and reusing plastic for manufacturing or energy
Recycling plastic: A patent on sorting, grinding, and reusing plastic for manufacturing or energyCourtesy Meaduva

Don't throw it away. Recycle.

Each day millions of tons of plastic and organic products are "thrown away". Where is "away"? Probably a land fill. A better idea would be to somehow recycle these materials into a useful product, or use it as a source of energy.

Plastic and cellulose waste recycling idea "owned"

A new patent application claims that a blend of waste plastic and cellulose from plant material can make a good building material or the plastic/cellulose mix could be burned for fuel. (click to view patent application, 38pg PDF)

It would be beneficial to develop a process that can efficiently and cost effectively convert multiple types of waste byproducts into useful materials usable for: (i) heat and/or energy generation; and/or (ii) structural, sound attenuation, and/or insulation materials.

Do you think "Recycling" should be patented?

Would someone explain what this patent does? To me it claims to own the concept of turning garbage into stuff or burning it. If someone works out detailed methods of doing what is described in the blockquote above, would they have to pay money to the person who patented the concept?

" Invention: Recycled trash construction materials" New Scientist
Abstract: "Blending Plastic and Cellulose Waste Products for Alternative Uses"


Free CFL recycling

Free CFL recyling @ Menards
Free CFL recyling @ MenardsCourtesy Minnesota Energy Challenge
Those compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) should keep saving you money on your electric bills for many years. When they do burn out your need to safely recycle them. I burned one out in just one day because I had a dimmer switch.

Starting today I can recycle my CFL bulbs for free at any Menards store in Minnesota thanks to The Center for Energy and Environment and Great River Energy.


Gray garden: A growing trend in the western U.S. is the use of gray water, water that comes from the drains of shower, bath tubs and washing machines, to go through an outdoor filtering process and then be used to water plants. Some see the idea as too big of a health
Gray garden: A growing trend in the western U.S. is the use of gray water, water that comes from the drains of shower, bath tubs and washing machines, to go through an outdoor filtering process and then be used to water plants. Some see the idea as too big of a health
As more and more people become environmentally conscious, to what extremes should we as a society let them go to help protect the environment?

That’s a pressing question these days in some western states where water is scarce and some people are trying to find creative ways to reduce their water consumption.

Meet gray water, that water that comes from the drains of bath tubs, showers and washing machines. It’s not full of hazardous waste products, but is not usable for drinking or cooking. How about flushing your toilets or water lawns with gray water?

A growing “gray water brigade” is finding creative home plumbing solutions to re-route gray water into other uses in their homes. Sometimes the modifications are quite simple to do, costing just a few hundred dollars.

But they rarely meet the building codes of the cities the gray water. Systems that have been put into use by contractors meeting local construction guidelines can cost as much as $7,000. In a recent story in the New York Times, a plumbing contractor admitted that he now encourages people interested in recycling grey water to find their own home remedies rather than fork out big bucks for a professional solution.

The same story gave a quick description of one such homemade system. A pipe running from the house deposits shower and sink water into an elevated bathtub in the yard that is filled with gravel and reeds. The roots of the plants begin filtering and absorbing contaminants. The water then flows into a lower tub, also containing a reed bed, before flowing into a still-lower tub of floating water hyacinths and small fish. The whole system cost about $100 and the final product is used to water flower beds at a California home. Chemical tests of the filtered done by the homeowner show a slightly high level of phosphorus, but nothing the plants can handle.

But other water experts share their concerns with gray water, including the risks of open pools of water becoming a mosquito breeding ground, the possible crossing of gray water lines with other plumbing that could contaminate clean water, or using gray water to irrigate plants that might be eaten raw.

Most states now have regulations about gray water usage. But proponents of gray water say those rules make the idea cost prohibitive.

So what should be done on the gray water front? Is it okay for people to play with gray water at their own risk? Are the health risks too great for this kind of experimentation? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.


Rock-Tenn paper recycling plant loses steam.

Rock-Tenn biofuel study
Rock-Tenn biofuel study
Rock-Tenn currently uses steam heat generated by the coal fired Xcel High Bridge plant. When that source of steam is shut off this summer, Rock-Tenn will fire up its old boilers and begin burning fuel oil or natural gas. This will increase their energy costs by four to six million dollars annually but could go much higher depending upon the volatile international energy markets.

The Rock-Tenn plant processes half of all paper recycled in Minnesota (about 1000 tons per day). Rock-Tenn (formerly Waldorf Paper) employs about 500 people at an average salary of $60,000 and spends about $75 million on goods and services yearly.

St. Paul Port Authority, to the rescue.

The St. Paul Port Authority, a non-profit municipal corporation, with its mission of job creation and retention, plans to build a new fuel plant for Rock-Tenn. Big bucks are involved. Current estimates are about $140 million. District Energy, a private, non-profit corprtion, and Market Street Energy, its for-profit affiliate will run the Rock-Tenn power plant (they currently run the St. Paul district heating and cooling).

Law makers propose $4 million to study idea.

The proposed Midway biomass power plant picked up some steam May 1st when members of the Minnesota Legislature included $4 million to study the idea in their environment, energy, and natural resources bill. The bill also allows for regular input from four district councils (near University Avenue and Vandalia Street) and by business and labor interests.

Big, important issues involved.

Coming up with an environmentally friendly biomass source that is technically and economically workable is a task that involves many important issues.

Municipal waste disposal.
Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT) runs a processing plant in Newport, MN that converts municipal solid waste (MSW) to refuse-derived fuel (RDF). The RRT plant gets municipal solid wastes from Ramsey and Washington counties, which subsidize its operation. Read more about municipal waste disposal here.

Energy from renewable fuel sources.

Ramsey and Washington counties support an RDF fuel source for the Rock-Tenn plant as a way to provide both fuel for Rock-Tenn and a "market" for the counties' municipal solid wastes. Other biomass fuel choices exist—among them, woody wastes, agricultural wastes and crops grown specifically for fuel. The choice of fuel for the Rock-Tenn power plant has implications for the municipal solid waste system, but also for air quality, property taxes, agriculture and farmers, and the future of recycling. tcdailyplanet

Who pays? Who profits?
The St. Paul Port Authority, Ramsey County, Washington County and the City of St. Paul are among the public entities whose decisions factor in the process, including decisions on financing and public subsidies. I recommend reading TCPlanet's, "Follow the money" and "Keeping track of the players".

Environmental impacts.
A proposal would need to be made to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) with an Environmental Assessment Worksheet. After the MPCA evaluates this worksheet, it will decide whether a full-scale (time-consuming and expensive) Environmental Impact Statement is necessary.

"a biomass plant has impacts both 'upstream' and 'downstream' of the plant. Upstream impacts include the impacts of growing, harvesting, processing and transporting the biomass. ... Downstream impacts include noise and health impacts from air and water emissions and ash disposal. Air emissions have the most significant downstream impacts." Green Institute study(pdf)

What do you think?

Refuse-derived fuel, known as RDF, raises health and quality of life issues, issues that hopefully will be resolved with fully informed, scientific reasoning. You can get started by following some of the links above.


Where's my lunch?: Pigs on a huge farm in Minnesota get to eat the processed leftovers of school lunches of students from St. Paul.
Where's my lunch?: Pigs on a huge farm in Minnesota get to eat the processed leftovers of school lunches of students from St. Paul.
How do your school lunches rate? Are they fit for a pig?

In St. Paul, Minn., they are. Grade school students were recently recognized with an environmental award by Mayor Chris Coleman for their efforts to help helping develop or promote more “green” living.

The students have found a creative use for their leftover school lunches. The waste food – weighing in at more than 253 tons last school year – has been converted into daily feed for the 4,000 hogs being raised on a farm near St. Francis, Minn.

Here’s how it works: Students dump their uneaten food into a barrel in the lunchroom. Barthold Farm and Recyling picks up the leftovers, cooks it up into a new recipe just for pigs.

Can you think of any other great ways to recycle or reuse waste items at your school? Share them here with other Science Buzz readers today.