22 August, 2006

Junk Science

An old girlfriend of mine is interning at a company that is looking for found materials to make their products out of - in this case, durable cloth-like materials.

This morning I removed some old keys from my keychain - some of them I can't even remember what they're for. I didn't know what to do with the old keys afterwards. They can't really be recut and they're more or less useless in other contexts. Hallowe'en costume, maybe - the Keymaker from The Matrix Reloaded.

A few weeks back I was reading an article in the Boston Globe about pollution in Morocco resulting from their prolific olive oil industry. Apparently they have tremendous problems from the remainder, the pulp produced in the olive oil production process, being dumped into waterways, where it produces an oily olive-oil slick and all sorts of other nasty problems.

One of my utopian schemes has been as follows: after the Revolution, garbage collectors ought to actually play the role of "sanitation engineer". That is, after they've picked up the trash, they go back and figure out what to do with it - categorize the kinds of trash received, which ones are problematic, which ones can be easily recycled and have amazingly useful second lives. This seems like it would actually be a fantastically entertaining and profitable line of work. I'm not entirely sure why it doesn't happen already...


yes, i was going to say that if someone not classist actually trusted them with the responsibility, i'm pretty sure at least a few people already doing the work could devise some schemes now. isn't that how the best innovations happen--by people actually involved in the practice with an eye for an improvement? 

Posted by saurav

In California, since a law was passed 15 years ago requiring the state to halve its trash output by, I think, this year, such positions have proliferated. There are many more outlets selling salvaged building materials, redistributing surplus office supplies, reprocessing used paint and even composting huge tonnages of urban food scraps.

I don't know about their disposal, but one of my favorite nouns is scumball. San Francisco has a Mediterranean climate of dry summer, wet winter.* So all summer, our combined storm and sanitary sewer system runs at very low flows, carrying mostly shower water, toilet shits, and dishwasher slop. While most people are disturbed to think about the second, it's the latter that is the source of scumballs.

Over the summer, the oily film atop the effluent builds up on the walls of the sewers. With the first raging storm of autumn, the sewers fill half way to their 5-foot-high ceilings, gushing like desert arroyos, whitewater rapids descending the precipitous slopes to the sewage plant.

The plant has a "screen" of 1-foot mesh of metal bars to block sticks and other large objects from the processing works. Occasionally they get clogged completely because a scumball  of oil residue has peeled from the walls, agglommerated, picking up more and more as it traveled, eventually growing to several feet across! Each ball has a distinctive color and scent, the engineers told me -- sesame oil from Chinatown, olive oil from North Beach, lard from the Excelsior. Scumballs. What would you do with them?

* CSa in the Koeppen classification system. Now you know, no extra charge. 

Posted by hedgehog

It seems as if it would be easier, and safer for sanitary engineers to get people to sort their own trash. In Germany they separate out paper, glass, plastics, metal, biodegradable and other.

Posted by Sarah L

Before it gets to the point where people ought to sort out their own trash, one should determine what components of trash have some utility that necessitates its separation. "Other" is a big category that presumably could be further decomposed by enterprising individuals with the know-how... 

Posted by saurabh

I frequently fantasize about dismantling large numbers of things--buildings, computers, cars, whathave you---very systematically and figuring out what to make with them. Or reconstructing a new building entirely from this stuff. Based entirely on where my imagination frequently hits a blank wall and where my doodled calculations falter for lack of scaling data, I think as a field it requires a very, very deep knowledge of manufacturing and construction--both operationally and the components and processes that go into a lot of fields. I think this would be an extremely valuable focus in an otherwise general engineering curriculum.  

Posted by Saheli

There are many places in the world where people live by sorting garbage for recyclables. All of them are characterized by having a social division and a class of people under enough contempt that they are stuck with the job, e.g. the Egyptian Coptic Zabaleen clans of Cairo.

A better example, though, would be Boston, 80 years ago, which made a distinction between rubbish and garbage. The latter was picked up by farmers and fed to pigs, and the former collected by the city and put on Spectacle Island.

Households have to do the sorting, and the culture has to make it so. If the sorting is outsourced, it will be outsourced to untermenschen.  

Posted by Omri

the culture has to make it so 

Okay, how do you encourage a culture of waste-sortage on a widespread level, not just a hokey segmented granola composters level? Culture is manufactured, especially these days. We have cultural critics and cultural movers and shakers. What's a non-cultish, viable aesthetic, and how do we cultivate it as a necessary aesthetic, not just a personal, dutiful good habit?

It used to be that people had servants to do things that now they would be ashamed not to do themselves. Conventions change. But how? 

Posted by Saheli

sorting in the household is not unreasonable. it probably needs only 5 categories: recyclable, compostable, wet/soiled, poisonous, dry. more than that it needs training, done in the neighborhood. attend the training and get a serious reduction in your waste handling fees. regular mis-sorts would raise your price again.

as i understand it the san francisco dump has a very high rate of recovery, using "sanitation engineer" methods, including having a resident artist for even higher level processing.

i keep thinking about mitochondria, about the function of one thing to create fuel for another. from what i gather about how cells work, it seems like almost all life on earth could be said to eat shit.

i guess i see 3 big problems:

prob 1: cash economy means human relationships, which can adapt, are replaced by a stream of compensatory tools which way outlive their utility.

answer-ish: service/gift economy. a lot of the world already lives this way and that makes our waste generation all the more amazing.

prob 2: public financing of waste disposal (through landfill, recycling, or environmental damage) encourages speculative waste creation.

answer-ish: nobody gets to be economically "upstream." you make it, you pay for its disposal. cash continues to kill this solution but it really seems like the best the market can work up. if something is truly "economically necessary" to the point of bottle-feeding pure mercury to infants, socialize it and break it down to its key components.

prob 3: logistics. serving-sized packaging, shipped for days to be consumed in a fraction of the time.

answer-ish: CLOSE supermarkets that sell disposable single-serving packaging. come up with a system by which standard containers can be circulated like milk crates. 

Posted by hibiscus

Interesting. Garbage men living up to their self-rightous occupational title.

Did anyone ever read a short story/essay in their basic college writing classes by Lars Eighner "On Dumpster Diving"? There's a good idea on "recycled garbage"; just make it more socially acceptable for the homeless to bum through your garbage and take all salvageable items.

Unless you really are desperate for some cash and decide you want to capitalize on garbage. Meeehhh. 

Posted by The Proletariat

Dammit. I just cleaned off my keychain. I wish that I had thought of a useful purpose for them. 

Posted by Mist 1

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