Friday, August 5, 2011

Garbage In - Garbage Out

When considering the merits of an assertion, one of the most useful tools of logic I have encountered is to ask the question: if this is true then what are the logical extensions and consequences?  This challenges the thinker to follow the implications of an idea and see if   contradictions in reasoning arise.  When faced with an apparent contradiction, one must then try to discover which of the premises is false. Discovery of the false premise enables the removal of the contradiction.  Such is the case with the public discussion of garbage/blue/black/green box collection, which is filled with apparent contradictions.

Consider the primary reason given for splitting our household waste into so many compartments in the first place: that available landfill space is limited and so we must find ways to reduce, recycle and re-use.  According to the City of Ottawa web site, the City covers an area of 4,662 square kilometers with over 90% of it being in a country setting.  It would be greatly surprising if even one thousandth of this was used for all the landfill Ottawa has accumulated in its history to date.  In fact, Ottawa could probably store in landfill the municipal garbage of the entire country for decades without using more than a tiny fraction of our land area, never mind the fact that we are surrounded by millions of kilometers of even less populated land where landfills could operate.  Clearly, space is not a limitation for landfill use.

Consider that the technology of managing a landfill has really only started in the last few decades.  With a few sensible steps taken to prevent liquids from leaching into the water table and capture and convert gases into energy, landfills can be a safe an economical way to manage our waste.  If the contents of the landfill become more valuable as technology advances or a particular material becomes scarce (though this is unlikely to ever happen), then companies could mine the landfill or exploit it in other ways.  Landfills do not have to mean damage to the surrounding environment.

Consider that the technology of plasma gasification, wherein waste is fed through a powerful electric arc and converted into basic elements in gaseous form, is nearly new and has the potential to reduce the volume of solid waste by 95% or more.  This process converts much of the organic carbon and hydrogen normally present in waste into a gas that may be further processed and used for energy production with clean by-products.  The inorganic materials are converted to an inert, glassy, rock material that may be further processed into materials such as rock wool (used for insulation and hydroponics) and other construction materials.  Ottawa is the site of one of the world’s leading plasma gasification facilities (Plasco Energy Group Inc.) but the technology is still very new and is rarely used.  If we choose, in the next few years nearly 100% of Ottawa’s organic and inorganic waste could be recycled by this process and existing landfill material could be dug up and recycled as well, converting the waste of the past for the benefit of future citizens.

The assertion that landfill space is scarce fails when we look at not only the current facts of geography, but the new facts that are being discovered by science and exploited by industrial use of technology.  If you assume that garbage can only go to landfill, that garbage will always be a waste product and that resources are limited then you have to conclude we will eventually run out of space to store our garbage.  This seeming contradiction can be easily solved once you understand that humans are constantly discovering ways to adapt to challenges and overcome them by the use of their reasoning minds.  The human ability to reason, imagine and create knows no limits and so all political, economic and pseudo-scientific thinking that begins with an assumption of scarcity has eventually been proven wrong.  True contradictions do not exist and are corrected once the underlying premises are challenged and logical extensions explored.

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