You handle waste every day. Tissues. Bottles and cans. Kitchen scraps, maybe yard trimmings. And plastics. So many plastics. The wet, the dry, the smelly, and the disgusting.
But the stuff you personally put in this or that bin is the tiniest part of all the waste that arises in the United States and other countries whose economies are premised on mass consumption. Although numbers are tricky here, something like 97 percent of all waste arising in the United States happens before you—as citizen and consumer—buy, use, and toss the things you need and want for your daily life. If you live in a typical American city, all the garbage and recycling you see getting picked up at the curb is just that remaining 3 percent of overall waste arising.
In Palmer Holton’s story, a fictional company called Universal Waste promises to solve all this. Universal Waste’s marketeers claim the company will bring wealth and prosperity to Claremont, Kansas, by turning the local landfill into its opposite, a mine. The company wants to extract precious metals scattered in the landfill from generations of consumer discards interred in its bowels. But as much as the citizens of Claremont hope that renewed economic development can be reanimated from the landfill-now-mine, it turns out to be too good to be true.
So are the promises of Universal Waste’s real-world analogs. Today, companies promise that waste can, almost like magic, be converted back into treasure—methane from landfills turned into energy that reduces the “average carbon intensity” (but not total carbon) of major oil and gas firms; “500 kilotons” of plastics recycled back in to their chemicals. (That’s not even 1 percent of annual new plastics production in the U.S.)
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