It seems many of us are terrified of the looming garbage apocalypse. We’re shocked by stories of massive garbage islands in the pacific, or steaming piles of electronic waste in Eastern Europe. Maybe we go to the supermarket with tote bags, and buy goods guaranteed to be made of recycled materials. We just can’t get enough of “sustainability.” Of the environmental dangers of the future, one thing seems inevitable: the amount of garbage will increase. The basic theory goes something like this: even if first world countries can get their garbage under control via reduction, recycling, and reuse, the third world will inevitably increase waste per capita as it develops.
But maybe garbage is a problem that will take care of itself, without us having to spend unsustainable amounts of cash on sustainable products. While I’m positive that our capabilities in dealing with trash, via things like waste to energy plants, will become more effective with time, maybe there just won’t be so much trash. I’m hoping that the social effects of future technologies, and the effects of technologies we already have, will simply reduce the amount we consume.
A few examples: let’s think the paper and cardboard stream, more specifically the waste produced by newspapers. If technology had frozen in time in 1970, but population increased, the amount of newspapers consumed would increase exponentially with population. But has that happened? Of course not! We read newspapers online. This applies also to things like magazines, catalogues, letters and bills. True we still have paper versions of these texts, but what will happen when the tech-native generations of today are the middle aged of tomorrow? Barring some unforeseen paper renaissance, I think most will be reading their news on an app and paying bills online. There goes the paper stream. At this point you might say, ok, paper is going down but cardboard is increasing with all this online shopping! True, but when drones are delivering our amazon purchases and pizzas, there will be less need for heavy packaging.
Here are some other ideas. Think about how much waste is generated commercially. Will that still be the case as mega-stores shut down physical locations? All those empty boxes they have tied up in the back parking lot will disappear. Or, have you ever wondered why small things in stores have such large plastic packaging? Largely, to protect against shoplifters. But where will all that packaging go when you can 3D print a product you’ve purchased in your own home?
One thing that certainly will continue to grow is our e-waste stream. More people, more smartphones. However, device size is negatively correlated with technological advancement. And as devices become interconnected, people will buy fewer devices (think having a separate ipod and cellphone). I know even when iTunes came out, I still bought a CD once in awhile. Now I have Spotify.
There are also some simple sources of waste that are not going away. No matter how much AI we have, people will still be drinking bottled water. And everyone knows those small “30% less” plastic caps don’t REALLY do anything. We will still be eating candy bars, and wrapping our presents in gift wrap. While it is of course difficult if not impossible to quantify any of this, the final questions really comes to down to whether source reduction will be counteracted by population growth and old habits. That remains to be seen. But one thing is clear — it certainly will not be an apocalypse. So everybody, please relax.