Old trash is treasure? Landfill mining

Did you know just 4 percent of Swedish households put their garbage into landfills? In fact, Sweden’s recycling program is so successful that they actually run out of garbage and have to buy it from other countries just so the government can provide electricity to its 9.5 million residents.

Unloading garbage in Sweden
Unloading garbage in Sweden

That tid-bit might make garbage a bit more interesting for you. But, for others? Old garbage can be down-right fascinating.

That’s the case for a few folks slated to speak at the 2014 Global Landfill Mining Conference this November in London. They can’t wait to dig this stuff up.

So, what exactly is landfill mining?

Simply put, it’s digging up waste from a closed landfill and either recycling or reprocessing items that were once thrown away as, well, garbage. But, if you can get it out of the ground, there are a number of ways to give garbage a second life. Plastics can be reprocessed, metals can be repurposed, and certain organic materials such as wood can be used as fuel for power plants.

Earlier, I told you Sweden doesn’t have enough garbage — but that’s a unique issue. The United Kingdom only manages to put half their garbage into landfills — they’re simply running out of space. It’s a common European problem, and it’s led the English government to launch a landfill mining program. But officials admit it won’t bear fruit for at least 20 years.

It’s not only a question of time — it’s a question of economics and politics. Short-term costs around landfill mining operations are high, and the return-on-investment is woefully low for a while. That lack of instant gratification is fueling political push back from those who say there “must be” other technologies that can save the day much faster.

Time and speed, though, are actually part of the problem. Our garbage heaps didn’t appear overnight. They took generations to grow, and they continue to expand exponentially. It simply isn’t possible for a quick-fix solution to properly address an issue that’s been left unchecked for decades.

Don’t throw your hands up in defeat yet, however. There’s promising news in the United States as politicians make small steps toward overall answers. As expected, business interests are resisting, fearing any changes will adversely affect their bottom lines. But at least the conversation is open.

Yes, this is a quick look at one of many solutions to waste and sustainable practices. But, garbage, for one, is a dire problem that we must address so our children and grandchildren can see the result. Isn’t it about time we give a good, hard look at the long view?