The Laws of Thermodynamics Will Not Bend for Landfills


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.)

Trash to treasure is a trick. It glosses over fundamental problems relating to the technical inability to overcome some physical limits. It also obscures the reality that real-world waste management companies are finding ways to turn wastes into financial assets. Doing so enriches themselves and their shareholders, but neither offers much in the way of benefits to the communities that host their facilities nor does anything to stem the flow of waste.

The laws of thermodynamics haunt dreams of a circular economy. It is not possible to recycle energy continually without a loss in its quality or density. That’s the second law of thermodynamics in action. No recycling plant can be run solely off of the excess heat of another such recycling plant. A landfill might concentrate materials and the energy they embody into a compact location. But it simply cannot contain the energy necessary to excavate, reprocess all the materials the company wants, and separate out the materials it doesn’t. Finding a way around this thermodynamic conundrum would truly require a Copernican revolution in our understanding of physics. That’s not necessarily impossible, but probably improbable.

The stuff going into contemporary landfills is very different than their historical precedents. This “modern waste,” as Samantha MacBride, an assistant professor at Baruch College, calls this jumble of materials, is notable for its heterogeneity, toxicity, and tonnage. This material complexity makes recovery difficult, and efficiency isn’t the only issue. Some amalgams of materials, such as plastics and certain combinations of metals, are technically impossible to separate back into their constituent materials (at least for now). No matter how much effort would be applied there are no technologies on the horizon that can achieve that kind of separation, so some amount of materials and energy will always be lost (back to thermodynamics again).

As my fellow geographer Nicky Gregson, an emerita professor at Durham University, shows in her forthcoming book, interesting things happen when, instead of waste, we start with the question of valuation. Universal Waste, the fictional company, does what many actual companies are doing today: turn discarded products and materials in landfills back into assets, as things that can be re-harvested, traded, and speculated on (e.g., for reuse in industrial manufacturing or incinerated as fuel for waste-to-energy facilities). Yet, as the decaying human remains found in Claremont’s landfill of Holton’s story reminds readers, this transmutation of waste into financial value involves a dark alchemy. That trick relies on incalculable losses that can be externalized from the financial arithmetic, but not from the world itself. Outside the formal calculations of financialized assets, waste, pollution, trash, and their harmful effects persist. Landfill materials mined for reuse require additional inputs of materials and energy to be turned back into products. Incinerating them for energy generation adds to the atmospheric burden of carbon dioxide and other airborne toxicants. By these measures, Earth already is a circular economy, although not necessarily in a way one would hope.

If you came home one day to find your bathroom overflowing because you mistakenly left the bathtub running you might run madly about searching for a mop with which you could soak up the water spilling over the brim. A better response, of course, would be to turn off the tap and stop the flow of water. Landfills are kind of like that overflowing tub; they can absorb a certain amount of material flowing into them, but not indefinitely. Unlike a bathtub, there is neither a single faucet to turn off, nor a plug to unplug that would drain the tub to some other ultimate sink. At best, landfills temporarily sequester some of the cast-offs of industrial production and consumption but they will, eventually, overflow, leak, and/or spill.

If we arrange our economic systems such that they are premised on continual growth in the sense of an increasing aggregate of materials and energy flowing into them, wastes will inevitably arise. Like a bathtub, those systems are already overflowing. So far as we know, we can’t dodge thermodynamics. But we may be able to devise ways to work more collaboratively with them. Part of that collaboration will mean figuring out how to live without growth in the aggregate. That’s not an argument for living in burlap sacks and chewing on local root vegetables, but it does mean rearranging and reinventing the interlocking systems that make our different daily lives possible.

Rather than a singular monolithic solution, it’s important to think about a portfolio of options. Among those options is increasing efficiency, that is, using less and less materials and energy per thing produced. But that will only get us so far. As the English political economist William Stanley Jevons found out more than a century ago, the more efficient things become, the cheaper they get, and the more people can afford them. Eventually, that increased demand swamps the earlier gains in efficiency as aggregate demand for energy and materials increases. Decoupling of growth from energy and material throughput, seems, at best, only partially possible and even then only in certain subsectors of the overall economy (e.g., data centers).

So while efficiency can help, it shouldn’t be pursued as an end in itself. We also need to reduce the material complexity and toxicity of the products we make and use. Doing so would make them easier to take apart and reuse the materials of which they’re made. But we also need to think about how to manage the shrinkage of some industries just as we manage the growth of others until they provide us with a sufficient stock of different infrastructure for living in ways that mean less toxic and less voluminous wastes arise.

There is no single way this all has to happen. Some options are already on the table. One possibility dubbed cosmolocalism points to a world in which ideas for products circulate in a global digital commons, but the actual manufacturing happens at or near the site of consumption. Such a “design global, manufacture local” system is increasingly possible for all sorts of things, such as furniture, tools, and toys.

Libraries offer another example of an existing arrangement where things people want are held in common and lent out as desires arise. This is a familiar situation for books, but is also a model being shifted to many other things. For instance, instead of every person or household owning their own drill, for example, and using it for a matter of mere minutes over its typical life, you could borrow one from your library. Making products accessible this way allows a smaller number of high-quality products to be made and shared instead of a mass of lower quality but cheaper products owned by many. A library approach to things could substantially reduce aggregate demand for energy and materials without inherently leading to scarcity of access to things.

Today, waste management is a global, multibillion dollar industry. The business model is generally premised on treatment, disposal, and incineration (sometimes for energy generation). Whatever one might think about such a business model, there’s one thing for sure it doesn’t do: reduce waste. Imagine a waste management firm actively trying to reduce the garbage for which it contracts its services to manage. Imagine a private landfill owner actively discouraging customers for the disposal space that company sells access to. Status quo waste management is just like status quo industrialism. It is premised on growth. Yet, unchecked growth can lead to system collapse.

Holton’s story is a meditation on collapsing systems and the existential dread felt by those for whom those systems offered at least a partial sense of safety and security. It’s not a coincidence that the story’s protagonist is a police detective—a public servant tasked with putting people, places, and things in order when they threaten the status quo. The story is premised on one of the great prompts for science fiction storytelling: “If this keeps up …” But the dread Holton captures is hardly a universal human experience when it comes to waste or the apocalyptic collapse of systems it represents to some people. Other ways of organizing landfills and the systems of which they are part are possible. Imagine a world in which more of the things we need and want for everyday lives are borrowed, not bought. Where more of those things are made mostly where we live, work, and play. Would such a world be strange? Perhaps. But if so, that is only to think with one of the other great prompts for science fiction: What if?

Slate, 26 November 2022