Nerdcon: Stories: A Review

At first thought, many people would not consider themselves storytellers, or even interested in stories. But as NerdCon: Stories proved to me – we are surrounded by, and are made of, stories. Conceived by Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame, NerdCon: Stories, in short, was meant “to be a celebration of the story, and the ways we tell stories, and the people who tell stories, which is really all of us” (Hank Green). Stories are powerful tools in which we communicate messages that cannot be told, only experienced.

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Musings on the Current Education System – Maintaining Perspective and Inspiration

In education, as in life, there will always be challenges. There will be times that we question what we are doing, why we are doing it, and if any of it matters. And these times – while the scariest – are also the most valuable, the most important, for they reveal what truly matters to us. No one gets through challenges simply because we are told to do so, but because we choose to do so. I strongly believe that there are two major things we need to tackle challenges: perspective and inspiration – perspective to help us understand where we are, what we know and do not know, and why we do not know it; inspiration to understand where we want to go, and why we want to go there. The source of our perspective and inspiration comes from the realization that we are not alone, that where we are is defined by our relation to one another and to the greater universe, that our motivation comes from our family, friends, mentors, the beauty and mystery of life. It is humility and ambition combined.

When you find yourself questioning why you are doing problem sets, or attending classes, or going to work, remind yourself of your current perspective and inspiration. I say current, because these things can and will change throughout your life. What you do should grow your perspective and inspiration, and your perspective and inspiration should motivate what you do. Without perspective and inspiration, the work you do quickly loses meaning and the cycle is broken.

What troubles me is that the current systems that surround us do not address these two things, instead they construct additional challenges that make us lose our perspective and cloud our inspiration. Instead of being sources of inspiration and perspective, the education system tends to suck these things out of our lives. We are given goals to strive for without the reasons why, we are told to take tests because they will increase our academic standing, we are told we need to be the best out of a tiny percentage of a privileged population because…why? When that happens, we stray away from challenges, letting difficulty or fear of failing be our excuse not to do something. We lose the will to pursue challenges, to work hard.

At the moment, it is up to us to maintain our perspective and inspiration. Please don’t lose it.

The Division of Districts and People

After watching the latest Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, one of the many things I began wondering was  “How did 12 Districts come to be?” For those who aren’t familiar with the Hunger Games Trilogy (don’t worry, I haven’t read any of the books), the nation of Panem is a dystopian North America divided into 12 Districts, corresponding to area and commodity produced. District 12, located most likely in the Appalachian region (my guess), focuses on coal mining, other districts harvest lumber, raise livestock, grow crops, engineer electronics, or design jewelry/textiles. My guess is that aside from political turmoil, the Districts were mainly divided based on natural resource. In a dystopian world where efficiency is highly stressed, it would make sense simply to focus all industry on the one resource most abundant in the region. This got me thinking, what other ways could one divide North American, or any other land mass for that matter?

I should first state that I am no history expert and have never taken a political science course, so my knowledge of how the actual state divisions of the United States came to be is minimal. I can only guess that since we have both squiggly lines and unnatural straight lines dividing our fifty states, that the states were divided by a combination of natural landmarks (mountain ranges and rivers) and political disputes (that straight line between the U.S. and Canada sure looks suspicious). The age of imperialism is over (at least, I’m pretty sure it is), so we won’t be seeing any redivisions of political powers, but I wonder if given the chance to do it all over again, would there be a better way to divide the world? I say “better” in the most subjective sense, as the world we have now is a product of hundreds, if not thousands of years of history, and has been studied intently by historians. I am merely a curious citizen of the world wishing to spend a little of his mental energy on a completely hypothetical situation.

The Washington Post posted an article which re-divided North America into 11 nation-states. Colin Woodard, the architect of the reimagined States, based his borders on cultural and political beliefs as well as historical events and dialects. His nations bear names such as The Midlands, Greater Appalachia, and the incredibly original, “The Left Coast.” Because the divisions were based partly on the founding cultures, you find “New France” including present day Quebec, Eastern Canada…and southern Louisiana (home to Baton Rouge and New Orleans). To include a personal anecdote, I was somewhat surprised to find that even though I had moved from my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin to study in Ithaca, New York, under Woodard’s North America, I was still solidly in Yankeedom.

Source: FastCo

John Lavey based his version of the United States on watersheds. Our current state boundaries are quite inefficient in the division of natural resources, and water is certainly no exception. Some southern states have been in conflict over watersheds as water scarcity grows. Lavey’s U.S. seeks to avoid resource-centered conflict by dividing the fifty states based on where the state’s water comes from. This way, states can focus on their own watersheds without worrying that their water supply is being polluted from nearby states, or if their hard-earned treated water is serving other states instead of its own citizens. Interestingly, such a map was proposed during the early years of the nation, but was quickly shot down by the rail road lobby, probably because building winding railroads was far more expensive than straight ones. Still, it seems that dividing political boundaries based on natural resources would seem like a reasonable thing to do.

Similarily, Biohabitats, an ecological restoration and regenerative design firm, structures their administrative network based on “bioregions” – areas of similar ecological attributes. In this way, they can better distribute their employees to fully recognize the importance of interweaving processes and communities.

While we aren’t going to see any redistributed political boundaries anytime soon in the well-established nations, regions of conflict such as the middle east or parts of Africa constantly struggle with these issues. There are always cultures who seek land to call their own in order to seek legitimacy by other nations. Unfortunately, such conflicts are solidly based on historical events, and are not fought with the future in mind. Perhaps dividing states based on things such as environmental resources would be wiser. To a certain effect, boundaries based on cultures also considers the importance of sustainability (as cultures who have existed in these regions have no doubt discovered resources nearby). Then again, if every distinct culture had their own nation-state, the United Nations would be looking at a lot of membership applications.

One thing to keep in mind is that although the area you grew up influences who you are, it does not define you wholly, and it does not determine where you will be for the rest of your life. The moment your life is determined solely by where you were born and who your parents were is the moment our society regressed back into medieval times. Then again, such a structure exists now in many parts of the world. The division of states should not mean the division of people.

(Note: if you are looking for something to watch, you should definitely check out the Battlestar Galactica Episode, “Dirty Hands,” which deals a lot with inherent class divisions in a society wracked with conflict. Also, if you have any other examples of re-imagined boundaries, I would love to see them.)

Support Biobulb!

994797_375259069240965_1310122791_nOne of the greatest things about being a young adult is seeing friends and acquaintances start to realize their dreams. Often, in the midst of reading about all these great achievements by incredibly intelligent entrepreneurs, inventors and researchers, I forget that where I am in life, right now, is the time where people start becoming those great entrepreneurs, inventors and researchers I keep reading about. I don’t have to just read about them, I can actually get to know them, and possibly even be one of them. It’s an incredibly scary and invigorating time, where the things I always read about can actually be the things I can do. Not someday, but now.

A former high-school classmate of mine, Alexandra Cohn is starting an inspiring and eye-catching project along with two of her university classmates at the University of Wisconsin. It’s called Biobulb, and it’s basically a closed microbial ecosystem that is genetically engineered to glow-in-the-dark. It’s similar to the incredibly successful Glowing Plant Kickstarter that attracted the attention of the science media. Except while Glowing Plants placed the luminescent gene in the Arabidopsis plant, the Biobulb team will be inserting the gene in E. Coli. The bacteria will be contained in a self sufficient ecosystem (that only requires the input of light), meaning the maintenance of the Biobulb will be minimal (which, in my opinion, makes it even better than the Glowing Plant). Biobulb has also been chosen as one of 30 (among 300) project finalists in the #CrowdGrant Challenge hosted by Popular Science Magazine. It’s a great example of blending art and science together to highlight the beauty of both.

Unlike the Glowing Plant Team, Alexandra and her team don’t have the resources to operate a large media campaign, so I’m trying to reach as many people as I can through this blog and my twitter feed. They are looking for funders through their Rockethub page and are hoping to raise $15,000 by the end of August. Funding Biobulb also gets you goodies as well! I really encourage you to donate some money (I did!) and/or spread the word to friends and family who you think will be interested in such a project. I think Biobulb is a great example of the innovative solutions we can make through synthetic biology. It’s also a nice reminder that NOW is always the best time to do what you’ve always wanted to do.

Biobulb Links

Strangling the Renaissance (Wo)man

Albert Einstein is most well-known for his work in theoretical physics and his famous mass-energy equivalence formula (E=mc^2). However, not many people know that Einstein also contributed to Geology with his paper on Baer’s Law, played the violin, and was offered presidency by the country of Israel. Besides being an excellent painter, Leonardi da Vinci was also an excellent sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. When not looking to the skies, Galileo buried his head in math, philosophy, painting and lute playing. The face that graces the twenty-dollar U.S. bill – Benjamin Franklin – played many roles, such as politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist and diplomat. And to prove that men weren’t the only ones gifted with so many talents, Hildegard of Bingen was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Benedictine abbess, and wrote theological, botanical, medicinal papers as well as songs and poems. Similarly, the Italian Maria Gaetana Agnesi practiced mathematics, philosophy, theology and played the harpsichord and composed music.

All these people were extremely multi-talented, exemplars of the phrase “Renaissance Man” (or Woman). Many of the people listed above weren’t just extremely intelligent, they were extremely wise – they’re words often quoted (and misquoted). These people were leaders by example and had the power to inspire others not just by their speech, but also by their actions. Many of these people contributed greatly to their respective fields; they didn’t just know or do many things, they excelled at them. The great intellectual and cultural movers and shakers of history were made up of Renaissance Men and Women. These were the harbingers of the coming age.

Sadly, it feels as if there hasn’t been a Renaissance Man or Women in our world for a while. Our society seems to have been at a standstill as far as multi-talented geniuses go. Yes, there are still geniuses out there, but they don’t have nearly the same social or intellectual standing as one would have back in the day. It appears that the talented scientist-artist-social-leader is a dying breed. Some would say part of the reason for this lack of “Renaissance people” is because there aren’t any more earth-shattering scientific discoveries to be made, everything is now just some iteration of something before it. While this could be a reason for the lack of recognizable scientific and mathematical geniuses out in the world, I think the reason lies within our society. Human society has become increasingly specialized. We have now hundreds if not thousands of different categories for different fields of study and professions. Everyone has a role to play in the great machine of society, and everyone seems to stay within those boundaries prescribed to them by what they’ve been taught. We have many talented and intelligent scientists, engineers, artists and writers, but because they have been labeled as scientists, engineers, artists and writers, many feel as if that’s all they will ever be, or ever will be entitled to be. We think that just because we graduate with a diploma in X means that we are only allowed to voice our opinions on X, as that is our topic of expertise. If we try to voice an opinion about topic Y, we are ridiculed, people say that we do not know what we are talking about. You never see a baseball player performing surgery because a baseball player shouldn’t be allowed to practice a profession without having a certain amount of education in the topic. Admittedly this is a pretty poor example, but even if the baseball player wanted to become a surgeon, in today’s society it would be extremely difficult. Each of those professions requires years of experience and study, in today’s world, we’d say it would be impossible. Paths diverge so early in our lives thanks to the educational and social system, we begin to have serious doubts when the time arises to choose a major of study, or to choose a job, because we think that whatever door we choose to walk through, we’ll be closing countless other doors. We have this perception that because we choose one thing, we can’t do another thing because we won’t have the experience.

This kind of thinking stifles creativity. This kind of thinking prevents the rise of inspirational and intelligent leaders. A culture of specialization and expertise becomes stale quickly. If everyone has his or her head buried deeply into his or her cardboard box, he or she won’t be able to see what everyone else is doing and opportunities will be missed. Many of the great discoveries now are interdisciplinary, they require one to cross traditional boundaries and combine radical schools of thought. Great leaders aren’t only smart in terms of math and sciences, great leaders are charismatic and understand the importance of communication. It seems to me that the current way our society and education system is structure prevents people from really branching out and becoming proficient in a variety of topics. Yes, some topics require more study than others, but education should make it more accessible for people to learn more if they want to, it shouldn’t close doors. While I do believe that it takes a very talented mind to become a Renaissance person, I also believe that culture influences the rise of the Renaissance person. I highly doubt that there were more multi-talented geniuses in the past than there are now. I believe there are many people out there with the desire to learn more, but feel stifled by an environment of specialization, a culture of pick-one-and-only-one.

Think of a figure that inspires you. Most likely, that person was talented in many areas, was both intelligent and charismatic, knew how to communicate knowledge as well as discover it. That person probably understood the importance of both science and art. Where are these people today? Yes, there are some, but I think there are more out there. Don’t let boundaries and social expectations prevent you from pursuing all your interests. You don’t have to just pick one. There is plenty of life out there to experience and learn.

Converses and Toasters

If I have learned anything during the two weeks that I was in Honduras, it would probably be that “we live in an extremely complicated world.” I know it seems like an obvious truth, one that seems almost defeatist, as if I’ve absolved myself of any guilt I’ve felt due to laziness by accepting the fact that some things are far too complicated to comprehend or tackle. But really, if anything, it’s the constant reminder of this truth whenever I am thrown out of my comfort zone that fuels my desire to try to do the seemingly impossible. After all, where else can one accomplish the seemingly impossible but in a complicated world, where even the simplest of actions influence, and are influenced by, countless other simple actions?

I set out with a group of 20 some students early in the New Year, our destination: Honduras. This past fall semester, I participated in a project team/class called AguaClara. AguaClara – in short – designs sustainable municipal-scale, gravity-powered (no electricity!) water treatment systems. These designs are translated into actual plant designs by the engineers at Agua Para El Pueblo (APP), a non-profit based in Honduras, and are eventually constructed in villages and towns around the country. I could go into detail about the inner workings of AguaClara, its goals and philosophies as influenced by Professor Monroe Weber-Shirk, and the innovative AguaClara technology, but I want to focus on the trip itself. If you want to learn more about the AguaClara project, you can check out its website.

Because of my participation in the project team, I was allowed to travel on AguaClara’s annual trip to Honduras, where we would visit the water plants that we had designed in order to learn what was working well, and what wasn’t. It’s important to note that this trip was not a volunteer-work trip (AguaClara only designs the plants, students do not assist in the construction of plants), we weren’t there to build the plants or do any construction work, we were there to observe, learn, and test out any new technologies that we had brought with us. We traveled to various towns in Honduras, some with AguaClara plants, and some with conventional plants, in order to compare and contrast our technologies with the current paradigm. We talked to plant operators, water boards (a non-governmental group of popularly elected citizens that managed the village’s water supply and water tariffs), and mayors about the water treatment plants in their villages. AguaClara has been running for around 7 years, and over that time, our organization has built firm relationships with our partner APP, as well as the villages with AguaClara plants. We visited villages in various stages of receiving an AguaClara plant and listened to the water boards as they described the difficulties in raising funds for the plants, to APP engineers as the described the difficulties in constructing the plants, and to Antonio, who worked on behalf of APP to make sure that each village was socially prepared to support and manage an AguaClara plant, thus ensuring the sustainability of each project. It was a lot of listening, but we also asked questions in order to get a better understanding of the process, in order to realize that even though the majority of us were engineers, the problem of clean water was far greater than just a technical one, it was more of a social, economic, and political one.

Admittedly, it is frustrating for me as an engineer to come to terms that our technical innovations are only the tip of the iceberg when tackling the world’s greatest issues. So much of it depends on the ‘human-side,’ the nitty-gritty of politics, of money, of society. It’s a side that engineers typically stray from (after all, we’re more logical and mathematical, we like our numbers and quantitative data), but one that has a greater influence on life. This trip has exposed me to the nitty-gritty of water quality. I’ve learned of villagers reluctant to pay increased water tariffs for cleaner water, I’ve learned of organizations who build water treatment plants but fail to follow up on their maintenance or communicate with the operators, of municipal officials who are reluctant to tackle the tough problems (and who can blame them?), and of the people who try to help, and perhaps end up doing more harm than good. This trip hasn’t just exposed me to the complications surrounding water quality, it’s also exposed me to the complication surrounding the new paradigm in our society – that of Sustainability.

Sustainability, it’s a word often used, often defined, but rarely understood. Once again, I could talk about the many definitions out in the world, but I just want to bring up the questions that I’ve come up with during my time in Honduras.  In Sustainability, there is a wide acceptance that all sustainable solutions must address the economic, social and environmental aspects of the issue. I have come to realize that we have the technology to tackle may of today’s problems, the issue is trying to assimilate this technology into our society, to make it readily accessible, affordable and simple enough to understand. That, I believe is our main goal as Engineers. We aren’t here to just come up with the latest technologies, we’re here to make them a reality. Not a reality in the strictly physical sense, but a reality by creating a tangible opportunity. Something that someone can touch, and by touching it, have access to opportunities they once did not have.

The acceptance of the large influence of the non-technological side of life is what leads us to the complication of the world. There are billions of people on this planet, each living a separate life, influenced by various events and environments. And each of these people influence each other, thereby creating a vast, unpredictable network of interactions, many of which are beyond our control. It is in this world where we must tackle the hardest problems, and a cynic will be quick to utilize this fact as a reason that we will never solve these problems. But it is this reason, as I said before, that make it possible for the impossible to be possible. Where the very act of trying can make something possible.

Then there is the question of scale. How big can a project, such as AguaClara, be and still maintain sustainable projects. Currently, AguaClara has 8 plants scattered across Honduras, and not all of them are successes. Yet each one requires the constant visit by Antonio and AguaClara engineers to ensure its functionality. It would be difficult to accomplish this task on a larger scale. So the question is, when can a sustainable project be too large to become sustainable?

In the realm of water quality, there are numerous profit and non-profit organizations that are tackling this issue, many have similar goals and philosophies, and some even have similar technologies. How can an organization like AguaClara/APP stand out from among the crowd? How can it distinguish itself to be the accepted technology? And once it does, how does it ensure its continual sustainable practices as it grows (once again, addressing the issue of scale)?

Then there are also the ethical issues of international development. When should an outside force assist, and to what ends? What responsibly does the technical provider have to the client? How do you ensure sustainability within international development? How much should you give and how much should be given?

These are all questions that have arisen in my mind, and I am sure, in the minds of many others. They are questions that I don’t know the answers too, and perhaps we never will. But another conclusion I made from the trip follows directly from the first one I mentioned: “You will never know everything, but that shouldn’t stop you from moving forward.” If we had to be fully informed of a situation before making a decision, we would get nothing done. Yes, we try our best to see both sides of the issue, to understand, to empathize, but the truth is there is always more truth out there. We will never know everything to make the “right” decision, we can only decide when to make the decision. We have to figure out when we have ‘enough’ knowledge to move forward, and to take that step, knowing full well that in the future we may have to address our mistakes. I know it’s a scary thought to try to tackle an issue without knowing the exact outcome, but global issues are global for that very reason, they have unknown outcomes and influences. There are always things beyond our control, but that should not scare us, it should energize us, inspire us. It is the uncontrollable that influences our lives, and it is when and what our decision is that determines whether the uncontrollable is the best or worst part of our lives.

“All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; then they become historical inevitabilities.” – David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Rethinking Waste as a Resource

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from Ashley Halligan who had recently written an article on innovative Resource Recovery Facilities. Ashley asked if I would be willing to write a post on my blog about the topic, and since I had been looking for a new topic to write about, I happily obliged. But instead of just talking about Facilities, I’m going to talk about Resource Recovery as it pertains to waste-to-energy, and my thoughts on the topic of waste and the social stigma it carries.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, Resource Recovery is the act of using discarded materials for recycling, composting or energy generation. Basically, it’s turning waste into a resource. As the Sustainability Movement continues to gain momentum, Resource Recovery has been gaining publicity. In much of the world, recycling and composting have already been accepted as common ways to be responsible citizens of the world (although that does not mean many people are practicing recyclers and composters). However, the issue of waste-to-energy recovery continues to be a touchy subject, especially in the Unites States.

When we throw away our non-recyclable or non-compostable items in the garbage, the waste is sent to landfills – huge mountains of trash – where the waste is left to decompose and eventually be buried under a few feet of soil and grass. As organic materials decompose among the heap of waste, dirty water – called Leachate – and methane are produced, that’s where the waste-to-energy concept comes into play. Companies construct methane-capturing facilities, drilling wells into the landfills, and burn the methane to generate electricity. It’s a great method of converting what would normally be trash left to rot into a usable resource in the form of energy as electricity or heat.

Ashley’s article outlines three recent waste-to-energy facilities in the United States. North Carolina’s EcoComplex produces enough energy to supply 1,500 residents, Rutgers University’s EcoComplex powers many on-campus buildings, and BMW harvests the methane from a neighboring landfill to power its manufacturing facilities. The EPA has been pushing for more waste-to-energy facilities, noting that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, reduces pollution (any pollutants such as mercury or dioxin that try to escape during the burning process are captured) and offers economic revenue through the sale of energy. The EPA also created the Landfill Methane Outreach Program to encourage landfills to capture and sell their gas to power plants; however, the program is only voluntary. And while some remain hopeful (see here) that the trend of waste-to-energy grows within the U.S., the U.S. is already behind in the industry.

Many European countries, such as The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, have been partially powering their cities with waste-to-energy facilities for quite a while now. In fact, Europe has 400 waste-to-energy plants compared to the U.S.’s 87 plants, all of which are at least 15 years old. Denmark, with a population of 5.5 million, has 29, with 10 more on the way. These plants generate electricity, heat the homes of citizens, and reduce the country’s dependence on oil and gas. Brazil also features many waste-to-energy plants. If these countries are benefiting so much, what is stopping the U.S. from following suit?

The answer, I think, lies with how U.S. society, the government, and private industry views waste. Waste is often regarded as something unwanted, something to be kept away from sight (this is true for not just the U.S.). Because of this, the moment trash leaves our hands, we forget about it. Because of this, waste is left to rot without anyone coming back to give it a second change, to really study the potential benefits certain materials possess. We have made some advancements by advocating recycling and composting, but things that can’t be recycled or composted are still valuable to, even if they certainly don’t look or smell like it. We need to start seeing waste as not something to be forgotten, but something to be utilized, waste is a resource. I recently had a discussion with a friend who used to work for a large waste management company. She recounted how on one of her visits to a landfill, she came across a street where many people lived that were opposed to the waste-to-energy plant, citing pollution as the main reason. Yet on the front curb of these houses, these people were burning plastic. Waste management is a topic that should be continually taught to the citizens. Some environmentalists against waste-to-energy say that burning garbage produces harmful gases and chemicals, which they are correct. But the latest technologies have allowed waste-to-energy plants to burn waste more cleanly than traditional incinerators. In a sense, waste should not be called waste, it’s a renewable resource.

Of course, the obvious issue with promoting waste-to-energy plants is the same with any waste-to-energy scheme: by building these plants, aren’t we promoting the continual overconsumption and waste practices that have already developed? In a sense, aren’t we encouraging people to waste now that they can have a clean conscious knowing that their waste is being put to good use? It’s important to note that promoting waste-to-energy does not necessarily mean one is detracting from the practice of recycling. In fact, Germany and Denmark both lead Europe as the countries with the most waste-to-energy plants, and highest recycling rates. Only the unrecyclable waste is burned, so it appears that having a plant does not mean less recycling. Another point I would make when addressing this issue is how industry views waste. To businesses, the moment a product leaves the shelves, they are no longer responsible for the waste produced by their products. Because of this, many products are made with an unreasonable amount of materials (just think about how many boxes or packaging the items you have on your desk had) and are made with a combination of materials that make recycling extremely difficult. Manufacturers put little to no effort in designing products that can easily be disassembled or recycled, in fact some companies even try to design products to prevent disassembly (I’m looking at you, Apple). When waste is easily decomposed or disassembled to be recycled, reused or burned-for-energy, is it really waste? The waste management company is not the only entity responsible for where waste goes or how it’s used, it’s a responsibility that falls within the manufacturers and the users. As of right now, I am unaware of any partnerships between waste management companies and manufacturers to produce easily recyclable and manageable products. It needs to happen.

Waste management companies shoulder an immense part of the responsibility. As the entity closest to the waste, these companies should push the waste-to-energy agenda. After all, they seem to be the ones benefitting the most. They have a new source of income by selling gas and they can better utilize landfill space (thus making sure they don’t need to purchase more land). However, as my friend noted, the waste management industry is pretty much a monopolized industry. Because of this, progress is slow. It took my friend’s company a full 10 years to finally start implementing a program where many of their trucks were fueled by the gas produced at their waste-to-energy plants. Let’s get some innovation going waste management companies! And I know it’s not all your fault.

Copenhagen Waste-to-energy Plant (BIG)

Now as for governments, both federal and municipal, maybe once the social stigma has been overcome and the benefits are clearly outlined, U.S. governments will start realizing the tremendous benefits of waste-to-energy plants. Sure, like any other infrastructure project, the capital cost is high, but consider this: New York City spends $307 million to haul their trash away from the city all the way to Ohio and South Carolina. Think of all the money that could be saved, not to mention all the greenhouse gases not emitted from the exhaust pipes of trains and trucks. One of the reasons the U.S. has been able to get away with not building such plants is because the U.S. has a lot more land compared to Europe. We still have a lot of land that could be used for landfills (but really, do we want that?), and because of that, there is not pressure to deal with the waste we already have. But my friend also noted something interesting about the paper recycling industry. Apparently it is actually cheaper for paper companies to make paper from newly cut down trees than from recycled trees because the government currently gives out subsidies to paper companies that cut down trees because of the valuable resin within the trunks. That doesn’t really make sense. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Europe’s harsh measures of heavily penalizing people who do not properly recycle or produce too much waste, it seems very counter-intuitive to offer subsidies for cutting down new trees while pouring money into recycling programs.

Waste-to-energy is just starting to gain traction in the U.S., and hopefully it becomes another source of alternative energy. I think the main takeaway is that waste shouldn’t be seen as such. I think the only way we are going to ever get into a sustainable society is if we start learning how to operate and design symbiotically. That means seeing waste as a resource, everything can be repurposed, whether it be reuse, recycle, or energy. Perhaps in the future, there will be more Recycle bins than waste bins, and waste bins will read “To Energy” instead.