The Landfill of the Future

By Andreas McGuire

Hakai Magazine

The molecular disassembly line works like this: polluted air and water move through a series of tanks, slowly being purified along the way. Between the tanks, hidden from view, grids of submicroscopic, burr-like wheels snag molecules of nitrogen, water, carbon, phosphorus, and other useful elements. Once caught, these elements are sent into the next reservoir, and pollutants stay behind as residue. Finally, once all of the grit and grime have been stripped away, the perfectly clean water, nitrogen gas, and other valuable molecules are ready to be reconstituted using matter compilers—essentially, 3D printers. In this way, the waste of the world, transformed molecule by molecule, can provide a boundless supply of food, clothing, and practical goods for all.

This is waste management as imagined by Neal Stephenson, a science fiction author, in his 1995 novel The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. While real-world initiatives exist to extract nutrients from wastewater, Stephenson’s vision is still largely fictionalBut science fiction does have a long history of propelling and prophesying actual inventions. Stephenson himself coined the concept of the metaverse—a highly addictive, virtual reality iteration of the internet—which is now being doggedly pursued by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg. Feminist author Mary E. Bradley Lane wrote about lab-grown meat in 1880, author H. G. Wells foresaw the atomic bomb, and Ray Bradbury wrote about wireless “thimble radios” that are eerily prescient of Bluetooth earbud headphones. Time and time again, inventors have looked to science fiction as a source of inspiration. And on the Island of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, a man named Ben Wiper is eyeing Stephenson’s molecular disassembly line as a kind of blueprint—at least, philosophically speaking—for his own waste management company.

To be clear, Wiper isn’t exactly an inventor. Originally from Ontario, the self-described “finance man” arrived in Main Brook, a coastal community of about 240 people on the Northern Peninsula, to co-manage a fish plant in 2017. Ultimately, that partnership didn’t last. But Wiper liked the sweeping isolation of his new home, which—with its small population, teeming wildlife, and relative absence of law enforcement—felt reminiscent of the Wild West, at least to his mind. And so, Wiper thought back to Stephenson’s novel as he plotted his next move, while drawing on all he’d learned about the waste he’d witnessed on the fish-processing line. He reflected on what this abundance of waste could mean in a region with limited economic activity. The result? An ambitious, wide-ranging waste management company Wiper dubbed 3F Waste Recovery.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: Ashley Felton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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