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Dumpster Diving For Profit

Why drill offshore when the real energy bonanza might be… in our landfills? Kate Kelland of Reuters has an intriguing dispatch on how high oil prices are convincing waste companies to scavenge through their rubbish dumps to find old plastic. In Britain alone, there's potentially $100 billion worth of tossed-out plastic that could be recycled, reused, or "potentially turned into liquid fuel." (I thought that list possibility was a joke, but, no, this is an idea very much on the make—the Pentagon is funding research into "fuel-latent plastic" that could be used first as packaging, and then turned into a substitute diesel fuel.) Plus, it's not like dumpster diving for profit is such a radical notion:

Images of poor, often homeless people scavenging waste to sell from landfill sites in Asia and South America have already provided evidence there is money to be made from other people's rubbish.

William Hogland, a professor in Environmental Engineering and Recovery from the University of Kalmar in Sweden, also points to previous instances of dumpsite mining in Israel in the early 1950s where the soil—enriched with rotting waste—was recovered and recycled to improve soil quality in orchards.

And certain U.S. states have since the 1980s mined waste from landfills to be used as fuel for incineration to produce energy.

As a parallel development, countries are increasingly likely to promote recycling of metal, glass, and paper insofar as it can help save energy, or, in the case of smaller countries like Japan, as they simply run out of landfill space. Many countries are also looking at incinerating trash as a way to generate heat or electricity—waste incineration already generates 5 percent of Denmark's electricity and 13.7 percent of domestic heat consumption. I'd still like to get a better sense for the economics of recycling—NRDC recently issued a report, for instance, suggesting that recycling paper, plastic, metal, and glass in New York was on track to become cheaper than just chucking it out within five years, but it'd also be good to know how $100/barrel oil factors in here.

(Photo credit: Reuters)

--Bradford Plumer