Swarm solution to recycling

If you’re an enthusiastic recycler, like me, you’ll probably know the frustration of seeing how oblivious most people are to recycling.

Recycling in Japan offers a glimmer of hope. See especially the Japanese town of Kamikatsu, aiming for zero waste. These are examples to follow, and directions we need to move in. But to get to a zero waste world, we’d better not rely on everyone being as orderly and disciplined as a Japanese town. Given the range of personality types, the difficulty many of us have in keeping our desks tidy, and our computer files and backups in order, what would it take to get everything recycled?

I see help coming from technology. Bioplastics are here already – plastic bags that can be composted. They cost just a little more (there was a 15 cent charge for compostable shopping bags when I saw them) and they take around 2 years to compost, but those figures will improve with mass production, and with learning what conditions help them to compost more quickly.

Then there are robots. Boring repetitive tasks like sorting rubbish are ideal for robots – and once they have good enough vision (and maybe other senses), and suitable processing to tell PET from polypropylene from clean paper from soiled paper, we’ll be most of the way there. Look at what swarms of robots can do already:

Ok, it’s scary to think about some applications of this technology, and we need to think hard about that. But the beneficial applications are also huge – and I like the idea of hackers around the world understanding swarm robot tech, rather than having it restricted to militaries and governments.

This is one reason I’m excited about open source hardware. Between Arduino processors, the enthusiasm of hardware hackers, and the latest ideas in swarm robots, we may yet get as near as dammit to a zero waste world. The important thing is to get to work making this happen, sharing best practice as we go.

Technology is awesome

One. I’m in Melbourne on a train to the city as I type this, chatting with Paul (more about Paul another time) who I’ve never met, and who is  14,000 km away in Costa Rica. We’re discussing Appropedia.

Two. The Appropedia Foundation was founded in 2007 – and none of the 3 founding directors had ever met in person at that stage. I’m not recommending starting a legal entity with people you haven’t met face-to-face, but it’s worked well for us.

Three. One of the admins and significant contributors to Appropedia is truly hardcore in taking action on climate – he refuses to fly to climate conferences. He commutes by foot and bike, and points out that the “100 mile lifestyle” is far more important for the environment than the “100 mile diet”. Yet he works with a global community without flying, without even leaving town.

How awesome is modern technology?

What other amazing things could we do with technology if we decided they were important? Say, if we decided to divert a trillion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies to low carbon energy research and implementation? Because we’re currently using other kinds of technology to cause a drastic increase in greenhouse gases. But I digress.

Technology is awesome.

Technology is awesome

One. I’m in Melbourne on a train to the city as I type this, chatting with Paul (more about Paul another time) who I’ve never met, and who is  14,000 km away in Costa Rica. We’re discussing Appropedia.

Two. The Appropedia Foundation was founded in 2007 – and none of the 3 founding directors had ever met in person at that stage. I’m not recommending starting a legal entity with people you haven’t met face-to-face, but it’s worked well for us.

Three. One of the admins and significant contributors to Appropedia is truly hardcore in taking action on climate – he refuses to fly to climate conferences. He commutes by foot and bike, and points out that the “100 mile lifestyle” is far more important for the environment than the “100 mile diet”. Yet he works with a global community without flying, without even leaving town.

How awesome is modern technology?

What other amazing things could we do with technology if we decided they were important? Say, if we decided to divert a trillion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies to low carbon energy research and implementation? Because we’re currently using other kinds of technology to cause a drastic increase in greenhouse gases. But I digress.

Technology is awesome.

The making of a wiki page

The wiki pages that make the news are Wikipedia articles where things go wrong – libel, conflict of interest and the like. It’s worth taking a look at an article where things work differently – for example in the following case of an article about an environmental technology.

In September 2005, an anonymous editor added a piece of information to Wikipedia about wastewater treatment equipment:

UASB – Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket technology normally referred to as UASB Reactor is used in the treatment of wastewater.

That was the entire UASB article – no categories, no images, no links, no formatting. Not even a comma.

Four and a half months later came the second and third edits – a cleanup tag and a suggested merge. Thanks to these tags, I found the article a few days later, and thought: Merge? A UASB is a really cool piece of technology – it deserves its own article! So I helped turn it into a short but respectable article. After a quick consensus on the talk page, the merge tag was removed.

At this stage this stub article (an article with just a few sentences of useful information) painted a broad picture, describing a valuable piece of technology that turns waste into energy, at the same time as it cleans wastewater. It would be a good place to learn the very basic facts, and had some valuable links to more in-depth information.

I went back to working on the appropriate technology articles (this was shortly before Appropedia started) and left the UASB article for someone else to develop further. Another editor improved the article a little, and then, less than 2 months after I did my basic work the article, came a new Wikipedia editor with a passion for water technologies.

Anaerobic digestersVortexrealm‘s userpage says he works in the field of waste management – but more importantly, his edits showed a consistently good understanding of water and wastewater treatment. 11 weeks and many edits after he started on the article, a solid, informative article had been created, including a photo he took himself of a wastewater treatment plant with UASB. The article had become a great starting point for anyone – student, worker, curious citizen – who might want to know about a valuable piece of sustainable technology technology.

Today the article, renamed as Upflow anaerobic sludge blanket digestion, is even better, after still more work by a number of editors, both regular editors of the article, and new editors.

The history of some articles on Wikipedia is smoother than others. This is what it can look like on the many, many occasions when it works well.

(Note: All of these changes can be seen via the articles history page, linked from a tab at the top of the page.)

Photo: A “Mechanical Biological Treatment facility” in Tel-Aviv. Credit: Vortexrealm (Alex Marshall).