World Futures: What Do We Need? STUFF – Infinite Recycling

Los Alamos World Futures Institute

In our world today there is much concern about recycling of materials that have been assembled with energy to create something for use by humanity.  

Referring to the Plass table shown in column 2, note that decay and respiration add CO2 to the atmosphere. It can be argued that this is essentially the recycling of organic, carbon-based materials readying them for reconstruction via photosynthesis. Essentially solar recycling of formerly living materials – it is organic.

But what about non-organic materials? In gross terms there are two types: basic naturally occurring elements (92 kinds the last time the period table of the elements was checked, not including isotopes) and compounds formed by man from the 92 elements. Mining the elements and forming compounds takes energy to produce the structured, ordered molecules and compounds.

As we conduct our everyday lives we create disorder. If one expects a visitor, one has to straighten up. The messy house or apartment represents living entropy or the movement toward disorder.  Restoring order, straightening up, takes energy.  Energy is the counter to entropy.

Now consider the molecules and chemical compounds that have been made by humanity. Once isolated or made, these molecules begin to be subject to entropy. That is they tend to be scattered around the house known as Earth. OK you say, but they always were scattered.  Humanity had to find and isolate metals, for instance, in order to shape them into objects of utility.  That took energy to give them order.  

But once the object was made, it was subject to entropy – it decayed, dissolved, combined chemically, or was simply replaced. Is it cheaper, in energy currency, to replace the object from scratch or is it better to recapture the raw material and remove entropy on a local level?

But what about chemical compounds created by people? The most commonly recognized are the plastics, molecules made primarily from organic elements but actually less subject (at least in rate) to the effect of entropy.  

It is more likely these molecules are assembled in products like plastic bottles and the entropy effect is more appropriate to humanity’s house – the Earth. When does humanity clean house or are we preparing for a TV show on hoarding?

Infinite recycling is about maintaining an orderly house and knowing where things are while recognizing that we cannot simply get new stuff (molecules and compounds). It’s about choice, materials, conservation, need assessment, energy conservation, and the efficiency of the process. It’s about ensuring that humanity does not trip over its clutter, resulting in a fatal flaw.

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