There’s Wonder in Waste.

Tony Bova
the future is garbage
5 min readMay 23, 2018


Language is a fascinating thing. It unites us and divides us. Over the last two years, I have, for the first time, visited countries outside North America. I went to Iceland, The Netherlands, Brazil, and most recently, Germany. As an American, I was fascinated with the way that language drew communities together and created camaraderie. On the other hand, it was also something that created an artificial divide — I couldn’t speak Icelandic, Dutch, Portugese, or German very well and it made communication more challenging. At the end of the day though, there were more common things among us. We’re all human. We have similar behavior patterns, colored by our individual experiences and cultures. We need food, shelter, and hope for prosperity. We want our communities to thrive, and next generations to go on to do amazing things, and recognize what we’ve done to get there.

Getting there, that’s the interesting part. We feel the need to leave a lasting legacy of some sort. We want to make a mark. As a society of humans, regardless of cultural background, we all produce great things. Literature, art, science, engineering, and technology. These are the immaterial knowledge-based contributions to society that are prized worldwide.

But there is another side to our lives. We all produce waste. There is this alignment across all cultures, to not want to have where we live and work to be “dirty”. While what that means seems different to each person, each culture, this desire is still pervasive. We put our trash in some container. We wash our bodies and clothes. Eventually, the trash goes away — but to where? This is also interesting in the diverse spectrum of cultures in the world. In wealthy countries, with respect to both land and monetary means, the trash goes to the dumpster, can, or bin and is picked up to be magically disappeared. People are familiar with the concept of a landfill, but most are severely insulated from the reality of one. It’s not clean. It can’t be. It is all of our “dirty”, all in one spot.

In countries and regions of the world without this wealth of land and money, landfills have a higher cost. They disrupt ecosystems that are fragile. They often are not as sophisticated and become toxic to local communities. The infrastructure just isn’t there to “manage” the waste as well as in more developed parts of the world, yet people can’t stop living and have to push on. And it’s not like they don’t want it to be better. They have the desire, the ingenuity, the talent, and skill. But often, the cost is simply too great to improve the status quo.

From a “first principles” level of thinking, a concept often touted around by visionaries like Elon Musk, waste is simply a collection of matter that we no longer desire. Waste is a set of molecules that have ceased to have use in their current form. An unfortunate arrangement of atoms, seemingly devoid of value to the passerby. But if we look closely, this waste is often very simple in its makeup. It’s the atoms from the periodic table — the ones we remember from our science classes. It is the carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, metals, non-metals, alkalis, noble gasses, and more that plagued many a students brain. They are the constituents of these molecules, which begin to have function.

Nature can arrange molecules to combine and form complex structures that we can recognize, like individual musicians building an orchestra. And with the right mix, arrangement, and a spark, these structures can become something marvelous. An apple. A tree. An entire orchard. Humans have also demonstrated this ability, to structure these molecules into things we use. An aluminum can. A plastic bottle. Yet, when we are “done” using these marvelous arrangements of molecules, they become “trash”. Something that burdens us as humans. So we pay money to send them away, and shift that burden to nature, our ecosystems and environment, and our future societal generations in hopes that perhaps, those things won’t be so bothersome if we can’t see them buried in a landfill somewhere.

Before we were around as humans, with all of our ingenuity to create from these great molecules, nature had all of the workers and processes to clean up its own waste. Trees would make new leaves from carbon dioxide, use these leaves as tiny energy factories to grow, and discard them at the end of a season when they outlived their usefulness. The tree’s “litter” as we still call it, wasn’t there piling up and invading the tree’s space, though. It became the useful material for the next group of organisms. Worms & insects. Bacteria & fungi. They’d all eat the “litter” and rearrange the atoms in those molecules to form new molecules again into something they needed. And their waste? Often more carbon dioxide, water, and carbon rich molecules that in turn became the food & resources for the next year of growth of that first tree, and in the future, many more trees. The circle of life, to borrow from some of my childhood heroes Timon & Pumbaa from the Lion King.

So then, why, in our infinite wisdom and superb capability, are we as humans so talented at taking molecules and atoms, crafting them into something useful that we need or want, but not finishing the process? Why dump and not expect that these pieces of waste still have the same atoms and molecules they generally started with? Surely our expertise & control over chemistry, biology, and engineering could be used to manipulate these things back to something useful. But we don’t. Resources are too cheap, money is sometimes too plentiful in some areas, and the drive simply isn’t there. But for those communities that cannot do this well, they suffer. Their waste remains a burden on themselves, their environment, and countless future generations.

This is why we decided to change things. To set out to fix this problem. To reframe how we as a society, a diverse collection of cultures and individuals, will not be shunned and ignored. With the power we have in chemistry, biology, and engineering, we can — no — we must recognize the responsibility we have to close this broken loop. The vision of the mobius strip suits us well. It is an endless path, yet always returning to the same point it started. Together we can move beyond the old ideals of landfills. These are not full of trash, not “litter”. These are our resources waiting for us to return them to the earth properly, or convert them into the next generation of building blocks, fuels, chemicals, and materials our society needs. These resources are waiting for us to return value to those who otherwise pay to dispose of them.

This is the future of our circular economy.

This is our inevitable need for a more harmonious relationship with nature.

The planet is our partner.


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Tony Bova
the future is garbage

Chief Beard at mobius. PhD student at UT Knoxville & Oak Ridge National Lab. Feminist. Chemist. Bioeconomy Geek. (re)Building a sustainable Anthropocene.