Every year, Americans thrown out around 250 million tons of trash, and only about 34 percent of it is recycled. How can cities deal with all of the garbage? Some waste companies are now considering plasma arc gasification, a technique that can disintegrate trash, recycle metals and generate electricity.

The system works by using energy as intense as the surface of the sun to break down chemical bonds. A shredder cuts garbage into small pieces, which then get fed into a plasma-heated chamber that can be as hot as 9,000 degrees. As materials quickly disintegrate, metals settle to the bottom of a pool of liquids. The metals can be separated, cooled, and made into new products.

The “slag” that’s left traps small particles of heavy metals like lead, and reduces the trash to 1 percent of its original volume. That’s just a tenth of what would be left after traditional incineration. Unlike incineration, this type of gasification also drastically reduces emissions. Proponents say it can destroy asbestos, medical waste, and other hazardous trash. When the liquid cools, it creates solid blocks that theoretically could be placed in landfills or even used as building materials. Energy created by the process of plasma gasification can also be used to turn turbines to generate electricity. The process also creates syngas, a material that can be burned or turned into a diesel-like fuel.

While the technique may have some advantages, it also might not be the best solution for the system overall. Making it easier to deal with trash doesn’t help encourage people to reduce waste. And even if energy and materials can be recovered through the process, much more energy could be saved if consumers kept products longer, or if the materials could be more directly recycled. Enormous amounts of energy go into making products; now some people are proposing to use enormous amounts of energy to destroy those products. Maybe more attention should be given to making things that consumers don’t want to throw out.

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