Recycle Bots

Wall-E Robot

Wall-E Robot

If you had a choice between a quality product and a cheap one for the same price, wouldn’t you always choose the higher quality item? Isn’t the sale of high-priced, high-quality smart phones what has made Apple the most valuable company in the world? We could all just settle for cheap, disposable prepaid phones, but most people don’t. I would assume that a better product would always be preferable, barring some unusual circumstances. But throw in one more factor, extreme convenience, and that answer seems to go out the window.

My company offers free coffee and tea to all employees along with a kitchen area that has microwaves, a sink for cleaning, and tables for eating. They also provide paper or Styrofoam cups and plastic utensils for anyone who needs them for their lunch. I prefer to use my own coffee mug and real silverware, which I keep at my desk.

Paper Coffee Cups

Paper Coffee Cups

Yet, I’ve noticed that most people prefer to use the disposable cups and utensils even though I know most of them have perfectly good mugs at their desks and utensils at home. Nearly everyone has a mug because they are easy gifts and companies tend to give them out with their company or product name on them. Other people buy mugs with the logo of their favorite sports teams, funny quotes, or other personalized features. So, not using a mug isn’t a matter of cost.

So why would someone forego a perfectly good mug, which is certainly much more comfortable to drink out of and better insulated, for paper or Styrofoam? The only answer I can come up with is the convenience of not having to carry the mug to the coffee pot or to clean it. However, some people who do use mugs don’t even bother to clean theirs, so that excuse doesn’t even work. They often point to their coffee-stained insides with pride when they tell me how many years of coffee buildup they have achieved without a single cleaning. So, it is hard to believe that it is a matter of cleanliness. It’s all about laziness.

Are people really so lazy that they would rather use a small disposable cup than have to carry around a mug? It appears that this is the case. If so, what are the global implications for consumption as a whole? Would people rather throw away than reuse something better? It seems so, but this explosion of waste is driving environmentalists crazy.

I happen to be one of the few people who buys some of our milk in a reusable half gallon glass container. When the container is returned to the store, I receive a refund and the local company that bottles it reuses the container. Why bother? Because their chocolate milk happens to be much better than anyone else’s, but also because the container is thick and feels good to hold, plus I like the idea of non-destructive recycling. But it is no longer the norm. In fact, I’m surprised that anyone still recycles containers.

At what point will it become more cost effective to recycle containers and, even if this happens, will people bother? I suspect that they will not. It has taken years to finally get a great destructive recycling program going, where people can throw all kinds of recyclable material into a single mixed bin. But I can’t conceive of a time when people will, in large numbers, choose to reuse materials rather than to throw them in a bin for collection.

Italian Trash Robot

Italian Trash Robot

The only technological development I can foresee that will save us from our destructive, wasteful tendencies is that of the robot. When they become cheap enough, they can be set upon our waste landfills like ants on a pile of crumbs. They can sort out all the most valuable recyclable products, separate them, reprocess them, and make them available as resources for re manufacturing. By fitting them with material sensors and connected to information about the market price for commodities, these recycle bots will be able to prioritize, in real time, the selection of items for recycling. Guess what? We already have trash robots.

Dog Trash Robot

Dog Trash Robot

When robots come into wide scale use for the processing of trash, the cost of commodity materials will go down and will make it even more cost effective to produce disposable products. The world may have many other uses for robots, but I suspect we will have armies of them devoted to nothing more than searching for waste that can be recycled. If they are owned by private parties, rather than provided as a government service, they might even compete for your waste. When this happens, there will no longer be a need for trash bins. People routinely throw their trash on the ground anyway because they are too lazy to look for a container, but when the day comes that there are bots to retrieve it for you, how many people are even going to bother to look around for a waste container?

Trash Can Bots

Trash Can Bots

Imagine you are walking down the road eating a snack. Instead of looking for a waste container, you might be able to simply throw it on the ground knowing that a bot will come by shortly to retrieve it. Bots might even see you walking with the snack and follow you knowing that you will eventually throw it away. Or maybe they will dash out of tiny garages to grab it before another bot can get to it. I know–it sounds creepy…. Or maybe you can just call for a trash bot and it will come. If the cost of bots is far lower than the value of the resources they can recycle, we may end up with fast bots that compete with each other for the trash, especially in dense urban environments.

I’m not sure I like the idea of little robots running around us picking up trash, but it seems like a plausible solution to our even-increasing habit of using disposable products. But what happens when a trash bot starts to malfunction? Will another trash bot kill it for its parts? I guess we’ll just have to make our bots cannibals. Just beware of the human organ recycling bots!

Robot Battle

Robot Battle

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