Things that are surprisingly SciFi (but don’t get credit for it) Part 4: Recycling

The 1960s – and 2001 – made a strong case for future materials and space age manufacturing, what with their gleaming grey, smooth megastructures and match-cut-level sleek designs. Manufacturing, then, was the future – the ability to take organic, wood, oil, and metal inputs and come out with a self-evidently artificial, unnaturally aerodynamic, custom-built (and single-purpose) products.
This, of course, was the appeal of the space age: that we could make anything we needed to, cheaply and to order, and that we should feel no shame about waste as a result.
But plastics, at least the first generation, were not limitless: they were brittle, they were inflexible, they were very susceptible to heat or cold, and they did not decompose productively, once they had failed in their primary (and only) use.
Recycling is the unsexy child of that first wave of innovation; the undesired progeny of the excesses of synthetics production. Recycling was (and in the US, generally speaking remains) the unwanted, uncool patch job on the torn jeans, the obvious darning on the dress – it was, at best, an acknowledgment of scarcity. At worst, it was an expensive, inefficient method for pointing out how imperfect and unsustainable the space age really was.
But recycling is underrated.
Even now, recycling does not solve the issue of limited resources completely (indeed, it is likely that nothing can), but it re-awakens the potential in these items, and points the way forwards for material mining and usage. Recycling is not universally cheaper than mining new materials, but it generally does require less expenditure of energy to repurpose a material already converted into plastic, or aluminum, or other alloy, than it does to produce a fresh batch. Both through advancement of technology and through the accelerating scarcity of key materials, the recycling process has come a long way since its days as the lead nerd in the after-school specials.
And, dare I say it, recycling is pretty damn SciFi.
No, really. Consider the simple case of a spaceship made of single-use plastic and metal and sent to the stars to seek a new home. Sleek and sexy? Certainly, but also, almost certainly doomed to failure. Once broken, individual pieces of the vessel would be hard or impossible to replace, and would be dead weight once broken. Carrying spare parts would be theoretically possible, but between the need to use the space for food and life-support machinery, and the prohibitive cost of excess weight during lift-off, having significant stock of duplicates would essentially be a non-starter.
Only recycling – by which I mean the modern process of recycling, including separation, refinement, and production of new material – would allow such broken items to be used again.
And think past the flight itself: once landed on a foreign moon, settlers would have little use for their former cargo bays, thrusters, or even most navigation equipment (assuming, of course, this colonization is a one-way trip). Stripping material from the spacecraft and bending or welding it into place might be a temporary solution, but in the long term, the creation of a stable, inhabitable colony would require more stable building materials. As a result, a colonization ship would need to include a recycling unit as a core piece of equipment, both for mid-flight maintenance and in order to reuse the components of its spaceflight for the purpose of colonization.
Recycling isn’t flawless, it’s not cheap in terms of energy expended, and it may be a stopgap measure for a runaway consumerist society, but it is very SciFi.
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