Waste Not, Want Not

For many in the US, the word "recycling" conjures up images of plastic bins that in many cases do a better job collecting rainwater than anything else. Recycling is thus perceived in the same way as that particular example of it: inconvenient drudgery with altruism as the main motivator. What this misses, however, is that long before recycling bins began lining city streets, striving to turn waste into a resource has been a self-interested effort and the source of much wealth and prosperity. Gasoline, for example, was considered a waste product of crude oil distillation and discarded until it was discovered to make a good fuel for internal combustion engines. Semi-automatic and automatic firearms came into being only when John Browning, the famous gunsmith, realized that the gases escaping from the barrel after firing could be redirected to operate a reloading mechanism. Today, BMW is working on using the heat escaping from tail pipes to generate electricity and help power the car. Silicon processors generate so much heat IBM has developed a method to cool them with water; the cooling makes the processors more efficient, and now IBM is devising a way to use the heated water to warm its offices and surrounding buildings. Trinidad's famous steelpans were originally made using empty 55-gallon oil drums from the local oil industry and US naval base. And lest we forget, someone long ago changed agriculture forever by taking note of the fact that the excretions issuing from an animal's backside made grass grow greener.

These innovations do not occur out of a feeling of guilt or vague altruism; rather, they occur because there are high payoffs for anyone who can figure out a way to turn trash into treasure. Recycling, properly understood, is an integral part of the mechanism of capitalism and enriches modern life.

Now if I could think of some valuable way to utilize rainwater...