Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Today's Waste, Tomorrow's Treasure?

While we think of treasure as always having been treasure and waste as always being waste, the value we assign to items sometimes change. As the natural environment evolves, as technology changes, and as supply/demand equilibriums shift, what what was once waste sometimes becomes treasure. In fact, the most important gas in the air we breath, the most valuable liquid on the planet, and the most expensive restaurant entree were all once considered waste products.

As unlikely as it seems, the oxygen in the air we breathe, the gas that we can't live without, was once a waste product. According to Wikipedia:

One of the earliest types of bacteria were the cyanobacteria. Fossil evidence indicates that bacteria shaped like these existed approximately 3.3 billion years ago and were the first oxygen-producing evolving phototropic organisms. They were responsible for the initial conversion of the earth's atmosphere from an anoxic state to an oxic state (that is, from a state without oxygen to a state with oxygen) during the period 2.7 to 2.2 billion years ago. Being the first to carry out oxygenic photosynthesis, they were able to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, playing a major role in oxygenating the atmosphere.

As more plants appeared, the levels of oxygen increased significantly, while carbon dioxide levels dropped. At first the oxygen combined with various elements (such as iron), but eventually oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere, resulting in mass extinctions and further evolution.
Unfortunately for the cyanobacteria, they had no Al Gore to warn them of the changes that they were making to their atmosphere and their ecosystem paid the price with massive extinctions.

While this was bad news for them, millions of years later it became good news for humans and other animals, as we could not live without oxygen in the air. What was once a waste byproduct of the cyanobacteria is now arguably the most valuable resource of all to humans.

As hard as it is to believe today, gasoline was originally a waste product. According to Interesting People:
In its early days, the oil industry existed to manufacture kerosene, a fuel for lamps. Gasoline was a waste by-product of this process, something usually thrown away.
According to The Prize, in 1892, an oil man had congratulated himself for managing to sell gasoline for as much as $.02 a gallon. If you couldn't sell it or give it away, gasoline often ended up just flushed down the rivers. It was not until 1910 that gasoline outsold kerosene. (Natural gas was also considered a waste product of oil until 1876 when Pew was able to sell it.)

But, with the invention of the internal combustion engine and automobiles, gasoline became the most valuable liquid on the planet. It is the most important end product of oil. 50% of oil is turned into gasoline and American's use 360 million gallons of it a day.

While today a delicacy, lobster was at one time used as a fertilizer rather than eaten directly:
The armour-plated delicacy used to be super-abundant and dirt cheap, he says—so cheap that it was fed to inmates in prison and children in orphanages. Farmers even fertilised their fields with it, and servants would bargain with their employers to be given it no more than twice or thrice a week.
What happened to change lobster's reputation? According to Wikipedia:
The reputation of lobster changed with the development of the modern transportation industry that allowed live lobsters to be shipped from the outports to large urban centres. Fresh lobster quickly became a luxury food and a tourist attraction for the Maritimes and Maine and an export to Europe and Japan where it is especially expensive.
Now lobster is a $1.8 billion global industry and the most expensive item on the menu.

Oxygen, the most valuable gas in the air; gasoline, the most valuable liquid; and lobster, the most expensive entree on the menu were all considered waste. If they all were once waste, makes you wonder which of today's wastes will become tomorrow's treasure?

I know what you are thinking. There are certain things that will never become valuable. For example, there is no way bird shit could ever become valuable enough for people to fight over. But, (wait for it) you would be wrong.

According to The Economist:
On the dry seabird islands off the South American and South African coasts, immense deposits of bird droppings, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, had accumulated over centuries. Guano mining became a profitable business, and a grim one. Off South-West Africa, the discovery in 1843 of the tiny island of Ichaboe, covered in 25 feet of penguin and gannet excrement, led to a guano rush followed by a mutiny and battles.
And as The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter points out 1 million tons of chicken litter is feed to cattle a year in the US or 66 lbs per cow (mmm, yummy). While that might not be enough to be considered treasure, it is not bad for a substance that most people give no thought to except when a seagull is flying overhead.

Now you are thinking: OK, I was setup on that last one but this time I have one that can't be beneficial: toxic waste. For example there is no way that hyrdrogen sulfide, the substance that is responsible for the foul odor of rotten eggs and flatulence, would ever be beneficial.

Then you learn that at the bottom of the ocean, there are hydrothermal vents that spew hydrogen sulfide. And instead of being devoid of life, the areas surrounding these vents are teeming with it. Specialized bacteria use the hydrogen sulfide as an energy source and are at the bottom of a food pyramid that supports numerous tube worms, crabs, shrimp and fish. By some measurements these areas account for more biomass on earth than anywhere else and might have been where life began on earth.

So which of today's wastes will become tomorrow's treasure? Nuclear waste? Carbon dioxide? Pig manure lagoons?

I don't know, but personally I am still holding out hope of becoming a cow fart tycoon.

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