I discovered a couple of small holes in one of my my merino sweaters this morning. Moth larvae. My fault for not using camphor or some other kind of deterrant. At first, I was bummed because I thought this represented a flaw – I love wool, and especially merino, because it’s warm even when it’s wet, it wicks, it doesn’t smell, it doesn’t burn and melt like plastic, it’s durable and comfortable and not based on petrochemicals. But moths can eat it, and it can mold. It requires more care than fleece. Thinking just a little more, it occurred to me that actually, these holes are in some sense a feature, not a bug.
The fact that wool biodegrades (even if it happens a little sooner than I’d like…) means that this sweater, unlike virtually every other object in this room, and probably every object in your room too, never needs to end up in a landfill. When I’ve worn it out beyond repair, or destroyed it, or let the moths go too far, I can put it in the compost pile, and it will eventually become soil. I can do that with my cotton shirt and my carhartt cutoffs too, and egg cartons and hair clippings and brewing grains. Natural materials that something out there already wants to eat can be truly disposed of very easily and responsibly, but polymers are forever (synthetic petrochemical polymers, anyway). All the plastic we’ve ever made, and not incinerated, is still out there somewhere, the vast majority of it made into products which were never intended by their designers to be disassembled into their pure material components and reused indefinitely. No matter where we’ve thrown them, it is not “away”.
The ideal arrangement would be materials which can biodegrade on command. They would be convenient and durable, like synthetics are today — immune to the constant onslaught of hungry insects and microbes, but when their time came, we could disassemble them with ease, into perfectly reusable molecular components. Designer polymers. In the fullness of time, it seems plausible that bacteria will evolve to take advantage of the large store of chemical energy we’ve stashed away in our landfills, no matter what its molecular form. They’ve found a way to extract a living from just about every other organic molecule on Earth after all. We don’t have to wait for them to get around to it though.
Why not attempt to design a whole new class of synthetic organic materials with attendant microbial cleanup crews. Before a polymer (or any other man-made material) is approved for industrial use, we could require that an enzyme and a process have been developed for its ultimate disposal. These enzymes could reside within industrial bioreactors: artificially constructed ecosystem of bugs designed to remediate our materials, and make the building blocks available once again in useful purified forms. This is, I think, way beyond our current ability to wield molecular biology, but that might not be true for much longer. It wouldn’t solve the problem of all our pre-existing plastic, but it could staunch the flow of currently irredeemable waste. All that stuff we’ve buried, or let flow down to the sea, will have to be dealt with some other way, since we certainly wouldn’t want to just release a plague of plastic munching bugs upon the world.
Eventually, all manufacturing must go this way. Things (all things) have to me made for durable use, repair, re-use, and eventual, perpetual recycling or biological remediation. The only alternative is an attempt to build an infinite mountain of trash. Until then I’ll just have to try and see the holes in my woolens as a combination of good design on the part of the sheep and the moth, and my own poor planning.