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The Future Might Be Rubbish

Photo: Science and Society Museum/ Universal Images Group.

To describe my Easter break as quiet would be something of an understatement, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to unwind, have very little contact with the outside world and switch off from the tyranny that email seems increasingly to have become.  Regular readers will not be surprised to know that I also took the chance to catch up with some reading, details of which will be shared in the coming weeks.  It was not the same as going away – far from it – but it was probably about as good as it was going to get. 

I confess I probably peaked too soon in terms of the jobs I set myself to do.  It was the warm sunshine at the start of the break that provoked me into action, but it was only the Wednesday of the first week before I had tidied up the garden, cut the grass and added some spring colour to the tubs on the patio – all of which, together with the sameness of the days, started me thinking about what retirement might be like.  Don’t worry (or rejoice, depending what you think about me), I’m not going anywhere soon, but I am now nearer to sixty than fifty, so a bit of speculation seems inevitable. 

The advantages of getting up later, spending longer in the shower, not having to shave every day or wear a suit seem obvious – though not unlike lockdown.  To be able to potter about, procrastinate, have another cup of tea and spend time thinking about a project also seems beneficial, though I now understand why my grandparents and then my parents would spread their jobs through each week to make sure there was always something to do.    

I was, however, able to save a particular highlight until near the end of the break – a trip to the tip.  Despite having to travel further than I’ve ever done before to dump the detritus that seems to accumulate relentlessly in our family’s life, I have to say that I find something unusually satisfying about throwing things away.  I used to be a bit of a hoarder in my youth, but I am much more streamlined in my approach nowadays, and I seem to derive increasing pleasure from clearing out. 

The online booking system introduced during lockdown has reduced the need to queue, which used to make a visit to Townmead something of a lottery.  All you have to do now is reserve a slot a couple of weeks ahead, turn up at the allocated time and savour the moment of emptying another car load of junk to become someone else’s problem.  I find it best not to think too hard about what might happen to everything that gets dumped.  The removal of rubbish, like the content of sausages, is best left unexplored, I find, though this may be about to change. 

In between all the giddy excitement of the beginning of the end of our current lockdown experience, there was a story on the radio at some point in the holiday expressing concern that China has quietly but effectively cornered the global precious metal market through a series of long-term deals and pacts, and this will have a serious impact on the price of the sort of goods we all want to buy in the future. 

It feels a bit like our government’s response to almost everything, in that by the time we notice there might be a problem and try to close the stable door, the horse has long since bolted, putting its feet up somewhere and laughing all the way down its long face.  Future historians will surely judge the century after 1945 as one of the most calamitous this country has ever endured, not so much because of terrible suffering or destruction, though there had been plenty, but because we spent so long in petty navel-gazing and pointless arguments about our relationship with Europe that we missed what was really going on in the world.   

All of which leads to a final thought to share with you from Lewis Dartnell’s splendid book ‘Origins: How the Earth Shaped Human History’.  How many different kinds of metal do you think you have on your person right now?  A handful?  A dozen?  Dartnell says that you may be astonished to hear that today over sixty different metals are employed in a single hand-held electronic device.  These include base metals such as copper, nickel and tin; special purpose metals like cobalt, indium and antimony; and the precious metals gold, silver and palladium.  Each one is apparently exploited for its particular electronic properties, or for the tiny, powerful magnets used in the speaker and vibration motor.   

A whole range of non-metal elements are included in your smartphone too, such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in the plastics, bromine as a flame retardant and silicon for the microchip wafers.  Of the eighty-three stable (non-radioactive) elements in existence, around seventy are used in making an everyday consumer device like a smartphone – which means you carry about eighty-five per cent of the entire available terrain of the periodic table in your pocket. 

The problem with all this, Dartnell explains, is that some of these elements are increasingly rare on the planet and harder to find by mining.  He does not make the point himself, but what seems clear is that access to the mines to unearth these metals may soon become subject to a Chinese monopoly that is bound to have consequences for the rest of the world.  

However, the situation may not be entirely hopeless, because it turns out that these elements can often be recovered from existing products with a little effort.  After decades of our simply discarding obsolescent gadgets, many landfills may now hold veritable mother lodes of these valuable metals, which raises the intriguing possibility of landfill mining – picking back over our rubbish for the buried treasure it contains.   

A test site at a landfill sixty miles east of Brussels, for example, aims to recover building materials and convert waste into fuel, but it also seeks to sort and recover valuable metals.  Landfill mining could begin soon in Britain too: four sites that have been tested were found to hold significant amounts of aluminium, copper and lithium, while the opportunities for prospectors are particularly good in the high-tech dumps of Japan, where it has been calculated that its buried waste contains three times the global annual consumption of gold, silver and indium, and perhaps as much as six times that of platinum.  In fact, such artificial ores made up of reduced mobile phones can contain thirty times the concentration of gold as an actual goldmine.  

For several years, educationalists have been told that we need to prepare our young people for an unknown future, which is a tautology if ever there was one.  The example most commonly used is the number of jobs that our current pupils will do that have not yet been invented, with percentages ranging from between fifty and eighty, because, er, no one knows.  Mining rubbish dumps might not appear the most glamorous of occupations, but we may end up with few alternatives if China corners the market; and, as any good Yorkshireman knows: where there’s muck there’s brass – and gold and silver and antinomy and… 

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