Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Design for Recycling

When some organization wants to build a nuclear reactor plant, they have to figure the lifetime costs in order to apply. Nuclear reactors are unique in that a decommissioning phase must be included in the cost and the schedule for the plant. Because of the lingering radioactivity, it wouldn't be good to treat it like a steel plant that had reached the end of its life, when the company simply shuts down, locks the door, and lets rust take over. There are too many toxics in the reactor area, so the organization must have a plan to eliminate the potential hazard. Some of the radioactive toxics will last for centuries, so any plan which had only a shuttering of the doors and a posting of some guards would be hazardous to say the least.

The materials in a nuclear plant are not recycled, but a large-scale recycling plan, one which encompasses mostly everything, and goes on continuously, has one similar feature. Everything is designed to be recycled. The organization that builds a nuclear power plant is forced to deposit the monies needed to decommission the plant, so that there is some guarantee that bankruptcy or other financial woes will not prevent the decommissioning. If an alien civilization decided to move, gradually, to near 100% recycling, they might adopt the same tactic. Put a charge on disposal of anything manufactured, so that any materials not recycled would be saddled with a large bill. Soon any organization doing manufacturing of anything at all would be figuring out how to not have any items for disposal at the end-of-life of the manufactured object. Once recycling of every component and material became a cost item, the design of the manufactured objects would be done to minimize the total cost, including the disposal costs. The tax on disposal would be traded off against the cost to recycle, and if the disposal tax was high enough, design work would be done on integrating the plan for recycling into the plan for manufacturing.

This means that an alien citizen would have objects in his possession and in his environment that were fashioned quite differently that those we see here on Earth. One of the big costs in recycling of mixed waste is the separation of different materials. Shredding an object, like a car, that has in it dozens of different types of materials generates severe sorting problems. Many stages might be necessary. So, aliens would likely not have shredding processors in their arcologies, but would adopt a different strategy: disassembly.

Shredding and sorting is based on the recognition that most components in a manufactured object are there as pure materials, and the shredding produces fragments of different materials, mixed together, that can be sorted. If a manufactured object is composed of multiple pure materials, disassembling it into those pure materials does the same thing as shredding and sorting, except more efficiently. The efficiency of disassembly is related to how the assembly process was orchestrated. If assembly is done in a way to facilitate later disassembly, even more efficiency can be achieved.

The fastening processes or mechanisms which hold together different materials in a manufactured product can be either easy to undo or difficult to undo. Obviously, design of a manufactured object in a mandatory recycling regime would involve fastening processes and mechanisms that were as easy to undo as possible. This cuts waste as well, so that recycling can be pushed closer and closer to 100%.

Once the design for disassembly hurdle is passed, another change looms on the horizon. That is that maintenance can be done by disassembly and reassembly, perhaps with one component swapped out. Recall that this era is long past the point where there would be upgrades to do. They are already at the end-point of capability and all conceivable upgrades have been done and incorporated, centuries ago. But maintenance is something that does not go away, only diminishes with better design. Assuming that design is at optimality, there is still some small residual maintenance that must be done.

Thus, alien citizens would be used to simply giving whatever they owned over to the local robots or intellos and getting back one that was refurbished. It is almost as if manufactured objects have a life of their own. You have something, maybe a communicator, and its screen was replaced two years ago, and the case four years ago, and the circuitry eight years ago, and the other parts at different times. When you die, it will be a perfectly useful, completely up-to-date communicator, in fine shape for someone else to use. If one is accidentally destroyed, a equivalent replacement, identical in form, function and appearance, would be available. Two citizens who accidentally swap their identical objects would not notice any difference, and not particularly care that there was a swap.

This has a psychological effect. Objects more or less lose their value. If everything is like air, one breath being the same as another, why be concerned about it at all? The twin effects of the end of novelty and the efficiency demands of recycling and disassembly would have put a close on the acquisitiveness that aliens may have evolved with.

All objects would fall under this umbrella. Perhaps it might be thought there would be art objects that had special value. But manufacturing would be able to duplicate anything, and since there is no utilitarian reason to have an original anything, why would any alien want one? Old museum pieces would be duplicated for anyone who wanted one. New art would likely be in a mass-production media, so as many copies would be available as were wanted. Simply put, there is no object that is particularly worth having, except for what it does, and there are mass-produced copies of anything that does have a use.

For an Earth person of our era, this seems like a civilization with a vacuum where value used to be. Yet it appears to be the unavoidable result of technological progress. This is simply one more example of how different an advanced alien civilization would be compared to our own, and therefore how difficult it is to make snap judgments about what aliens would do or like or how they would behave.

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