Letting the Sun Shine on Garbage?

By Julian Dierkes

In thinking about economic diversification, I have previously dreamed about a long-term strategic approach for Mongolia. Such an approach would involve a taking stock of Mongolia’s riches (other than mineral resources), and then invest into applied research (modelled on something like the German Fraunhofer Gesellschaft) that might capitalize on these resources in the very long run.

The resources that come to my limited imagination are fresh air, sunshine, and cold.

Is there not some way that these riches could be brought to bear on Mongolia’s garbage problem?

In so many walks of life, we are afraid of UV rays. If you’re light-skinned, they have become a seemingly ever-present menace to our skin.  When I return from Mongolia trips (almost independent of the season, though outside time is obviously limited in the winter) I return with a deep tan that prompts colleagues to ask me which beach I have returned from. For Mongolians, even a short visit to the countryside gives them deep tans very quickly. UV rays bleach our clothes and turn gers into the bright colour that shows up so nicely on the green steppe background.

Harnessing UV Rays

So, dear engineers out there, is there not some process that can harness Mongolia’s powerful UV exposure to break down garbage?

Solar panels have been an obvious implementation of a recognition of powerful solar energy and they are an innovation to ger life that seems to have become almost universal in adoption.

There must be plastics out there that break down quickly through UV exposure. While they may be more expensive, might they be part of a solution to the garbage-strewn landscape?

Could there be materials that are broken down even faster by UV exposure in cold environments? That would seem the perfect combination for Mongolia’s environment.

Yes, if such materials existed, they would likely require exposure to UV rays which may be difficult to arrange in landfills, but worth considering.

Alternatively, could UV rays play a role in cleaning used vessels and containers for re-use? A solar dish washer maybe?

I dream of being reborn as a Mongolian throat singer, but a UV engineer would also not be bad…

Carbontech

Along a similar non-mineral vein (me, imagining that I can inspire an engineering revolution)… The NYT ran an article on June 27 2021 that focused on some of the production and technology advances of “carbontech” describing directions of product research and development that focuses specifically on carbon-reduction and has lead to some products that are not only carbon neutral, but actually carbon negative like the industrial carpets that are one of the main foci of the article.

Now, again, there is no specific discussion of products that Mongolia might be well-suited to in hosting production.

But, some of the production technologies do trade energy-intensity for carbon-sequestration. While elements of that are not obvious in a Mongolian context (wood construction, given limited forest resources in Mongolia), other elements might be more viable given Mongolia’s environment.

Outside-the-Box Thinking

Again, I am no engineer and neither the garbage processing using UV rays, nor carbontech are areas that I have technical expertise on. However, I do often get the sense that conversations about economic diversification in Mongolia reach for tried-and-tested solutions that seem generic rather than focusing on the specific environmental conditions of Mongolia and the potential that might lie therein.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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