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Working with our waste

Recycling aluminum cans (shown here in bales at a facility in Philadelphia, PA) is just one of the many approaches directed toward doing something productive with the world's ever-expanding stream of waste. In the special section Working with Waste, we survey multifaceted efforts to tackle this global challenge. For the story behind the cover, go to http://scim.ag/cov6095. Photo: Hugette Roe, www.hroephoto.com

This week, a special issue of Science highlights the complicated issue of human waste. It's far from a glamorous subject, but waste is unavoidable. In fact, depending on one's lifestyle, each of us can generate tons of waste—from table scraps and old newspapers to broken mp3 players and outdated computers—over our lifetimes. And if you include all the waste from farms, mines, and industries, the total really begins to skyrocket.

However, as this special issue points out, trash can often be turned into treasure. Yard clippings, for example, can be broken down and used to make fuels, medicines, and cosmetics as long as recycling programs are in place to collect them. Plastics and metals can be recycled over and over again. Water that we flush down the toilet can be captured and transformed into a source of energy and clean, drinking water.

In a special package of news this week, Science news writer Jeff Mervis puts the spotlight on Montgomery County, Maryland's waste recycling program, which handles more than 1 million tons of waste each year. Then, Gretchen Vogel takes a close look at an old technology: the flush toilet. She reports that many researchers are currently working on techniques to recover energy and nutrients from human waste with new and improved toilets.

Elizabeth Pennisi also contributes an article about wastewater treatment plants and how they are reinventing themselves to save—and possibly even produce—energy during the wastewater treatment process. And finally, Greg Miller writes about how human psychology has hampered wastewater recycling programs in the past.

Together, these articles suggest that human waste can be more treasure than trash. But, they also make it clear that we'll have to work with our waste more than ever before. Luckily, a growing number of researchers seem ready to get their hands dirty.