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Read this story and more in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Forget Bitcoin. The hottest potential new currency lies in our trash bins, Arthur Huang says, and he’s built a portable recycling plant to prove it. His solar-powered Trashpresso turns plastic waste into small tiles that can be used to build walls and floors.
“These machines are a prototype of what we think the future of recycling should be,” says Huang, a National Geographic emerging explorer. Huang has fully built two Trashpresso machines so far, hauling them by truck on 40-foot platforms to far-flung places like Yushu, a county on the Tibetan Plateau. Film star Jackie Chan features the expedition in his National Geographic television documentary Green Heroes.
No matter where a Trashpresso goes, it finds plenty of plastic to shred and compress: Yushu was no different. “That microcosm of a tiny township has exactly the same problem as big cities,” Huang says. Water bottles and other trash, often brought in by visitors, end up in rivers and eventually the oceans.
Huang imagines a network of hyperlocal trash-processing plants generating new products—and new ideas. His company, Miniwiz, is devoted to building such a circular economy. Since 2005, it has been transforming waste into furniture, accessories, buildings, even a small airplane—and encouraging people to think about packaging as a valuable commodity.