The Anthill

Anthill 11: waste not, want not

In this episode of The Anthill, a podcast from The Conversation, we’re bringing you stories about how one person’s waste can be another person’s treasure.

We start by getting the dirty stuff out of the way, delving deep into the evolutionary reasons why most of us retch if a browney-orangey liquid starts oozing out from the bin bag. It’s called the “yuck factor” and we all have it, as Philip Powell, a behavioural economist at the University of Sheffield, explains. The trick is how to reprogramme ourselves not to be disgusted.

We’re also bringing you two stories from scientists exploring new ways to eke something useful out of big piles of waste.

Holly Squire heads to a biology laboratory at the University of York to meet Liz Rylott. She’s working on a way to extract metals and minerals leftover in mining industry waste – using the power of plants.

And then Michael Parker speaks to Kevin Morgan, a chemist at Queen’s University Belfast, who is part of a group trying to squeeze as much as possible out of bits of used cork. A surprising number of different things come out – including vanilla – if you use the right chemical process.

Towards the end of the show we take a look at what it’s going to take to get a circular economy in perpetual motion. Ana Mestre, a research fellow in design at Nottingham Trent University, explains why a big shift is needed in the way the stuff we buy is designed so that it can either last a lot longer, or be biodegradable – even our mobile phones.

But Geoff Beattie, professor of psychology at Edge Hill University, has done experiments that show that when it comes to making sustainable choices when we go shopping, we’re all just a little bit lazy. So if we want the world to reduce, reuse and recycle more, we all have to work at it.


Click here to listen to more episodes of The Anthill, on themes including The Future, Beliefs, and Self-experimentation.

The Anthill theme music is by Alex Grey for Melody Loops. Music in the “yuck factor” segment is The Dirty by Podington Bear, music in the cork segment is Easy Easy by David Szesztay, music in the circular economy segment is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle by the Lava Jam Band and Circle Round by Spinning Clocks.

A big thanks to City University London’s Department of Journalism for letting us use their studios.

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