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There is no doubt that we need better ways to handle municipal waste. But it is discouragingly rare for technological innovations to succeed. Now ideas always seem to cost much more and take much longer than their proponents could possibly believe.

Sad worker

One of the latest such examples is the sad story of Subbor, the Super Blue Box Recycling Corporation that tried to set up a demonstration plant in Guelph. The plant which burned $32 million in public and private money was based on an innovative combination of anaerobic digestion and steam exploder. Unfortunately, the inventors oversold their technology promising to have it working reliably and continuously within 3 years. In fact, the court later found, it would have taken them at least 6 years. When the 3 years ran out, the City pulled the plug and the project collapsed. Subbor sued for damages, but lost on virtually every point: Guelph v. Super Blue Box Recycling Corporation.

The moral of the story: engineers and inventors are, by necessity, optimistic; lawyers must be pessimists. It’s often a mistake to put engineers’ optimism into legal contracts. If Subbor’s contract had given them 6 years to get their technology working instead of 3, they might have had time to make it a success.

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