Here's a sort of offbeat question. My world has "telekinetic magic"; details later, but grossly simplified, it can be thought of as ethical slave labor. Would this be useful for garbage processing? In particular, are there things you could do that would improve trash handling, and could you do so economically, given that you still have to feed the "slaves"? (I'm thinking of stuff like sorting out materials that are recyclable, compostable, or that can otherwise be reprocessed.) It doesn't have to be directly profitable — this society is sufficiently concerned about the environment that the government and/or trash haulage fees can subsidize this — but if it's ludicrously expensive, it's not going to be worthwhile.
Of course, slavery is unethical... if the "slaves" are sapient. If they're merely sentient, that's more of a gray area, but fortunately, our "slaves" aren't even sentient... they're yeast tanks used to power magic. If necessary, I can get into some really gritty details, but for now, let's just assume the following:
- You have the equivalent of five human "slaves" per square meter. They need food (sugar is fine) and have effectively unlimited endurance (but not to the extent of being super-human; more like, if a human can do something for 5-10 minutes, "slaves" can do it continuously).
- "Slaves" are immobile and have no arms, but they are telekinetic with a range of about 1-2 m (it's not a hard line, but any further and their "strength" falls off rapidly). The forces that can be exerted this way are comparable to what can be exerted using muscles; think of it like arms that are insubstantial.
- Telekinesis can simulate mechanical advantage, so it can do things like cut thin metal (that a human could cut with a hand tool). It's also good at separating things, such as removing bits of food/debris/whatever from containers. (Imagine a human tediously setting up some rig to individually grasp each particle, then pulling them all away in one go. Telekinesis can effectively make the setup step near-instantaneous.)
- No more than five "slaves" can work together (so, a limit on the biggest thing they can move by themselves).
- "Slaves" are blind but can sense mass; imagine a really advanced sense of "touch" that works over a distance.
- "Slaves" are really good at discrimination but have zero creativity. They can do things like recognize "paper", "plastic", etc., but in a novel situation they can only do what their instructions tell them to do.
- Instructions can be more or less arbitrarily complicated, but someone has to write them, and the difficulty of doing so is roughly on par with writing them out by hand for each "slave".
- You can also mix in electromechanical equipment (the world also has technology roughly comparable to our own), but the "slaves'" ability to control it is roughly limited to pushing buttons.
Edit: To clarify, I'm aware this can do "easy" things such as sorting different types (metal/plastic/glass/paper) of ready-to-recycle material. I'm interested in if it can do harder things, like extracting material that can be composted and/or recycled from stuff that would be problematic for modern technology. For example, I've read that something like an improperly rinsed soup tin can ruin an entire batch of recycled metal.
For another example, let's say I discover a... "science experiment" in my fridge and toss it, container and all. In the real world, I think that just ends up as landfill? But this system could separate the biological "stuff", which can be composted, from the container, which can be recycled. But would this be practical? And if so, how much would having such an ability differ from what can be done in the real world?