The amount of garbage produced by humans is set to triple by 2100, according to world Bank estimates, and with this impending influx of waste come rising costs in waste management and increased environmental concerns. Looking forward, this issue has the propensity to not only push for innovative design in waste reduction, but also to alter how waste is used and viewed. If unused materials and outputs were regarded as resources, rather than valueless waste, how would this change the way in which garbage is treated and managed?
Waste to energy
Inherent to its definition, waste has little or no value to humans in its current state, but technological advances have the capacity to create value through the transformation of waste into new products or materials.
By viewing carbon dioxide emissions as a resource instead of a pollutant, the company Carbon Engineering (CE) designed a process to capture carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into usable energy. The company plans to complete a megaton-scale demo plant site within the year, the success of which CE president David Keith believes will “be the catalyst that ignites a large-scale air capture industry”. This industry could be highly lucrative, as carbon dioxide is a free and abundant resource, and could allow traditionally desolate areas, such as deserts, to become productive through carbon capture farms.
In the eld of solid wastes, biomass energy generation poses signi cant opportunities in the waste-to-energy transaction. Methods such as combustion and anaerobic digestion are being used to generate energy from wood pellets, agricultural residues, manure and sewage slush. While these methods have been criticised for their release of carbon, the use of on-site carbon capture processes could create a market for biomass plants to sell captured carbon to companies converting it into useful energy.
What is novel about these methods is not only the new technology they leverage, but also their potential to be incorporated into larger economic systems. Both carbon capture and biomass plants can be scaled up or down, which means that this technology could open the doors for smaller entities to play a role in energy production, especially as the adoption of this technology brings down its price in the next ten to fifteen years. Perhaps even more impactful is the use of waste as a resource, which makes waste a good to be bought and sold. Already we have seen cases of this industrial symbiosis: ASSA ABLOy UK sells waste plastic from injection molding back to the supplier and, in israel, Mul-T-Lock sells waste carton packaging.
Looking forward, these new methods of energy conversion present major opportunities, but their adoption is not guaranteed. The current energy market is a complex economic and political network with significant entry barriers and there are many hurdles to overcome before dramatic alterations can be observed.
Waste to product
Just as farms or factories could sell their waste to biomass or carbon capture farms, waste could also be sold to manufacturers to create anything from consumer products to construction materials, but doing so would involve disrupting an established and lucrative sourcing system.
The proliferation of this process will likely hinge on innovative manufacturers adopting new methods and profiting – incentivising other companies to follow suit. In the field of construction materials, such innovative manufacturers include Tom van Soest, co-founder of StoneCycling, who found a way to create surface materials and tiles by pulverizing and reforming materials from demolition sites, and Mieke Meijer and his colleagues at Vij5, who transform recycled newspapers into a wood-like substance. If the concept of waste is broadened to include biological materials, we can also include the efforts of Ecovative, a company using agricultural byproducts and mushroom mycelium to grow a concrete-like substance, and the work of Henk Jonkers of the Delf Univeristy of Technology in the creation of a self-healing concrete from bacteria and nutrients. The availability and low cost of the waste these companies use as raw materials provides a huge opportunity for profitability through the adoption of these methods.
The use of waste in product creation could not only create a waste market, but could also have implications on product design. Instead of relying on the waste market for raw materials, manufacturers could focus on product design that makes the separation and re-use of materials simple and efficient; they could essentially buy back their products from consumers and re-use the initial materials to recreate the product.
Changing a system
If our make-use-dispose model is to become more circular, the conversion process will hinge on the connectivity of current innovations to the waste disposal network and a systemic approach to waste usage. The creation of new, useful ways to transform waste combined with a depletion of natural resources and pressure to turn to alternative sources, and the potential economic benefit of selling waste (which is currently free, for the most part), could create an opportunity for a dramatic transformation of our global waste management system. This would not only create a business for buying and selling waste, but it could also bring small enterprises and individuals into the energy and manufacturing markets, and could even provide incentives for corporations to rethink product design and to close their own product loops. These advancements could massively impact developing nations in particular, where available land and currently poor waste disposal systems offer an opportunity for immense progress. Our garbage is already useful, and the technology to transform it is developing exponentially – it is only a matter of time before the quantity and quality of connections is strong enough for a robust and lucrative market to develop.
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