On the face of it, there are many threats to future prosperity. Climate agreements – won’t they slow down economic growth? Mineral shortages? Global tensions? Physical limits to the economy, as quickly many more people will rise to a level of moderate affluence? Food problems? We do not think there is ground for pessimism, for there is a powerful factor at work that will limit the effect of mankind on the planet: removal of waste from the system. No waste might fuel an economic upturn.
No waste: we are half-way
As we now near the end of an era, we can see in retrospect how wasteful mankind has been in the build-up of prosperity. Half a century ago, the environmental movement rightly attacked this behaviour, in which mankind made use of the enormous reservoir of nature to absorb its waste. Even though there was much opposition to their ideas, and much ridicule, the environmental movement won a major victory in the long run, as industries and households drastically reduced their discharges to the environment. This was backed up by the discovery that often, this was not expensive but industry actually saved money. For if we produce no waste, all the feedstock will be transformed to products that clients are willing to pay for; and producers do not have to pay any more for waste removal, cleaning up effluents, or levies on their waste products.
But even though we reduced much of the ‘easy’ waste, the most difficult forms of waste persist, notably carbon dioxide, the waste product of fossil fuel use, and plastic litter, both at land and in the oceans, where it results in the infamous plastic soup. Whereas carbon dioxide production is now seen as one of mankind’s major problems, there is still a lot to do to get the problem of plastic litter on the international political agenda. And no waste is still far away. Agriculture has become one of the most wasteful activities on a global scale, with much runoff of nutrients and fertile soil. More generally: agriculture has many inputs that do not serve their goal, but are wasted to the environment, like fertilizer, insecticides and pesticides. Many industries still produce much waste, like the food industry, the metallurgic industry and mining industries. We should also count waste heat among mankind’s wastes. Chemical industry on the other hand, that stood symbol for production of much (toxic) waste fifty years ago, has by and large improved its score a lot.
Removal of waste from the system
All wastes represent not just environmental pollution, but also missed economic opportunities. They represent feedstock not delivering its value. This is why cleantech in its many manifestations might be the vehicle of a new economic upturn. This is the message of the book The sixth wave by two Australian authors, James Bradfield Moody and Bianca Nogrady. They predict that the breakthrough of cleantech will not just mean no waste, but also fuel the economy. The waves referred to in the title are the famous Kondratieff waves. Nikolai Kondratieff, a Russian economist, observed a regularity in economic upturns and downturns, which he called waves. Later, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter connected these waves with technological breakthroughs that were dominant during the upturn of the wave. In his view, a new successful class of technologies fuels a wave of new investments that takes the economy to a higher level.
Here we won’t go into each of the Kondratieff waves, and into the question why the cleantech wave would supposedly be the ‘sixth’ wave. Bradfield and Nogrady describe this with great zest. But what’s important in this context, is their description of the mechanism through which the drive for no waste would fuel the economy. The authors see a parallel in the economic mechanisms of the ‘fifth’ wave: the ICT revolution. ICT cut out the middle man, so to speak. Companies do not have to keep stocks of products and spare parts any more, they can now order them online. Retailers do not have to order their goods at wholesalers, they can go directly to the producer or importer. The shop as a middle man is being replaced by online shopping. Amazon got big on this. Business transactions and administrations suddenly require much less work. Bradfield and Nogrady describe this as the removal of ‘waste’ from the system, waste in the form of unnecessary procedures that could suddenly be bygone. It is this removal waste that released the vast sums of money suddenly earned by the smart entrepreneurs of the ICT revolution. These shortcuts boosted economic efficiency and fuelled the fifth wave. In their view, a similar mechanism will fuel the sixth wave. Waste, they tell us, is nothing else than production gone wrong. No waste will greatly enhance economic efficiency and fuel the economy.
No waste: the new technological revolution
Isn’t that too much of a claim: cleantech not just cleaning up production but also fuelling the economy? We argue it is not. For – maybe as an echo of society’s needs fifty years ago – we see an avalanche of clean technologies coming on stream, allowing us to produce with no waste. Biotechnology will enable us to perform much the same tricks as chemical industry, but with more precision, generally with higher yields, at lower temperatures and pressures (and hence with much less energy use) and with much less, virtually non-toxic waste. Biomimicry will allow us to find smart solutions for engineering problems – with less use of materials and energy. We increasingly learn how to produce materials that are precisely tuned to a specific task – which allows us to use less materials and have better results (for instance, we will see a lot of this coming in the medical profession). In many instances, nature shows us how to solve difficult problems – we now elevate the art of ‘imitating nature’ to new levels. And all these goodies are bestowed upon us in a very short time span; we are truly in the middle of a new scientific and technological revolution, beyond ICT.
With precision as the key term, the popular three-legged scheme of people, planet and profit, created by John Elkington in the 1990s, gets a new significance. The 3P scheme has been instrumental to a turnaround of corporate thinking. Companies could quantify their achievements in the ‘planet’ and ‘people’ brackets and publish them for PR reasons; NGOs could stage competitions on corporate sustainable achievements, which lead to indexes like the DJSI (Dow Jones Sustainability Index). But somehow, the existence of three parameters, people, planet and profit, suggested that there would always have to be a trade-off among them, that we should ‘balance’ them. This concept is now radically questioned by precision as the connecting term. ‘Sustainability’ in the form of ‘precision’ will not just check economic forces, but guide them and take them to a higher level. In plain terms: sustainability is going to fuel rather than slow down the economy. Many companies that take leading positions in the sustainability indexes, and many SMEs, already look upon sustainability as not just an add-on, but as the core of their corporate strategies.
No waste: an almost endless scope for improvement
As we look into the issue of waste, we discover that there is an almost endless scope for improvement. Scientists have even come up with Factor 10 (efficiency gain) as a realistic and necessary sustainability goal. Our most important environmental parameters (energy and resource use per unit of output) should have to improve by a factor 10 in order to compensate for population growth and wealth increase, and to restore damage done to the planet so far. And here’s the surprise: this can be done! Already, mankind has realised Factor 10 improvements in many areas. The price of solar panels and eggs, the use of copper in ICT, the number of casualties in traffic per kilometre driven, the number of foreign PhD students at universities. The Limits to Growth report predicted most metals to be depleted by now. It did not happen. We greatly reduced consumption or found alternatives. No more mercury in our thermometers and our tooth fillings, and mercury reserves went up. So-called urban mining, recycling all kinds of metals and plastics from urban waste, is taking over from traditional mine pits. Major efficiency improvements will prevent shortages of rare earth metals for use in wind turbines, cell phones and all other modern electronics. Often, entirely new processes facilitated by chemical and biological catalysis are instrumental to Factor 10 improvements in feedstock and solvents use, waste generation and product quality. Catalysis will also greatly enhance most recycle loops. No waste: it will fuel a new economic upturn.
Interesting? Then also read:
Nanocomposites, precision materials
Reconnect with nature – the new sustainability
Economists, listen: the earth is NOT a closed system
Precision, the hallmark of a new era