Since the first industrial revolution which gained momentum at the turn of the 1800s, and in the two centuries which have followed; we’ve pretty much stripped the planet of most non-renewable resources, which are now scarce. According to a report by the UN International Resource Panel, we’re already utilizing resources 50% faster than nature can replenish; and we’ll require two planet’s worth of resources to supply expected demand before the mid-2030s. The US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 Report mentions that the burgeoning middle-class consumption mega-trend, can be synced with our ongoing ecological disaster. And now, humanity is just entering a stage where we’re poised to begin colonizing the solar system. Imagine the scale of resources we’ll require by 2040 and beyond. Obviously, Earth cannot sustain this.
According to this PwC report, severe resource scarcity (and let’s not forget climate change), will result in heightened political tensions, international conflict, procurement bottlenecks for businesses and greater government regulation. The ‘World Economic Situation Prospects 2018’ Report mentions that strong global trade is healthy for the economy but comes with an environmental cost. OECD's Environmental Outlook to 2030 calls out that “increasing pressures on the environment could cause irreversible damage.”
What can we do?
We’re up against a severely wicked problem.
If we’re going to require two planet’s worth of resources by the mid-30s, it’s unlikely we’ll find them on Earth (ergo, space colonization). What we do have is all the non-renewable resources we’ve extracted from the planet so far. Much of it has been put into permanent infrastructure (so these resources may be in place for a while). Now, this World Bank report notes that by 2016, we were already generating 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal waste, with ~33% being dumped into landfills or burnt. We’re still knee deep in consumer and industrial waste. Our waste (a century’s worth) is probably enough to become the source of most future resources.
Since we’re already extracting resources at an unsustainable rate (doing immense damage to the planet while we’re at it), there’s little recourse left than to re-purpose, recycle and reuse what we’ve already discarded. The landfills and junk bone-yards of today, will be the resource rich mines of tomorrow. A circular economy is characterized by heavy dependence on recycling as a source for raw materials. As opposed to a linear economy which has been dominant so far in which products are usually discarded after use; a circular economy utilizes a robust process that pulls waste back into the system, to be taken apart and reprocessed.
To get a circular economy going, we’ll need to push governments and industry to opt for increasing levels of recycled raw materials inputs, for end-product manufacture. The UNEP has a program which encourages governments to encourage and favor circular procurement initiatives. But, we’ll have to simultaneously create the pull or demand, for products which have a high percentage of recycled materials (authenticated by reliable third parties). Without the demand (and the lack of for first-use non-renewables), the supply side (producers) wouldn’t hasten their own change, since its financially constricting.
To supercharge demand, everyone needs to know what’s happening (to our planet and the state of the economy). Of course, we’re all feeling it with global warming, extreme weather events, agricultural failure, water and air contamination, slowing down of the global economy and the gut feeling, that something dramatic is happening. What most people don’t really have is the whole picture. Education of the global population needs to be tackled, similar to how an epidemic would be. Because that’s the kind of scenario we’re up against.
The technologies to completely break down waste into its constituents parts and concentrate elements aren't readily available. To bring about change fast enough, heavily funded research-at-scale needs to focus on developing the technologies that will enable automated waste handling, sorting, breaking and element extraction. The good part is that today, many goods are made to be modular; even the little bits - therefore they could be disassembled using automation. For widespread resource recovery implementation, the technology needs to become widely available; preferably freely so that implementation is immediate. While there are firms gunning to bring these technologies to the forefront (like this one), the availability and therefore the uptake is limited and restricted.
Also, ensuring that products are manufactured with specific dismantlement instructions could be made mandatory. Depending on disassembly instructions, consumers (and industry) could direct their used products to the most suitable resource recovery outfit. In fact, manufacturers should be the leaders in this initiative, pegging a non-renewable resource recovery value to every product; and offering to buy-back products pegged at the discard value. With disassembly becoming mainstream, competition will ensure that waste products become ever more valuable. Planned obsolescence is already deeply embedded into manufacturing. Perhaps this is something that can be tackled as well. Products could be graded by longevity, which could also boost the waste product value.
We’ll only achieve worldwide zero waste, once a circular economy is achieved. In such an economy, just like all products are distributed through a supply-chain, every product will require a waste procurement-chain. The waste procurement-chain will need to feed resource recovery infrastructure, which in turn would produce raw materials required for manufacture. This is a worthy goal for the planet’s well-being (and healing) and continued advancement of civilization.
Getting to this stage may also require dramatic change in lifestyles; perhaps changes in what society holds valuable. Today, its capital riches and wealth. Tomorrow it could be minimalist self-sustainability underlined by massively interconnected small-scale permaculture. Standing in society could be based on how little a person requires (product consumption-wise) while leading a comfortable lifestyle; all the while producing and adding to the economy. Its likely, that such a system will see the world moving towards increasingly decentralized but connected communities which provide all basic needs for themselves. Such a society would only depend on centralized manufacturing for prefabricated modular construction (see this) and consumer durables. We’re already seeing some industries readily take to resource recovery and recycling (Eg: iron & steel); and, individuals who are aware tend to do what they can. It may be time to align everyone, planet-wide.
I’m using a few of the concepts described hare in my upcoming science fiction space adventure novel. Subscribe or follow to be among the first to know when the book is out.