Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.
The picture above is the Waste house at the university campus of Brighton, constructed from local waste. In our society reuse of waste still is limited. Repair of household appliances seems to be not done: Last year, three devices in my home broke. No shops could fix them, although surfing the Internet revealed the existence of replacement parts. I’d better buy a new one, they advised.
The flow of materials
Our economy is characterized by the take-make-waste principle, which results in an excess of cheap mass products that are thrown away at the end of their life cycle. Moreover, the majority of the raw materials are not recycled or reused in low quality. The result is a large amount of waste, pollution and the rapid exhaustion of raw materials worldwide.
The graph reveals that the volume of resources extracted in 2017 was 84,4 Gt (billions of ton), supplemented by 8.4 Gt reused ones: Minerals (37.9 Gt,) ores (9.6 Gt, fossil fuels (16,6 Gt) and biomass (28,7 Gt). In 2017 the global economy was 9,1% circular. In 2019 only 8,6%.
Of this material input in 2017 (92.8 Gt), 36.0 Gt became part of the long-term stock of buildings, roads, cars and other capital goods. The stock of capital goods (houses, buildings, infrastructure, fleet) has expanded considerably in recent decades, which can lead to a large increase in potential waste in the coming years.
The largest part (56.8 Gt) was used for the production of goods with a lifetime that does not extend beyond 2017.
Of the total waste of 19,4 Gt in 2017, 8.4 Gt is reused, for example by water treatment, the production of biogas, through recycling (only 1,4 Gt) and by composting. The majority of recycled material is of low quality. The remainder, 9,2 Gt is ‘lost’ and is scattered in the environment. For instance, through microfibers that are added to the ocean and might return in the food chain.
Towards a circular economy
The problem of the ‘take-make-waste’-principle is not waste only. The linear economy on which this principle is based is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions and, moreover, leads to the depletion of raw materials by rich and emerging countries or better, their rich minorities all over the world. The extraction of resources by contemporary and previous generations will stagnate the developing of future generations. Replacement by the circular principle can correct this lack of justice.
Materials such as metals, plastics and chemicals cannot return to nature without processing. Instead, we distinguish four ways to stretch their lifespan and preserve their value, so that no new raw materials have to be extracted.
- Repairing and sharing;
- Reuse by other users without major changes;
- Renovate and overhaul, dismantle and assemble into a new product, possibly with the addition of new functionalities;
- Recycling: tracing back the product to its original material, preferably at the highest possible level (for example, plastic waste becomes ‘virgin’ plastic). In this case the original product can be re-manufactured.
A circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to keep products and materials in permanent use, without the need to exploit additional resources.
It is based on four principles:
- Decoupling the provision of new products and services from the availability of finite resources.
- Design out waste and pollution and other negative externalities of economic activity that harm human health and natural systems. This includes toxic substances, greenhouse gas emissions, air, land and water pollution, and traffic congestion.
- Maintaining the highest value of components and materials by designing them for reuse, rework and recycling.
- Maintaining natural capital through the circulation of nutrients and creating the conditions for regeneration of, for example, soil.
We are at the beginning of a long process and we are running out of the time available