It is always pleasing when you look below the surface and see real change in a market, city or organization. No more so than with the low-carbon economy, a market that is growing rapidly and creating a more sustainable model of development. Although the low-carbon economy is not completely synonymous with the term sustainable development, it is a benchmark that provides the stimulus for growth, whilst keeping a focus on both jobs and climate change.
Let us look at a particularly important segment of this economy – end-of-life products and the problem of garbage in our city centers.
The number of landfill sites and garbage tips produced by the world’s growing cities is a huge dilemma. How much worse will the picture look in 2030, when it is predicted that 60% of the population will live in urban areas?
To a great extent, this problem is the result of consumerist societies but changing global consumption habits will be hugely difficult. Instead, in order to find a solution we must direct our focus towards the lifecycle of products and services. The answer lies in taking all of the processes involved – raw materials, design, production and recycling – and integrating them in a circular economy.
Fuelled by tougher legislation, the waste disposal issue has given rise to an increasingly lucrative market. EU law now covers everything from city landfills to vehicle recovery units, so producers have little choice but to become more responsible.
Let me highlight three examples of ways that this market is growing:
1) Since 2001, Panasonic Eco Technology Center (PETEC) has operated a plant that transforms 1.4 billion end-of-life products into new resources. This represents enough recycled material to manufacture 95 new jumbo jets or 150,000 new cars, which meets some of the organisation’s need for aluminum, copper and steel.
2) The Financial Times reported a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab that followed the lifecycle of 3000 electronic items from Seattle. The study showed that 75% of the products ended up in recycling facilities, compared with the US average of about 34%.
3) As well as recycling for materials, garbage is also being used to generate energy through urban district heating systems. In Amsterdam, 99% of local waste (household and industrial) is used to provide heat and energy for the city’s metro, tram and road lighting. A similar system is also in use in other cities including Stockholm, Malmo and Copenhagen.
In the coming years, urban waste disposal will be about getting people to sort and recycle more of the products and materials they consume. But the question is how? I decided to ask an expert who has been working to find an answer, the CEO of Envac, Christer Öjdemark. You can watch the full interview here.
His company, Envac, has been developing waste collection systems worldwide since 1951. In the early 1960s it invented the automated vacuum waste collection system that transports waste to a central processing facility, making it easier to separate and recycle. It is still in use throughout the world – in residential areas, shopping malls, city centers, industrial kitchens, hospitals and airports – as it can be integrated with existing infrastructure, such as electricity, sewage and water supplies.
But although a technical solution exists, the greatest challenge is encouraging people’s participation and involvement, says Envac’s Director of Marketing and Communication, Jonas Törnblom. He tells me how the residents in Vollsmose, a suburb of Odense in Denmark, worked together to improve their environment: “Human behavior is always central to its success. Look at Vollsmose, a residential area with a variety of cultures, languages and experiences. With the help of local environmental ambassadors it is training its citizens in new behavior models and increased responsibility. The technical solution facilitated this transition and shows how an area can improve its environment and deal with its waste management.”
Recycling is an increasingly important part of the political agenda in almost every nation around the world. In January 2012, the EU Commission started considering changes to the current Waste Act with stronger demands for inspection, fees and taxes. Studies have shown that tighter regulation could save about € 72 billion and create an additional 400,000 jobs in the recycling industry.
Let us hope that these legislative changes stimulate further growth in this market by compelling companies to deal with their waste sustainably. As we have seen before, regulation can act as a catalyst for the rise of new and more innovative solutions.And why not inspire the Stockholm+40 conference in april and the Rio+20 Summit in june?