Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone


Star Wars: The Force Awakens - how about the recycling and waste industry?

Few hours before the official release of the new Star Wars sequel (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) the buzz about the movie has skyrocketedHarrison Ford revealed how his leg was almost broken by hydraulic forces. The new movie is expected by decades of millions of impatient Star Wars fans. But the same is true for the reaction of the waste management industry to the tsunami of the third industrial revolution - I dare to write that we need something like a rapid awakening and paradigm shift in order to surf on the huge waves of the current technological, social and economic change. 

"Our world is becoming more controversial than ever. We are capable to identify the quantity and quality of water in March, in a distance which ranges between 35  -100 million km but, due to poverty and lack of appropriate global response, roughly 700 million people (1 to 10) lack access to safe water. We are discussing how to utilize the Internet of Things in industrialized economies but, according the recent ISWA’s “Wasted Health: The tragic case of dumpsites” report, the health impacts of dumpsites are worst than malaria in India, Indonesia and Philippines. On the bright side, the third industrial revolution creates new, unimaginable opportunities for making sustainability a cornerstone of each and every industrial sector. On the dark side, the recent “Global Waste Management Outlook” (GWMO) report revealed that roughly 2-3 billion people lack the most elementary waste services while

As far as we know, industrial revolutions are long historical waves that gradually cover the planet. In reality, even now, there are parts of our world that have not been so much affected by the second industrial revolution. So no one expects that the third industrial revolution would soon transform the whole planet. But the current industrial revolution is based on technologies that follow exponential rather than linear paths of development – practically it means that the change that is coming will be too big and too fast. And this change is happening with the current shift of power (from global “north” to global “south”) and the continuously growing global interconnectivity. It is expected that the current industrial revolution will affect mostly the developing world (roughly 40% of the planet’s population). The poorer part of the world will benefit much more than the richer one, for the first time in the history of industrial revolutions.

In this rapidly changing landscape, disruption of traditional industries will very soon be the new “business as usual”. A recent IDC report, published on November 4 this year, predicts that by 2020 one third of the top 20 firms, in every industry, will be seriously disrupted or even failed. The recycling and waste management industry seems unprepared for substantial changes – unfortunately, a good, even if complicated and expensive, adaptation plan is not enough. What is coming is a radical redefinition of what is called waste and how it will be managed."  

Well, this is the introduction of my new article "Third industrial revolution and the future of recycling" that was published yesterday at the Waste Management World magazine (November - December 2015 issue) - you can register for free and enjoy the whole article plus a great content from many important contributors. If you want to continue click here


Circular Economy or Space Race?

Maybe the whole world speaks about Climate Change and COP21 (as I did three times last week at this blog) and the on-going negotiations (by the way, you can read an excellent article on how to speak like climate negotiator at Scientific American), but there are two other issues that should not be lost, especially for those of us who are involved in recycling and waste management business. And speaking frankly, those two issues are straightforward linked and provide completely different answers to the resource scarcity challenges we face.

The first one is known and pretty well discussed. The European Commission adopted a more or less ambitious CircularEconomy Package to stimulate Europe's transition towards a circular economy, which, according the EU officers, will boost global competitiveness, foster sustainable economic growth and generate new jobs. The proposed actions will contribute to "closing the loop" of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use, and bring benefits for both the environment and the economy. The plans will extract the maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste, fostering energy savings and reducing Green House Gas emissions. The proposals cover the full lifecycle: from production and consumption to waste management and the market for secondary raw materials. This transition will be supported financially by ESIF funding, €650 million from Horizon 2020 (the EU funding program for research and innovation), €5.5 billion from structural funds for waste management, and investments in the circular economy at national level.
This new package replaced the previous one that the European Commission withdrew on December 2014. Well, there are many things to discuss about this new package, but I will come back later on that. If someone wants to go further, have a look at the reactions of ISWA, CEWEP, EXPRA, FEAD and Municipal Waste Europe.

For me, it is really interesting to notice that while EU tries, faster or slower, more or less successfully, to set the scene for a less linear economy with much more closed loops, at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, we have a completely different signal. So let’s move to the second issue. On Monday, November 16, the USA Congress voted (and later president Obama signed) the ‘‘Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015’’.  According this bill, the President, acting through appropriate Federal agencies, shall:

‘‘(1) Facilitate commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources by United States citizens;
‘‘(2) Discourage government barriers to the development in the United States of economically viable, safe, and stable industries for commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources in manners consistent with the international obligations of the United States; and
‘‘(3) Promote the right of United States citizens to engage in commercial exploration for and commercial recovery of space resources free from harmful interference, in accordance with the international obligations of the United States and subject to authorization and continuing supervision by the Federal Government.”

Well, if there are still doubts about what it means, allow me to explain it by the words of Representative Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the Science Committee who commented that “This bill encourages the private sector to launch rockets, take risks and shoot for the stars". Peter Diamandis, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of the company Planetary Resources, Inc., said, “A hundred years from now, humanity will look at this period in time as the point in which we were able to establish a permanent foothold in space. In history, there has never been a more rapid rate progress than right now.” According Peter Diamandis this is effectively the largest piece of resource legislature ever signed by a U.S. president. There are many concerns about this legislation piece, since international space law is considered as full of gaps and ambiguities and the right of any private company to utilize asteroid’s resources maybe easily be in doubt. However, the reasoning is very clear. Over the last 15 years, large populations of asteroids that come very close to the Earth have been discovered.  They are resource-rich, composed of valuable materials: fuels (hydrogen and oxygen), construction materials (nickel, iron, and cobalt), and platinum group metals (platinum, palladium, osmium, iridium) for strategic uses (like electronics). Peter Diamandis says that “…most of the large 250 meter to 1 kilometer rocks are worth trillions of dollars, and as such, they represent some of the most valuable real estate in our solar system. Even better, most of them are energetically easier to reach than the surface of the Moon.”

Well, clearly we have two completely different directions. EU tries to close the loops and optimize the use of limited resources in order to manage the upcoming resource scarcity and stimulate a circular economy. USA sets the scene for exploiting resources beyond Earth’s limits as a mean to pave the way for private companies to own any natural resources they manage to mine from asteroids. Truly, next time we will discuss on closed loops and circular economy, we have to ask “for which planet?”

 But besides those two different directions, the discussion on asteroids’ resources and the right of private companies to utilise them (actually the USA Congress bill says something very simple: first comes, first takes) creates an interesting question for circular economy too. The question is about the ownership of critical resources, in the framework of closed loops and circular economy. Prioritising access above ownership, as it is the main stream thinking in circular economy, we can’t overlook the fact that access will be finally given by the owners of critical materials. Let’s suppose that gradually we will develop, globally, almost completely closed loops for materials like mobile phones – then sooner or later, the companies that produce mobile phones (and take them back at the end of their life time) will control the loops of metals like copper, gold, lead, zinc, beryllium, tantalum or coltan. So what will happen around 2030, when the world’s reserves in copper are going to be depleted? Are we going to live in a world that critical resources will be fully controlled by big private sector multinational companies? If this is the case, then access to those materials will be also completely governed by those companies too. So, both the case of asteroids’ resources and the case of circular economy should be alarming – we need to open a broad discussion about the ownership of the critical resources and the rules that will define the access to them, independently of their location on Earth or in asteroids  - otherwise the problem will be solved according the jungle rules “first comes, first takes” and “the winner takes it all”.