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”.