We humans have and are still posing a great threat to our beautiful planet, but it does not have to be this way.
Amazingly there is not a lot we need to do to change. What we have to do is consider the cost and damage caused by our existing processes, like emitting CO2 and other chemicals into the atmosphere. To do this, for example a cost needs to be added to the emissions. This is easily said, though very difficult to achieve politically. So long as materials like plastics produced from raw materials (crude oil) do not include the cost of the damage they do the environment, these materials will continue to be used.
One way to compete against this unfair advantage is for more high-quality cost-competitive closed-loop recycled materials be made available to manufacturers. Not only will this reduce emissions, a thriving industry of de-manufacturers – businesses breaking down our waste into reusable products – will develop. This process has a name. It is called the circular economy
Ultimately, we need to develop a circular or ‘closed-loop’ economy, where the minimum amount of new materials is needed to make new products and existing products are reused and recycled indefinitely, if possible.
While the world population is still rising, we will still need more energy. It’s important to consider where we generate this energy, and how, in order to maintain the benefits of a closed-loop system. Infinitely recycling plastics is a start, but if we’re still burning coal, oil, gas and wood to power our other raw materials processing plants, factories and electrical power plants, then we’re still in trouble.
I also expect that the technology and devices that will facilitate these changes will increasingly make their way into people’s homes. Empowering individuals to take responsibility for their environmental impact will lead to a tipping point – a critical mass of people all individually delivering a new paradigm.
Right now, these new technologies may seem fanciful and out-of-reach, but in time, definitely less than ten years and possibly five, they will become a cost-effective positive environmental contribution as part of our everyday lives.
Given all of this what eco-devices will we see in people’s home in the next few years?
Production of Energy
By 2050, it’s estimated that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Cities will account for 80% of the increase in energy demand by 2030, according to research by LSE.
Fortunately, new storage batteries currently in development promise to unlock a range of in-home energy production methods. Batteries will then be able to store power at a local level and perhaps even distribute power across a community. But what will we use to generate the power?
Renewable energy is the most obvious solution within reach. Solar panels are constantly improving in efficiency and a number of companies are now developing solar tiles, such as Resilience Energy, which is a startup promising to cut energy bills by as much as 80%, and, most notably, Tesla who are also producing the batteries capable of storing all this renewable energy.
Rather than ugly black panels, the tiles will form the roof of your house, collecting energy from the sun while looking attractive. The benefit of solar tiles is that they can be retrofitted onto any property with a roof. A drawback, however, is the low energy production in less sunny countries.
New Wind Turbine Design
Wind turbines have proven contentious, with many arguing that they spoil the natural habitat, create disruptive noise, and can be dangerous. Individual wind turbines for houses are safer and quieter, yet they often aren’t very attractive and can’t generate all the required energy output.
New designs, however, could change all that. It’s easy to imagine fitting an attractive and super-efficient wind turbine to your roof – a piece of art that generates almost all the power a home needs.
Take the Liam F1 Urban Wind Turbine from Dutch tech firm, The Archimedes. The spiral design can be produced in a number of colours and shapes, resembling a big rotating flower. And at 80% efficiency, it is a forerunner of the high-efficiency turbines of the future.
I expect new, high-efficiency wind turbines will play an important role in energy generation, even if they need to be supplemented with other energy generation devices.
Bio-fuels have been used for centuries to generate light and heat by way of fire. Most modern bio-fuels rely on the same basic principle: collect flammable gases and liquids from organic sources and burn them for energy. But burning anything to create energy is likely to lead to more CO2 emissions, which feels like a step in the wrong direction.
Fortunately, scientists are working with species of bacteria and algae to make the process cleaner.
Microorganisms can break down organic material and CO2, passing the energy straight into a battery. Food waste and human excrement will feed the machine, providing energy-free sewage treatment and no need for composting. What’s more, the gases released by food and human waste can be captured before it’s released into the atmosphere.
I anticipate that within the next 10 years, we’ll all have one of these biofuel synthesisers fitted to our toilet and waste disposal pipe, turning our organic waste into clean energy.
Enabling a closed-loop economy means processing products and packaging back into their original form, or equivalent. The reason we can’t do this at the moment is the high cost and low-reliability of separating out different materials.
It takes just 0.5kg of PVC in 1,000kgs of PET plastic to spoil the batch, for example, yet how many of us can tell the difference?
However, many hands make light work, as the saying goes. If we can bring the guaranteed correct used-material separation and processing of products and packaging into the home, or place where the use-material is last used, then we can produce close to 100% pure materials ready to sell back to manufacturers.
ReCircle is currently working on a home and business appliance which will do just that. It will use a sensor to ensure different materials are never put together. Then the near-pure used-materials are washed, ground or compacted to contaminant-free sized-reduced pure products ready for storage. The pure close-loop recyclable products will then be collected on-demand from homes, when the storage containers are full. The pick-up service will be similar to the current Amazon styled home pickup service of returned goods. The products will be delivered straight to manufacturers to make back into products.
While still in their infancy, 3D printers promise all kinds of efficiency savings as well as the construction of new energy-efficient products. Imagine being able to download a product blueprint and simply print it out. Such a system would reduce the energy needed to transport products to shops and homes, would reduce the industrial production of plastics to almost zero, and bring the responsibility of managing a product lifecycle into the hands of individuals.
What’s more, it may be possible to combine technologies like a recycling appliance and a 3D printer, ensuring that everything you print can be reprocessed into future ‘ink’ to make more products. Individual homes can instantly become closed-loop in themselves.
Progressing towards a closed-loop economy will require innovative and smart technology so individuals can see and benefit from the advantages. For example, once there is domestic appliance recycling used-materials in the home and delivering a cash reward in addition to the convenience, time saving and environmental benefits, then people’s attitudes to their used-materials will be the same as they are for their worn clothes or dirty dishes; we wash them and re-use them, again and again. People will see the value in their used-materials rather than seeing them as disposable.
It would also be great if government policy changed. If bureaucracy can enable rather than hold back circular economy developments, and if local government works with communities of engaged people, it will be possible to upgrade towns and cities for individuals’ and the community’s benefit. Similarly, it would be great if national governments would work together to support such changes. History suggest that local and national governments will not be at the forefront of must-have developments like the circular economy.
The good news is that the new technologies will empower individuals and households to take the positive action they clearly want to take in their day to day life. Solar tiles, home wind turbines, bio-fuel synthesisers, closed-loop domestic recycling appliances and 3-D printers, among others will empower individuals to contribute actively to, and benefit from, the circular economy. And it won’t be because a local authority or national government or multi-nation corporate said so. Individuals will want to because they will benefit socially, environmentally and financially.
Technology will help us, as individuals, to be more proactive. It will also help us collectively – redirecting our consumer culture so we can contribute to and benefit from the closed-loop/circular economy. We can change what we do for the better and protect our planet.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aldous Hicks is the CEO and Co-founder of ReCircle Recycling Ltd. Aldous has over 30 years of business experience as a technology and software developer, project manager and mechanical engineer, including developing water and material recycling technology. He developed SOHO custom PC database software and prior to that worked with Mannesmann Demag AG, a multi-national German mechanical heavy engineering company.
Aldous has now turned his attention and expertise to the recycling economy, founding ReCircle to create a solution that will empower consumers while reversing the unsustainable and inefficient recycling system.