Yesterday I downloaded the Carbon Trust's Zero Waste guide. As most of the content could have been written a decade ago, it was, frankly, a waste of electrons. Where was the aspiration, the innovation, the inspiration? We get a nod to the circular economy and design, but no more detail. Instead we get the 3Rs and talking to waste management contractors.
If you want zero waste, paradoxically you've got to stop thinking about waste. You've got to think about preventing resources being wasted instead (my mantra is "waste is a verb, not a noun"). You've got to think about loops, not linear processes.
Once you've changed your mindset, you've got to find quality uses for every stream of material or design it out of your system. You need to talk to suppliers and customers about closed loop business models and innovations. You've got to talk to other organisations who may be able to use unwanted material as a raw material. You, and plenty of other people, have got to do things radically differently.
We cannot face a challenge like zero waste with a linear waste minimisation mindset, it's like taking a pea shooter to a war zone. As Einstein said "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has a reputation as something of an inscrutable sphinx and we only get glimpses of what makes her tick. When she stepped up to the hot seat, there was none of the husky-hugging of her predecessor and she abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the dismay and anger of the green commentariat. However, I was less worried about that as DECC had been folded into the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy where arguably it could be better integrated into business as usual rather than being treated as a special case – and BEIS Minister Greg Clark is a champion of carbon reduction.
Delivering affordable energy & clean growth: We will keep energy costs down, build the energy structure we need for new technologies, and secure the economic benefits of our move towards a low carbon economy.
Added to this is various public statements by the PM and BEIS ministers over the last 48 hours singling out electric vehicles, battery technology, 'smart energy' and nuclear as areas they would like to boost. I'm very pleased with this as I've long called for Government intervention to accelerate the smart grid as a way of unlocking more, and greener, growth, than the usual road building.
So far, so good, but what's not there?
The big omission is the circular economy which as usual has to play second fiddle to low carbon energy. For as long as I've been in the sustainability trade, this has been the case – 'waste' is simply not seen as sexy enough. I think it is time for a rebrand, focussing on technologies such as bioprocessing, smart disassembly, automatic sorting technologies and using big data methods to facilitate reverse logistics. More white coats and coding, a bit less in the way of tipper trucks, in other words. A circular economy would also boost the robustness of a post-Brexit UK economy – a key way of selling it to the green-sceptic amongst May's backbenchers.
The other problem is that the industrial strategy launch has been overshadowed by news of another – a misfiring Trident missile last year which hit the headlines yesterday. Events, my dear boy, events...
Last week somebody responded to the edition of Ask Gareth on zero waste by saying zero waste was thermodynamically impossible. My heart soared as I love a bit of thermo, and a bit of a debate, so I thought I'd expand a little on Sustainability and thermodynamics, and explain why this comment is incorrect.
Way back in 1998 when I was a newbie researcher exploring Sustainability as a concept, I was wading through a mountain of heartfelt waffle on the subject when I stumbled on an explanation in terms of thermodynamics. It made complete sense to me and something clicked. When I explained this to my project supervisors, one of them said thermodynamics was for chemical reactions, not for the whole planet. I persisted as I like nice neat explanations for big complex situations and I won him over. To this day I tend to fall back on the laws of thermo to help me spot perpetual motion machines and other blind alleys, and remind me of the big Sustainability picture.
There are four Laws of Thermodynamics, and a gazillion definitions of each, but for our purposes we need the first and second Laws which can be expressed simply as:
First Law: energy and material can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.
Second Law: the total entropy of an isolated system always increases over time.
As entropy is a measure of disorder (read: pollution, dissipated resources), the two are often interpreted as us being stuffed in the long term – inevitably the world will grind to a halt. This is the interpretation of zero-waste-impossible guy. But the crucial bit is the 'isolated' caveat – the earth is not isolated, rather it receives huge amounts of external energy in the form of solar insolation and gravitational pulls.
Earth's natural systems have been pretty sustainable for the last billion years as they follow two important principles to comply with those two laws:
1. there is no waste, all materials and nutrients are endlessly recycled;
2. those cycles and everything else, are powered by those external energy sources, most notably via photosynthesis.
Translating these into industrial parlance and you get the circular, zero waste economy and the renewable energy industry as models for a sustainable economy.
I love biomimicry – the science/art of looking to nature to solve some of our design problems – and I love cycling, so the revolutionary (ha ha!) new aero wheels from Zipp hit both buttons. Zipp have taken inspiration from the way whales maintain speed and manoeuvrability that belies their sheer size and applied it to the humble cycle wheel with quite remarkable results.
Probably the most telling line in the video is "if you look to nature, most of these complex problems have already been solved." And this is true – the humble leaf is twice as efficient at converting a photon of light into useable energy than a standard solar panel. If the various boffins trying to emulate the leaf are successful, then we get twice as much energy out of each solar panel.
At a macro-level, the circular economy is simply copying the way nutrients are endlessly cycled within nature to produce a sustainable system. Those natural cycles are driven by solar energy and don't accumulate toxins. So there you have a template for a sustainable economy.
The downside of those Zipp wheels is the cost – almost three times the price of my road bike. So if they want to send me a pair to try out...
Half term means it's half-working, half-child-caring here at Terra Infirma Towers, although I did sneak off for a 47-mile cycle this morning. And it was glorious, with the late-ish autumn giving a spectacular display of colour across the rolling hills and river valleys of Northumberland and the crunch of leaves and fruit under my wheels.
I always find autumn a time of reflection – whether about life, working practice or Sustainability philosophy. Those leaves falling, becoming food for a variety of microfauna whose own 'waste' feeds plants and so on, is the basic model of the circular economy. That cycle, like every other natural cycle, is powered by solar energy, which gives us another basic principle for Sustainability. And it's beautiful – a much neglected element in Sustainability where sheer pleasure is often neglected.
Twice in the last week or so, I've heard people conflate two quite distinct concepts – the circular economy and servicisation/product-service system. This has riled my inner pedant no end, so I feel obliged to set out the difference between the two:
Circular economy – all materials flow in closed loops just like the closed loops in nature.
Servicisation – provide your customers with the service they desire (eg the ability to copy documents) rather than the standard product (eg a photocopier).
The confusion arises as there is some overlap between the two concepts (see my nifty Venn diagram). Eg in chemical management systems (CMS), solvent services typically recover and recycle those solvents. However in other CMSs, materials are not recovered, eg when companies provide a coating service, the coating stays with the product and is not necessarily recovered. This is why I've placed the double headed arrow above – whether a service is also part of the circular economy depends on the design of the service.
But my main point is that if you artificially narrow the two concepts down to the overlap in our Venn diagram, you're missing out on the majority of both. Schoolboy error.
About five years ago, there seemed to be a new sustainability concept coming over the horizon every 5 minutes: the circular economy, creating shared value, mindful sustainability, my own green jujitsu and the doomed-by-its-own-name endosymbiotic thrivability – everytime you clicked on a green business website, another idea leapt out at you. These neologisms were on top of already bulging toolbox of existing ideas including natural capitalism, cradle-to-cradle, bethinking the natural step, one planet living, factor 4/10/100 etc, etc.
Suddenly all of this blue-sky thinking seems to have died away, replaced by practical efforts to take Sustainability forward at scale. I'd argue this is a sign of maturity with the Sustainability baton being handed over from the thinkers to the doers.
We now know what we have to do, the challenge is doing it.
Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum annual conference, which believe it or not is one of the very few events I attend as a punter (all those commercial conference promoters are wasting their time). Why? Because the speakers are uniformly great and there's always plenty of food for thought.
However, the focus of the 5 speakers was almost entirely on the supply side of recyclates. So I stuck up my hand in the Q&A and asked should we not focus on the demand side - after all in a circular economy, demand will have more influence over supply than vice-versa. The speakers agreed and gave some really good ideas, such as dropping recycling targets altogether and shifting them into producer responsibility legislation to drive the use of secondary materials.
Great, but why aren't we talking about this more? Well, because we still largely see recycling as a way of keeping material out of landfill rather than as a way of creating raw materials. For a circular economy, we've got to cast off those blinkers and see the bigger picture. Basic economics.
There were other, positive, examples at the conference where casting off a narrow focus produced great results. For example, Andrew Gadd of Link2Energy pointed out that while it was standard practice to turn Energy from Waste ash into building blocks, but nobody was extracting the precious metals therein first. So we're locking valuable material up in our walls. Why? Because we are obsessed with quantity over quality which encourages down-cycling (and ultimately impacts on quantity). Recovering those metals first not only boosts the economics of the recycling process, it also removes the need for all the environmentally destructive mining of those metals in the first place.
And such recovery is often cheaper than mining – yesterday the press was reporting that a Chinese municipality has found that its sewage sludge ash has 50-100 times the concentration of gold that you get in the most productive Chinese gold mine. Where there's muck, there's brass.
As we walked to lunch, another delegate was musing on why we don't do this stuff. It's the blinkers we decided, we need to cast them off and think differently about the material we currently call 'waste'.
Something I missed earlier in the year was the discovery that when we sit on the toilet, we are literally sitting on a goldmine. US researchers found that the amount of gold in our faeces is about the same as that in mineral deposits. Another study estimated that, by extracting all metals, the annual excrement of a million Americans could be worth $13 million. There are over 300 million Americans, and a further 900 million plus living in OECD countries whose consumption patterns are broadly similar. You do the math.
In addition, extracting toxic metals such as lead would make it more viable to use composted human waste as fertiliser – maybe extracting gas first – turning a waste material into a potential product.
I love this kind of thinking – urban mining in the true sense of the word where everything from road-sweepings to our own poo is seen as a potential goldmine. Where there's muck indeed...
Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum in Darlington. NERF is one of the very few green events I attend as a punter as they have great agendas and I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces.
The speaker I most wanted to hear was Andrew Dickson from Zero Waste Scotland. During the Q&A, there was a debate over the circular economy. I said while I was pleased that Andrew had said encouraging things about the need for a circular economy, most of Zero Waste Scotland's efforts seem to be focussed on pushing decent quality recyclate into the loop, and that it wouldn't be sustainable without industrial demand for the material.
Andrew reiterated his position that quality standards were necessary to unlock demand, but a representative from a major waste company waded in on my side, saying "We could produce much higher quality material than current standards – if somebody wanted to buy it."
Interestingly, the next speaker, Jenny Robinson from WRAP, put up a graph showing the decline in recycling of newsprint due to falling newspaper readership, which she said would cause problems for hitting UK recycling targets.
"Do the recyclers in the room want more newsprint?" asked the Chair.
"No." came a firm voice from the back "Supply and demand."
And that, to me, sums up the challenge for the circular economy. We can set all the targets, action plans and quality standards we want, but the basic economic principle of supply and demand will make or break it. Demand will increase volumes, drive efficiencies, improve quality, cut costs and spur innovation – as it does in every other industrial supply chain. Focussing solely on the supply side – the default approach of most public servants and quangocrats – is doomed to failure.
In the circular economy we cannot ignore basic economics.
I haven't been watching much scheduled TV recently, but I wasn't going to miss the Wastemen documentary on the BBC last night. Not just because it was an insight into the sharp end of sustainability, or that it was set in my town; rather it's because (with my political hat on) I was part of the team who set up Newcastle's two bin waste collections, opened the Sita Materials Recycling Facility at Byker which featured and gave the mixed recyclables contract to O'Brien's. I have skin in this game!
It was a very entertaining programme with the various crews and operatives clearly enjoying having the cameras on them. Of course I was grumbling a bit about some of the impressions it gave, particularly about the level of public recycling (sampling has shown that 64% of recyclable material is recovered in Newcastle – good but with room for improvement.) Green pressure groups berated us when we introduced the semi-mixed recyclate bin, but participation shot up afterwards because we made recycling easy – which was a big lesson for me.
But the overall impression was the incredulity of the bin crews of how much decent resource goes to waste. Unlike us individuals chucking a bin bag in the wheelie bin every day or two, these guys see the big picture – both in sheer quantity of waste and also what does get chucked – day in day out. Unused electrical items, bikes with one flat tyre, wide screen TVs left the waste men scratching their heads.
You can get told these statistics and examples time after time, but to understand it properly, you have to experience it. I don't have the depth of experience of the bin crews, but I've been around enough recycling/incineration and disposal sites to get a real feel for what we do throw away.
If you want to engage people in sustainability, giving them first hand experience is often the best way to drive the message home. That could be a visit to a landfill, or it could be a drive in an electric car. But experience always trumps advice.
I saw this explanation of the circular economy in the business section of our local rag last week and it made me grind my teeth.
It was trying to distinguish between a linear economy and a circular economy by adding the '3 Rs' to the linear economy. It's not the first time I've seen the circular economy drawn as a straight line – and it's a really stupid way of illustrating the difference for a number of reasons:
1. It still looks like the linear economy at first glance;
2. Figure 2 is actually the way our economy is at the minute – linear + 3Rs – so no-one would notice the difference between that diagram and the status quo;
3. Psychologically, it doesn't get across the most important difference between the two. In a circular economy, pre-used material is more desirable than virgin material.
If you draw the circular economy as a circle - see below - it changes the whole way we look at materials. In particular we see the loop as producing quality raw materials at a competitive price, not as a form of waste diversion (3Rs). Yes, you could add in other loops and some minor leakage/input, but the core circle is a very powerful metaphor in our minds and we need to emphasise it.
So let's draw the circular economy as a circle. The clue is in the name.
Yesterday I went to the North East Recycling Forum (NERF) Annual Conference, which as usual, punched way above its weight when it comes to speakers. We had Steve Lee, CEO of CIWM, David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SITA, Roland Arnison of AEA Ricardo and Mark Shayler of Ape giving a wide range of views from the waste industry through to the whole nature of consumption.
The broad theme of the morning was the circular economy and Steve and David started with the EU circular economy package which was adopted this year. What bothered me though, and I said so, is the provisions in the package revolve predominantly around the waste end of the linear economy - with the headline target of a recycle rate of 70%.
As Dwight D. Eisenhower put it:
Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.
The one factor which will make or break the circular economy is demand or pull. Without demand, you can try and push as much stuff into the recycling pipe as you want, but it'll be like trying to push string - or a shop full of unwanted and unsold toys. And, even indirectly, recycling target based on quantity, not quality, is unlikely to attract much enthusiasm from the manufacturing industry - the cart is being put before the horse.
If the EU changed their focus to setting standards for recycled material in products then it would create demand for high quality secondary materials. This demand, and only this, is essential to create the pull which would bend our linear economy into a circular one, driving up quality and pushing down cost. It's that simple.
Last week saw the eighth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. We rolled up to another top-notch venue, the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland - a County Durham village recycled out of a monastery many centuries ago (is that upcycling or downcycling? discuss...).
The topic of this meeting was Resilience - how do we prepare for and deal with unexpected and sudden changes. The Group chose to focus on raw material security, legislation, NGO campaigns and changes in key personnel. Here's a selection of the learning points generated:
Unpredictable things happen - Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous ‘unknown unknowns’;
Instability is the new business reality;
Unpredictability makes risk assessment increasingly difficult;
Too many people like to bury bad news or ignore ominous weak signals;
Sometimes a bad experience is required to focus minds on preventative measures – do not be afraid to use it;
Review each crisis – how did we handle it? What can we learn?
Legislation can come over the horizon very quickly eg ESOS;
Can spend a huge amount of time and energy reacting to legislation when proactive planning can be more effective;
Turn trauma into opportunity via new product/service development;
Clicktivism means campaigns can rise up the agenda very quickly;
Develop a set procedure and script to deal with a PR crisis – don’t ‘do a Tony Hayward’;
Warning signals on security of supply are flashing eg China’s monopolisation of rare earth metals or US food production problems;
Develop long term supplier relationships for key strategic raw materials;
Circular economy and renewable energy solutions may be more resilient to global risks;
Have sustainability properly embedded so back-pedalling by a new executive is more difficult than moving forward;
Work out what makes a new person tick and pitch sustainability in those terms.
As always it is how we got to these points that held the most value for participants.
The meeting concluded with a fantastic lunch followed by a circular stroll up onto the moors above the village and back along the river Derwent. Life's hard sometimes!
Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary under George W Bush has long been derided for this explanation of the flimsiness of the evidence for going to war against Saddam Hussain.
There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
While this was a blatant attempt at obfuscation, on face value it is actually a very pithy treatise on the types of uncertainty we face in the world.
Rumsfeld's quote came up at last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group where we were discussing how to make sustainability programmes resilient to sudden change - in particular those 'unknown unknowns' which can come over the horizon very quickly. One of the themes of the conversation was making sure that our faith in known knowns doesn't open us up to unknown unknowns. And you don't need to look beyond the current, horrific newspaper headlines to see how events in, say, Gaza or Ukraine, can spiral out of control very quickly.
One of the benefits of the shift to a sustainable economy is its resilience to such unknown unknowns. Solar panels and wind turbines are wonderfully oblivious to global crises and their effects on energy prices. A circular economy undermines the political power of those with monopolies on scarce resources (eg Russia and gas, China and rare earth metals). Sustainable use of resources such as water defuses potential conflicts in drought zones.
The problem is that we cling to our known knowns, but remain shocked when unknown unknowns happen. One of the key challenges is to get people to understand that the status quo is the risky option and sustainability is the low risk option, not the other way around.
I'm continuing to plough my way through the background information from a sustainability training course I'm reviewing for a client and it's throwing up all kinds of interesting nuggets. One sustainability primer produced by a major NGO caught my eye.
The first section was a description of different sustainability definitions - the Brundtland definition, The Natural Step and the Forum for the Future Five Capitals Model. All very high level and philosophical.
The second section said the starting point of tackling sustainability was to engage stakeholders, with some good suggestions of who to consult and how to go about it.
And the third section said... um, well, no, there was no third section. That was it.
So this primer told us we face humongous, existential challenges and have to completely redesign the way we think about society, but the only tool it gave us to tackle them is a suggestion to talk to people we know about it.
I had an immediate flashback to the Live Earth concerts in 2007 where we were given apocalyptic accounts of the potential impacts of climate change - and then urged to turn of our phone chargers at night to 'do our bit.' Or all those books which describe the world's problems in great detail and then in the last chapter offer incredibly vague and untested solutions to actually solve them.
People aren't daft. If you tell them there's a huge problem but proffer trivial or ill-defined solutions, they simply won't believe you are credible - and rightly so.
If you want to tackle sustainability properly - whether at a global level or in an organisation - you not only have to describe the problem but to break it down into its constituent parts and sketch out solutions which are commensurate with the problem such as the circular economy, smart grid technology, the digital economy, etc etc etc.
It's good to talk - and I make a living out of it - but make sure you don't fall into the credibility gap by having nothing meaningful to talk about.
Kodak is often held up as the archetypal extinction of the digital age. The photographic film giant invented but rejected the product - the digital compact camera - that lead to its own downfall. Now compact digital camera sales are falling fast as the smartphone fills that niche as the bedrock of a mobile digital lifestyle. Technological and socioeconomic evolution can be fast and brutal.
Now one of the key debates in sustainability is the 'carbon bubble' - the overvaluing of fossil fuel assets by markets which are not anticipating a transition to a low carbon economy. Joan Walley MP, chair of the UK Government's Committee on Climate Change, said back in March:
"The government and Bank of England must not be complacent about the risks of carbon exposure in the world economy. Financial stability could be threatened if shares in fossil fuel companies turn out to be overvalued because the bulk of their oil, coal and gas reserves cannot be burnt without further destabilising the climate."
Shell wrote to shareholders in May claiming that none of its proven resources would be stranded, putting its faith in Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) to allow it to burn fossil fuels in a low carbon economy. Given that CCS technology is still somewhat immature - and not evolving half as fast as, say, renewables - that's confidence.
It has to be remembered too, that assets come in lots of different forms, not just financial shares. If you have high carbon buildings, IT infrastructure, vehicles and/or manufacturing facilities, what will they be worth in a low carbon economy? I have had (good-natured) arguments with several large asset-intensive players who are assuming that the economy in 10 years time will pretty much look like the economy now and who refused to even consider the low carbon/circular economy scenario as a possibility.
Kodak thought that things wouldn't change the way they did. It didn't end well.
A sensible company would do a risk assessment on alternative scenarios at the very least rather than putting the blinkers on. Much better than sweating over euphemisms to explain plummeting asset values in an annual report in 5-10 years time.
It really annoys me when a word or phrase with a particular meaning gets so diluted by use that it becomes meaningless. Take 'staycation' - it was originally coined to mean holidaying at home - as in in your house - but now seems to mean holidaying in your own country. Of course this is what many if not most people do anyway, so the phrase becomes meaningless.
So I got a bit het up when I saw this report on 'the circular economy'. It includes the 'sharing economy' and extended life cycles as elements of the circular economy. The problem is they're not related - eg you can have a sharing economy that's not circular and vice versa, and of course you can have both, or neither.
The circular economy is an aim in itself with very particular requirements. If you start bolting every other sustainability idea onto the side of it, you start to muddy the waters and make it harder to implement. The phrase becomes meaningless and the goal fades from view.