After spending few days in the world’s largest fair of technology for water and sewage treatment and recycling, IFAT in Munich, Germany, it is obvious how our world is uneven. I attended lectures on micropollutants removal from water through sophisticated processes with the usage of activated carbon and membranes, and a seminar on the status of water supply and sanitation in India.
In the morning of fair’s first day, I attended a very interesting panel discussion, “A world without waste – vision or illusion?”, in which four experts showed their views on the subject and what they are doing on the topic. The scientist Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart said that the main problems have been known for 25 years, but very little actions have been done to address them. The question is not to improve what is there, but creating something new that does not generate waste. Antimony, a heavy metal, for example is used as catalyst in the PET bottles manufacturing process and can contaminate the liquids contained in them. Another example is the series of heavy metals used in electronic equipment that are not recycled and pollute the environment.
The representative of Ghana on the panel, journalist and environmentalist Michael Anane, reported that monthly five hundred containers are shipped to your country by developed nations with obsolete electronic equipment, much of this material without any condition of use or repair. In these cases, wires are burned outdoors to recover copper, which subsequently will be sent to Europe. All material left over is thrown into a garbage dump, where extremely toxic metals, such as mercury and cadmium, contaminate the soil. If you thought this transfer of toxic waste is strange, you are right! The Basel Convention prohibits these hazardous waste movements and their disposal in other countries.
On the one hand, the developed countries discuss the principles of “circular economy”, where wastes are not generated or are recovered in the next steps of production chain. On the other hand, the eyes are covered so such that toxic wastes are “swept under the rug” of poor countries.
An interactive report in the Al-Jazeera news portal shows this serious human and environmental problem. Please, read without prejudices, the Internet site is very good.
There are a number of commendable initiatives such as “Plastic Bank” created by Canadian David Katz, one of the panel experts. “Plastic Bank” creates plastic waste processing centers in very poor areas that have a high amount of this kind of residue. The goal of “Plastic Bank” is to lead the movement toward a global demand for the usage of this “Social Plastic” in everyday products. If demand is higher, then the social impact will be greater to help the world’s poor people. According to Katz, much of the plastic in the oceans is sourced from developing countries. Thus, “Plastic Bank” created a system to make plastic wastes very valuable to be simply thrown away, preventing that they be released in oceans and rivers.
I copied the paragraph below from the site of NGO Akatu (www.akatu.org.br) to get an idea of problem magnitude.
Every year, 250 million tons of plastic are produced and about 35% of this amount are used only once, for 20 minutes. After usage, around 10% of waste material targets the sea, according to study of Race for Water, Swiss foundation dedicated to preservation of water.
The German independent journalist Hanna Gersmann, fourth panel expert, defended the existence of a conducive legal environment to sustainable processes through, for example, taxation of resource-intensive processes. For example, plastics and papers derived from recycling should have lower taxes than products obtained from oil and wood.
In Brazil, gasoline is more heavily taxed than ethanol. This action increases economic viability of people supplying their cars with renewable fuel, reducing emission of carbon dioxide (main greenhouse gas) per kilometer.
Michael Braungart, together with designer William McDonough, has created an approach to the design of products or systems called “Cradle to Cradle”. The name is an opposition to “cradle to grave” expression. So the idea is an endless, sustainable continuous cycle based on five principles:
- Health linked to material – absence of toxic compounds, like heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals, to human health and environment. This item also includes the sources of raw materials, for example, origin of wood – native forest or reforestation.
- Reuse of material – all materials must be recovered or recycled at the end of product life.
- Renewable energy – all process steps must employ mainly renewable energy.
- Clean water – water consumption must be minimized and used water should be reused in the process itself, recycled or, if there is no other alternative, treated and returned to the environment with acceptable quality.
- Social responsibility – the impact of product or system on the community must be positive.
One point should be attacked in parallel with the redesign of production processes – the growing consumerism in the world. Do you think rational to exchange your mobile phone annually? Apple and Samsung have brought every year new models of their flagships, iPhone and Galaxy S. Any of these multifunctional devices launched two or three years ago has more utilities than overwhelming majority of mortals has ever dreamed. We can, beyond making phone calls, send instant messaging (including audio and video), take high resolution pictures and instantly sharing them through email or on social networks, use navigators (Waze and Google Maps) that help us to go to anywhere quickly, do banking services, listen to music, watch videos, read and write texts, know the latest news, spend time with games. All these features are on the palm of our hands, needing only a wireless Internet connection, but many people feel compelled to buy the newly released model and the “old” one goes to a drawer. In recent models, even the removal of lithium batteries is complicated and needs special tools.
The consumption of disposable products is another point to be attacked. If more than one third of all plastic produced in the world, 90 million tons, is soon discarded after usage, we must also rethink our lifestyle. These plastics are bags and films involving food and other products, and cups, plates, bottles, straws and cutlery. The final destination of this material turned into trash, may be the stomachs of fishes, seabirds and turtles. Would not be it better going back to the old times and using glassware or steel and paper packaging? Watch the video below.
Briefly, our planet has finite resources and limited regenerative capacity. If there is no good solutions to use product components after end of its life, then it is better to do not stimulate its consumption. It is no use also getting rid of problem by sending waste to poor countries. The solution should be holistic and sustainable – environmentally, socially and economically. Our habits and values must follow this condition, because when buying a product, we pay all environmental and social costs that this product carries from its production to its final destination after life. Our consumption should be conscious!