We need a new Wasteless Economic Paradigm

Economic orthodoxy creates a trashed planet

This is an interview I gave to Tavis Buckling, in July 2016 at Business Innovators Magazine. The key-message is that although we use to push the consumer side, a Wasteless Future requires a substantial shift of the manufacturing processes. This shift requires a new economic paradigm.

Q: Antonis, can you give an example of how consumers can reduce waste, and still maintain their way of life?

A: There are several ways to tackle the problem of waste prevention. There are cases where consumers can reduce their waste up to 60–70%, with advanced reuse and recycling programs, emphasis to organic waste and proper economic instruments. But this is an approach that must be based on the analysis of specific material streams. As for our life-styles, I think we all know that if the average Western type life-style will be mainstreamed on a global level, then we would need 3–4 more planets to provide the resources required. However, I think it is not fair to put the main burden on the consumers’ behavior. Waste, by definition, is a proof of ineffective production and inefficient consumption. So, although anyone can consume generating less waste, the major problem is to have products with longer life cycles, created using eco and modular design, easily reused and recycled. This task is almost 100% on the side of the consumer goods industries. The good news is that the current on-going industrial revolution sets the scene for wasteless supply chains in many industrial sectors.We are still far away from a wasteless future, but the major components are already here and the question is how fast and how successfully we can combine them in functional packages that will be adapted and adopted in different local conditions.

Q: A lot of people think industry will not allow a future without waste, what are your thoughts on this perception?

A: If we are speaking about the waste industry, the answer is simple. This industry is managing the leftovers from industrial supply chains, so if there are no leftovers the industry will have nothing to manage. If we are speaking for the industrial supply chains, then it is important to mention that thermodynamically it is impossible to achieve a zero waste production process. Maybe you can have a zero waste part of supply chain, e.g. by using 3D printers to produce plastic furniture, a practice that is already in place. But still, what happens before and after this part of the supply chain? What type of waste do we have producing the plastic powder (the initial raw material) and what happens to it after several reuses? This is why I believe that due to the fourth industrial revolution we will have a lot of improvements and maybe wasteless supply chains, but this means that we will have to deal with wasted materials upstream or downstream the supply chains, and of course we will have to deal with new forms of wastes. The coffee capsules are a good example of the new type of waste that we need to deal with; the wearables will also be a big challenge.

Q: What is the biggest or most common waste problem for manufacturing companies?

A: Well, manufacturing is to create high-tech airplane wings with 3D printers, but manufacturing is also to make high-tech mobile phones with substantial environmental impacts in China. In general terms, in the era of globalization, manufacturing practices are still following the lower cost and less legislation pathways. That creates huge health and environmental problems, although most of them are allocated to developing countries where low salaries are combined with the absence of environmental control. Such practices, almost always, generate huge waste generation and pollution, especially for the non-crucial or scarce resources. On the other side, manufacturing almost always means efforts to optimize the use of scarce or crucial resources and in many times this optimization leads to great improvements and new designs that are much better in terms of resource management. But our history has shown that even in such cases, when industries are capable to provide more products with less resource consumption (which actually means a better environmental footprint per unit and some times a cheaper price), what follows is a rapid increase of consumption. The final result is the faster depletion of the involved resources, even if the unit environmental footprint is much better.

Q: Is there a solution?

A: I believe that the solution is outside of the resource and waste management world. We need a new economic paradigm, a new economic science that will describe systematically our world without the religion of continuous economic growth. We need to involve environmental and resource values in the core of the economic system, we need to combine them with the latest scientific results on social and human evolution. As long as we keep the outdated “orthodox approach” that deals environment and people as externalities, we will not find a proper sustainable solution, although several improvements might be achieved.

Q: Is it possible for manufacturing companies to maintain profits while reducing waste?

A: Of course it is. Let me give you an example. Apple recently changed its recycling policy providing substantial incentives for the users that will return used mobile phones to Apple. This is a very welcomed change, especially if you take into consideration the health and environmental impacts from dismantling mobile phones and burning their plastics in India and China. Apple changed its policy because it has developed Liam, a robot that can dismantle automatically up to 1.2 million phones per year. So it seems that the problem of e-waste will be definitely reduced or even eliminated when all the mobile phones producers will follow this path. I am sure that they will follow it because Apple’s income, only from gold recovery, was more than 40 million dollars in 2015! Robotics gives the opportunity to do it. I believe we should utilize this opportunity to ask, all the e-waste involved companies, to recognize that they are also finally responsible for the environmental impacts of their products and they have to adopt a kind of a global Extended Producer Responsibility. They can do it and they will make money out of it.

Originally published at businessinnovatorsmagazine.com.