Two recent headlines made me hopeful and desperate too.
First, Facebook just announced that it’s moving fast towards incorporating more advanced Artificial Intelligence (see this for a great summary of what is planned) to its core business. Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer announced a slew of new FAIR research Tuesday, including a system that can analyze photos, determine what they depict, and offer a verbal description—a feature that is particularly valuable for blind people. What an amazing perspective this will be!
Second, The New York Times has taken its first step intovirtual reality, launching a new app and distributing a Google cardboard viewer that offers “a new form of storytelling”. Subscribers can download the mobile app and use it alone, or enhance the experience by using headphones and the special virtual-reality viewer, which “simulates richly immersive scenes” and offers a 360-degree view.
Well, the third industrial revolution goes on much faster than we think. But still, our planet has many faces and the third industrial revolution will change almost all of them. The beautiful and hopeful face: we are capable to identify the quantity and quality of water in March, in a distance which ranges between 35  -100 million km, depending on the orbits of the two planets. The ugly and desperate face: roughly 700 million people (1 to 10) lack access to safe water.

Have an idea of what’s coming in recycling and waste management with this video, from my Youtube Chanel 

On the bright side, the third industrial revolution creates new, unimaginable opportunities for making sustainability a cornerstone of each and every industrial sector. Drones, smart sensors, robots, 3D printers and driverless cars will gradually become mainstream, although with different rates. Genetic engineering, industrial biology and emerging biotechnologies will soon create an enormous footprint in our world. The science of materials is promising a plethora of new “fit for purpose” composite materials. Mobile phones, big data systems and digital – social networks have already transformed our daily lives. The circular economy concept is an effort to redefine recycling and waste management during the third industrial revolution. The dialectics are clear: circular economy will never be possible without the technological advances of the third industrial revolution and the third industrial revolution is really driven by the resource challenge. But, as the recent ISWA’s Task Forceon Resources reports highlighted, we have a long distance to travel until we will have clean cycles of selected materials.
On the dark side of the moon, as the recent “Global Waste Management Outlook” (GWMO) report revealed roughly 2-3 billion people lack the most elementary waste services. The recent ISWA’s “Wasted Health: The tragic case of dumpsites” report mentions that the health impacts of dumpsites are worst than malaria in India, Indonesia and Philippines.  Of course, many developing countries have made good progress on collection coverage and controlled disposal since 1990 and some of them have developed good recycling rates. But still, the major problem remains. Due to the rapid urbanization wave (estimated to 250-300,000 people per day) and the gradual increase of the income per capita in the developing world, the waste generation rate runs much faster that our capacity to deliver solutions. A 2010 UNICEF study (Progress on Sanitation & Drinking Water: 2010 Update) shows that urbanization is running at least 30% faster than sanitation delivered and I bet that the gap is really wider for waste management services. 

The reality is that, even now, there are parts of our world that have not been so much affected by the second industrial revolution. So no one expects that the third industrial revolution would soon transform the whole planet. But there are two particularities. The first is the pace of change. The current industrial revolution is based on technologies that follow exponential rather than linear paths of development – practically it means that the change that is coming will be too big and too fast. The second is that with the current shift of power (from global “north” to global “south”) and the continuously growing global interconnectivity, the current industrial revolution will affect mostly the developing world (roughly 40% of the planet’s population). This means that the poorer part of the world will benefit much more than the richer one, for the first time in the history of industrial revolutions.

In this fast changing landscape, where disruption of traditional industries will very soon be the rule and not the exception, the recycling and waste management industry seems unprepared for radical changes. Speaking frankly, what is needed is not a good, even if complicated and expensive, adaptation plan.
What is coming is a whole new redefinition of what is called waste and how it will be managed. And the ones that will not get it, sooner or later, will be wiped out from the third industrial revolution.
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