The second preface for our book “Industry 4.0 and Circular Economy: Towards a Wasteless Future or a Wasteful Planet?” (click here) is written by my good friend Dimitris Kaliampakos, Dean of the School of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens and President of the Associated research Centers for the Urban Underground Space (ACUUS). I am really thankful for his words, especially since with Dimitris and I share a lot of common values and views for circular economy, and the world, as a new fascinating and intriguing field for the political debates of our century.
SEARCHING FOR REAL “OUT OF THE BOX” ANSWERS TO PRESSING QUESTIONS ABOUT WASTE AND CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Currently, I am lucky (or maybe unlucky) to wear two hats. I am the dean of the School of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens. I am also the President of the Associated research Centers for the Urban Underground Space (ACUUS), a pioneer international organization that promotes the systematic utilization of the underground space of cities. While reading the fascinating book of Antonis Mavropoulos and Anders Waage Nilsen, I witnessed the continuous confrontation of two schools of thought, a fact that, among other things, comprises an interesting personal experiment.
What is, therefore, the response of a mining engineer to the intriguing questions posed throughout the book? It is widely known that mining is one of the most unwanted activities at a local level (local unacceptable land uses). Perhaps, not unjustly. For many years, the mining sector, being the visible backbone of at least the first and the second industrial revolution, entrenched itself, with a pinch of arrogance, behind the proverb “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The problem is that during this time, when we falsely believed that the “eggs” were unlimited, we were breaking more eggs than necessary for the “omelet,” making a mess of our “home” (our planet) at the same time. These times have irrevocably passed. Today, the prevailing thinking of the public is to reduce mining activity. In addition, one point of view considers mining no longer necessary, since circular economy is able to essentially marginalize it. Even more so if it is combined, as we should do, with a reasonable constrain to the rampant consumerism, a disease that developed world suffers from. But, let me say, this is a false view. Not only it is not based on actual proof (Industry 4.0 is thirsty for more quantities and increasingly more rare raw materials), but it is also socially unfair, if not half blind, seen from the developed world’s perspective. Have we considered how huge quantities of raw materials are required to satisfy the basic needs of the 2.2 billion people of this planet that do not have access to safe‐drinking water and the 4.2 billion of those who lack safe sanitation services?
What are the limits of circular economy? How feasible is a goal, e.g. for a zero waste future? Does it reflect modern and real technological capabilities or is it another arrogant statement of intent, without a real meaning? If we consider the second thermodynamic law, any energy transformation for a pursued purpose is accompanied by a loss of energy. In my opinion, the most general term of waste is exactly this loss of energy. Even if we exploit this loss of energy, the “waste,” in another process, there will be a new loss of energy and so on. This does not mean that the core idea of circular economy is wrong. We are living in a world of finite resources, which in many ways is reaching its limits. However, the clarity of goals is the first factor in achieving them.
Wearing my other hat this time, I had the opportunity to reflect on some of the critical observations made in the book. One of them is the rebound effect. An iconic example of our emerging era is e‐commerce. Indeed, the modern consumer can buy almost everything from home and also benefit from the reduced prices that cost savings entails. In practice, however, this has led to a rapid increase in consumption and thus a linear increase in the relating environmental impacts. It is very interesting to analyze the impact of e‐commerce on the everyday life of cities and especially the megacities. While one would expect an improvement in the environmental conditions due to reductions in unnecessary commuting, the situation is very different. Take China, for example. China’s online retail market is set to hit US $1.99 trillion by the end of 2019. How does this translate in terms of waste and the environment? Delivery packaging is accounting for 93% of solid waste growth in China’s megacities. Moreover, delivery trucks (~10% of all automotive in China) are contributing to more than 75% of harmful particulate matter released into the atmosphere. Last mile deliveries have a significant impact, unconceivable just a few years ago. The scientific community that I work with is systematically working towards underground, automatic transportation of goods to cities using many of the technologies of Industry 4.0 (e.g. big data analysis). Then again, only a “paradigm shift,” as is often referred to in the book, can protect us from a second rebound effect.
Our planet will be more urbanized than ever. The megacities, 34 today, are in danger of collapsing under their own weight, like the high mountains. It seems that the Biking–Metro–Walking model, the BMW model, as urban planners playfully have named it, is perhaps the only solution for a livable city, supporting a more natural way of life. However, that requires again enormous quantities of raw materials and huge public interest investments in order to build an efficient subway system. The problem of social inequalities is also evident here. Africa, for example, is a glaring proof. The International Association of Public Transport (Union Internationale des Transports Publics [UITP]) reports that only two of the 54 African countries (Algeria and Egypt) have a metro system.
The book of Antonis Mavropoulos and Anders Waage Nilsen has the advantages of, first of all, asking the right questions, of the multidimensional analysis, and of searching for real, “out of the box” answers. If you are looking for a “handbook” on waste management in the new era, you may feel uncomfortable with the number of definitive answers in relation to the questions raised. But if you, like me, are tired of the same answers served with a different wrapper each time, you will enjoy the fresh oxygen of original thinking.
Dean of the School of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens
President of the Associated research Centers for the Urban Underground Space (ACUUS)