When the elementary school teacher wondered how a tree recycles its leaves, common knowledge hit smack into the face: a tree never even attempts to reattach the leaves that dropped in the fall to its branches in the spring. While this seems to be self-evident, it sheds new light on the logic applied by societies to recycle. We have imagined and imposed closed loops that turn glass bottles into bottles, and newspapers into paper.
And while we learn the lesson that glass should perhaps become glass foam, through a chemical reaction with carbon dioxide, and paper may rather become an insulation material extending the life of cellulose, we start to understand as a community that merely recycling comes at a high cost, and that there are better options. In addition, we fail to see that while recycling is a great step towards a circular economy, the mere recovery of a waste stream often perpetuates the very non-sustainable behavior of modern society that is putting such stress on our limited resources - even when we recycle. We need to design a society that meets the needs of all by generating more value while consuming considerably less stuff. That is the reason why I call for KISS as a design principle.
Since the Club of Rome shook the establishment and presented a clear logic with the publication of the 1972 Report entitled “Limits to Growth”, we need to increase material efficiency in order to render our societies sustainable. Industry has embarked on the reduce, reuse and recycle concept. While we applaud all the efforts in that direction including the popular notions like the circular economy, cradle to cradle, increasing material efficiency by Factor 4,5 and 10, we must realize that recycling renders our consumption and production pattern inflexible as we continue to rely on and thus promote the use of totally unsustainable resources. This means that we continue to consume too much stuff. The mere reduction of materials and their recycling is great but not good enough. The rebound effect makes us consume more as efficiency increases and the continued population explosion is expected to add an extra 2 billion people implies that we continue to stress out our limited resources. That is why we need to go way beyond the mere 3R, and embrace the principle to substitute something with nothing. Only then can we respond to the basic needs of all.
While this expression “substitute something with nothing” seems unrealistic it is urgent that we embrace simplicity as a core principle in our endeavor to steer society towards sustainability, and eliminate many of the standard components, products and processes that we consider part and parcel of modern life. Take the example of the battery. While the industry delivers 40 billion batteries a year, most of which end up as uncontrolled waste, the large majority of mobile and electronic devises never needed a battery in the first place. The convenience of a power source like batteries spurs mining, smelting requiring high energy consumption and a wasteful consumption of precious resources. This battery approach to the storage of electricity neglects the potential to exploit a mere difference in temperature, pressure, or pH and the conversion of pressure from noise to generate sufficient power to operate 95 percent of all mobile electronic devices. There is no need for a green battery, we simply need no battery.
We should embark on a broad initiative to finetune and introduce technologies that eradicate the need for batteries - as simple as that. This should be one of the global initiatives in the interest of cost, health and the Earth. When exceptions apply, we should eliminate all one way batteries by law and solely operate with power accumulators that can perform the job at least 2,000 times. Or, use water that can be recharged indefinitely as a power source through the accumulation of heat. This design principle can be applied to hundreds of products and we should review a few to clarify how easy it is to have the same quality of life, without all the stuff that chokes ecosystems, risks our health, relies on too much mining and energy and was not needed in the first place!
The challenge we are facing is a dependency on material cycles which are superfluous. While recycling should be a part of life, as a part of our desire to create a culture around products of service we continue to consume excessively. I repeat: many recycling programs perpetuate totally unsustainable products and services. So instead of promoting recycling and the cradle to cradle logic, which were great strides forward at their time of conception, we need to go way beyond and eliminate. We can obtain clean drinking water without filters, pumps, membranes or chemicals, simply using the vortex, the swirling movement that rivers have applied thanks to gravity to remove unwanted particles.
Take the emerging practice of burning solid municipal waste under the pretext to generate power. While we know that incineration produces little energy at high cost, the capital investments lock in the pattern of turning waste smaller and more toxic preventing for the next 20-25 years the opportunity to practice urban mining, recovering the precious components. This “burning” locks in a destructive process. Even the more sophisticated versions of pyrolysis and plasma reinforce the closed loop approach for unsustainable elements, which will continue to be over-exploited since the worldʼs population continues to grow and ascend to the middle classes.
The broadening practice of burning waste from agriculture ranging from the bagasse of the sugar cane and the black liquor of paper production destroys the opportunity to generate more while eliminating the unneeded. Bagasse should never be incinerated since it provides the core ingredients for mushroom farming, generating ten times more protein than sugar could ever have imagined. Why would one not facilitate a ten fold increase in nutrition knowing that millions of tons of the raw material are available nearly for free? Even the promise of generating energy should not divert our attention to secure more quality food at lower cost. The same logic applies to the processing of pulp and paper. While black liquor has been traditionally viewed as an energy source, due to its high lignin content, it should never have been considered as a fuel in the first place.
Black liquor provides a rich source of biochemicals which could be converted into a feedstock of fine and renewable chemicals including the raw material for cathodes, a core element in the battery which is traditionally produced out of metals, but could now be manufactured out of bio-based materials. The same logic could be applied to antennas, screaming at us at high energy cost and metal intensity competing for waves to reach our phone, computer or internet connection. If the new Superformula by Johan Gielis were widely applied, then we could reduce the stuff related to this standard equipment by factor one hundred since transponders, relays and WiFi senders and receivers will not be needed anymore.
Custom designed and powerful antennas can be produced out of recycled plastics, mining the tremendous excess of thermo-stable petroleum derivates that now pollute the air (due to indiscriminate incineration) and the seas (through accumulation in huge plastic islands that need 500 to 1,000 years to degrade). We can substitute metal antennas, while dramatically cutting back the energy consumption of antennas that is hardly ever debated. Do we realize that each cellphone antenna unit that dots the skies especially along freeways consumes electricity as if it were a Hummer car?
The conversion of our local electricity networks from 110 or 220 Volt Alternate Current (AC) to 12 V Direct Current (DC) while relying on at least seven different sources of renewable energy forms abundant and available in the immediate neighborhood of consumption, cuts dramatically back on copper wires perhaps with factor one hundred, while simplifying all electric and electronic equipment. About 80 percent of energy efficient systems used at home or at the office, operate with electronic devices and controls requiring less than 12V. All electricity needs can be met without the need for converters and inverters, it even reduces the need for pylons and transfer station that dot our urban and peri-urban environment exposing us to poorly understood radiation risks. This would eliminate the charger business. It is another case of substituting something ... with nothing.
If we substitute cotton, the standard natural fiber dressing the world, which consumes an estimated quarter of the worldʼs agro-chemicals and irrigation water with nettle fibers and alginates from algae blooms, then we not only free up land for food production, the nearly 100 million tons of cotton could become more than 100 million tons of protein for human consumption. At the same time we eliminate the chemicals and put water to a better use. The nettles can be farmed on degraded land, clean up the soil from contaminants, and the algae absorb CO2 cleansing our air. This substitutes large scale farming of cotton with small scale industrial units for nettles and alginates processing that are competitive provided we take all the benefits and externalities into account and not simply compare a ton for a ton. We substitute water for irrigation with “no water” since nettles are stronger when stressed in their growth, and algae convert abundant seawater into a base for farming, instead of consuming precious drinking water. This approach not only frees up essentials, it takes the negatives out of the equation.
It is well known that we do not have enough steel, cement and concrete to meet all the housing needs. The 200 million homes required over the next decade in the tropical belt will only be met with poverty and violence if the cement, brick and mortar approach dominates. Since 100 square meters of land reserved to farm bamboo provides sufficient space to “grow” a house every year (after an initial 3 years) for 75 years we can once again add up what is not needed in modern construction industry: no energy, no water, no metals, no additives. Even the preservation of the bamboo can be achieved by converting the non-structural parts into charcoal and the gases are impregnated eliminating the chemicals that are otherwise needed to extend the life of the house by protecting it from insects and fungi. And while we plant thousands of hectares with bamboo forests, we secure that the hydrological cycles provide local drinking water. A 2,000 hectare bamboo forest secures - as is done in Guayaquil (Ecuador) 42 prefabricated homes a day at a cost of less than one thousand dollars. The house can be signed up for in the morning and delivered in the afternoon at a cost of $17 a month. Who said housing is expensive? Who argued that we should reduce our carbon footprint? We can even have a negative carbon footprint by providing social housing low cost.
The infamous PET bottles with PP caps are a disgrace in our modern societies, defying the intelligence of the human race. How can one use a water container with ingredients that do not degrade for hundreds of years, and then invent incineration as the solution to rid ourselves of the excesses of plastics? It seems to have slipped out of our reality checks that unlike plastics, glass cannot be destroyed, only transformed. Whereas plastics can be produced and burned once, that is it. Now if we convert the end-of-life glass into glass foam while consuming CO2, then we eliminate the need for fire retardants, considered indispensable in society. This necessary evil does not have to pursue its search for “less toxic” ingredients. We can simply eliminate the need by choosing materials that will not burn!
The Blue Economy cases that I have been monitoring, supporting, implementing and learning from provide me the proof of concept. Substituting something with nothing is an important guideline to simplify our society that is over-consuming, accumulating stuff that has no exit, while releasing resources that are abundant without stressing the Earth beyond the carrying capacity. Time has come to keep it simple - may I say - stupid!