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The future began a good while ago. There are already 31 cities around the globe with more than 5 million inhabitants. New York City and its 8 million or so residents is practically a small town when compared to Shanghai and its population of 22.5 million – currently the largest city on our planet. There is, however, a very clear trend. Experts have estimated that the world’s population will have risen to 10 billion by 2050 with up to 75% of all people living in so-called megacities. The human race will need 140 billion tonnes of raw materials every single year. If all biological waste and wastewater are added to all other types of rubbish, then around 6.5 billion tonnes of waste will be generated every day. This in itself will be a logistical challenge. The fact that three quarters of all energy produced will soon be consumed in megacities leads us inevitably to the question: will we really be able to cope?
Earth Overshoot Day was on 08 August this year. This is the day when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year. Since then, we have been using up resources that cannot be replenished – reminding us that Mother Earth cannot continue in this way. According to the calculations of the ‘Global Footprint Network’, an independent organisation of international scientists, ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ will be reached a little bit earlier each year. And that is hardly surprising looking at the exponential growth of the world’s population. Over 40 years ago, when the recycling sector was just beginning to find its feet in Germany (thanks also to the many contributions made by REMONDIS), there were approx. 3.5 billion people living on our planet. At that time, recycling was considered by many to be nothing more than a cute idea for environmental do-gooders. The world had enough raw materials and plenty of space for storing waste – so why do more than we have to?
The human race needed just under 100,000 years to reach 3.5 billion people. This figure has doubled within just 40 years! We have reached a crossroads and we can no longer close our eyes to it. The maths is simple: even if per capita consumption were to be moderately reduced – a very optimistic wish in itself – our primary sources of materials would still not be able to satisfy our needs.
Let us take a look at a few facts & figures: Raw material consumption lay at around 10 billion tonnes in 1900 and at “just” 30 billion tonnes in 1975. Today, this figure has already shot up to 70 billion tonnes. Per capita consumption differs hugely around the world. Not surprisingly, the biggest consumers can be found in the west in the industrialised nations, followed by the emerging countries in Asia.
“The European Commission must do more to promote the durability, reparability and recyclability of products.”
Federal Environmental Minister Barbara Hendricks
Other densely populated countries, however, are just beginning to increase their living standards and consumption as they seek to catch up with us. Whilst today – statistically – every person living in Germany consumes approx. 22 tonnes of raw materials per year and in China around 12 tonnes, consumption in India lies at just 4 tonnes per capita, with this figure rising rapidly. In contrast, those living in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest nations, consume a mere 0.3 tonnes. As prosperity in Asia, Africa and Latin America continues to grow and as the world’s population continues to increase, it is inevitable that more raw materials will be consumed – both universally and per person. Where, though, are these raw materials to come from?
The answer to this question can be found in the very place where the environmental and supply problems are – in every sense of the word – piling up: in the megacities themselves. These cities of the future must become their own source of raw materials. This is easier said than done of course. Putting ideas into practice is becoming more and more difficult with the often precarious living conditions in these gigantic built-up areas and a population density of over 2,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. Intelligent and sustainable systems are needed to combat the permanently congested traffic infrastructure, the lack of decent living space, the air and environmental pollution, the social conflicts and the high crime rates resulting from this. Recycling is key to overcoming these challenges. REMONDIS and the German recycling industry began developing practicable concepts for the cities of the future over two decades ago – brought about by the modernisation of whole urban districts such as those in Berlin or by the renovation of large hospitals right across the country.
The recycling industry will move underground in the megacities of the future
New recycling and logistics solutions were found to meet the special needs of these places, solutions that are also perfect for megacities. Looking at the congested traffic and densely populated residential and business districts in major cities and at the specific applications required by large-scale buildings, such as hospitals, there can be only one answer: to go below ground. Specially equipped floors can be built below the building – or below the megacity – that are dedicated to recycling, where separate bins and automated transport systems can be used to handle the pre-sorted waste in accordance with the most stringent fire and noise pollution regulations. Ideally, the waste would be sorted again in situ and – if the concept is thought through to the end – processed into recycled materials on site in underground recycling plants. Special vehicles or transport systems would then take the perfectly sorted raw materials to recycling facilities or production plants far away from the city. Both the entrances to and the exits from this new world of underground recycling would be outside the megacities to avoid clogging up the traffic even further.
There will be no room for production plants in the megacities of the future. These businesses will be forced to relocate to the surrounding regions which will also help to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion in the towns. The result is closed raw material cycles: old products will go straight from the buildings to the underground sorting and recycling plants via transport systems and lifts; from there the recovered raw materials will be transported to the production plants via underground roads, conveyor belts and pipelines where they will be turned into new products and returned to the people, for example using drones. By then, they will have turned full circle and the whole process will start again. But will it really be so easy?
If this recycling concept for future megacities is to be a success, then it is essential that the recycling industry is involved in the project planning. In Asia, for example, new megacities are being built from scratch – for the most part on undeveloped land. Ideally, the waste management systems should be an integral part of the overall concept and right from the very moment the planning phase starts. Converting buildings at a later date is as time-consuming and as expensive as building a new underground metro system in an old city.
Having said all that, however, no matter how good the recycling system may be, it cannot help if the products are not recyclable. Tough ecodesign guidelines need to be introduced around the world that make it mandatory for all producers – whether they make smartphones, household goods, cars or planes – to design their goods so that they can be fully recycled and all raw materials recovered and reused.
Raw material consumption lay at around 10 billion tonnes in 1900 and at “just” 30 billion tonnes in 1975. Today, this figure has already shot up to 70 billion tonnes
REMONDIS has been calling for such ecodesign guidelines to be set up in Germany for many years now. The Federal Minister for the Environment would appear to have finally woken up to this fact as well. At the beginning of November 2016, Federal Environmental Minister Barbara Hendricks spoke in favour of compulsory Europe-wide resource efficiency targets. “The European Commission must do more to promote the durability, reparability and recyclability of products,” she said when she opened the 3rd European Resource Forum (ERF) in Berlin. “Ecodesign guidelines can provide us with a powerful tool and enable us to prescribe minimum durability dates for certain wear and tear parts.” Moreover, it is, she continued, important for products to have modular systems and for spare parts to be available on a long-term basis “so that electronic devices do not end up as disposable goods”. Around 400 people from the worlds of politics, business and science attended the 3rd European Resource Forum to discuss how our planet’s natural resources can be used more sustainably. The German government wishes to separate economic growth and the consumption of natural resources from one another. REMONDIS would like to go a step further. The family-run company is calling for an eco-efficiency label to be introduced – with a bar graph similar to the labels used to show the energy consumption of new electrical devices – so that consumers can see whether or to what extent the product can be recycled. This would be a further incentive for manufacturers to ensure that they use raw materials efficiently and that their products are environmentally friendly – something they could then use to give their business a competitive edge.
Two solutions: closed raw material cycles and wastewater as a source of heat
If resource efficiency were to be increased to such high levels, then the megacities would effectively become their own mines and could supply themselves with the raw materials they need. What’s more, the water and recycling sectors could help contribute towards energy supply, for example through capturing and re-using heat as well as recovering raw materials and generating energy from sewage. Various pilot projects in Germany have shown that shops, businesses and public institutions could cover their heating requirements from the sewers under their city. The reason: the temperature in the sewers is the same all year round. According to the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, these are the best possible conditions for creating a sustainable supply of heat. Wastewater from showers, kitchens and toilets remains at a temperature of between 12°C and 15°C even in the dead of winter. Long heat exchangers will be installed in sewer networks to make the most of this energy. They will capture the heat from the wastewater and then transfer it to a separate water cycle which is attached to an electricity powered heat pump. This is, in fact, an ideal system for the megacities of the future as this concept is only viable for large-scale projects or for buildings which need a lot of heat.
Concepts for sustainable and carbon-neutral cities with closed energy and recycling cycles already exist. As urbanisation continues its inevitable course, we must stop acting as if we have two planets to supply us with the materials we need. We only have our one planet and it is essential that we conserve our natural resources for future generations. Having a smart and all-encompassing recycling industry would be an effective way of doing this.