Renewable Matter # 1 / Next Europe

Towards Renewable Matter


 

This magazine is intended as a virtual roundtable. Our objective is to represent the share of society and of the international economy – which is far more significant than the media would like us to believe – that have proved to be ready for a change we deem unavoidable. It includes tens of millions of people who have changed their lifestyle focussing their renewed attention on health and the environment, companies that have been able and brave enough to innovate in order to remain competitive, universities and research centres that have promptly geared their activities towards the more pressing needs of innovation and civil society’s organizations overseeing politics meant as the ability to take steps to protect common interests.

Such virtual roundtable will not rely on a predefined and detailed model, but on a ladder of priorities based on the physical limitations of the planet and areas of analysis accommodating the most innovative visions of economy and society drawing on the concept of bioeconomy, circular economy, sharing economy, blue economy and green economy. Moreover, faced with the seriousness of change forced by what is simplistically defined as a “crisis”, it is necessary to reason and act on all fronts: from the economy to the environment, from resource management to the solutions to improve social cohesion.

Our challenge is to set up a fresh and more comprehensive network of alliances stemming from widespread interests and genuine needs in order to create more jobs, more security (both environmental and social), more welfare and stability. It is a path still in the making, whose timing and modalities have yet to be defined. For the journey ahead, the 70’s can act as our starting point. We have learnt our lesson. Following the oil shocks that undermined energy security that relied on the progressive expansion of fossil fuels, a new concept of renewable energy emerged. 

It took nearly forty years for that perspective to turn into reality and become established but now, albeit amongst many contradictions and hesitations, the International Energy Agency’s projections leave no doubt: renewable sources will be at the forefront in a shorter span compared to the time elapsed between the energy crisis of 1973 to the present day. 

While standing on the first pillar the direction is all the more clear. Today, the march towards renewable energy can only be slowed down, but not reversed. Therefore, time has come to add a second pillar: that of renewable matter. It is a considerable conceptual leap implying an overturn of the current dominant viewpoint. Up until now, the industrial production generated a one-way material flow, turning part of nature into a mine and another into a dump, passing off pollution and environmental degradation as unavoidable collateral damage. On the other hand, the renewable matter approach views the environment as a key resource – the major asset for all possible exploitations and whose yield can be smartly utilised – and considers the materials involved in production as a continuous flow, in which single commodities are just the transitory steps matters goes through.

Such conceptual leap requires a change in language. Terms such as “virgin material”, “raw material”, “secondary raw material”, “waste”, “products and by-products” entail a values scales in which matter is progressively degraded (from virgin to raw material, from raw material to secondary raw material and so on and so forth). The concept of renewable matter ousts this old hierarchy by going beyond the idea of recycling as the only phase of reutilization, almost the exception that confirms the rule of a linear process. 

Within the “cradle to cradle” vision, transformation becomes crucial, a model that has passed the test of time with flying colours over three billion years of evolution of life on the planet. After use, matter breaks down into parts that get back into the cycle becoming what they were at the beginning or acting as input for other products and for industrial, energy or craft systems. Such perspective would be worth enhancing by creating “Tables of renewability” (inspired by Mendeleev’s Periodic Table) classifying the ability of each material to regenerate and to be reutilized according to its structure and the technological and environmental abilities available.

Our magazine, through the ideas and personal experiences introduced in its articles, intends to divulge a radical revolution in conceiving the production cycle. Such a revolution can no longer be held back because in the new millennium the old system has lost its material base. Commodity prices (basic raw materials) are constantly on the rise and dwindling resources cause uncertainties in the production system. In Europe, unemployment has soared to alarming levels for society. The climatic crisis poses a challenge to common sense, with the scientific community warning against the serious threat of a disaster deriving from the increase in greenhouse gases, rising CO2 emissions and the inability of the political system to find a global solution.

Against this background, new opportunities are emerging requiring a reassessment of the relationship between global and local as well as the relationship with the environment becomes more and more crucial. While to date, only few businesses have influenced the rules of production and growth, from now on environment-committed companies will have the opportunity to show to the production world how efficient systemic thinking can be on a smaller geographical scale. A grassroots approach can be a practical answer to the problems of economically and environmentally out-of-control globalization.

Since the above-mentioned overarching change could be applied to any production or social activity, it would be wiser to focus on situations where a change of perspective appears more mature. Although different, there are three fields sharing this new way of thinking. They are deeply interconnected (commodities, biomaterials, waste) and share one common factor: the environment.

Commodities. Raw materials represent the core of the problem. Their flow influences economic trends and income distribution. Current market globalization and the growing importance of financial activities in economic systems make it all the more complex. It is an ever-changing scenario that can be transformed radically by the recent trend of replacing goods with services (i.e. cars and photocopiers are loaned for use rather than owned). 

Biomaterials. They are materials coming from the organic realm (produce and waste from organic production chains) and as such they can be regenerated in a relatively short time so they can be considered renewable. Overall, they represent an inexhaustible mine of environmentally low-impact materials that, thanks to technological innovation, can become sources of supply for many industries, thus creating an alternative to conventional raw materials. Biofuels, nowadays used even for aircrafts, or bioplastics, whose range of uses spans from packaging to medical surgical technology, are a case in point.

Waste. As it has become clear over recent years, waste is no longer a price to pay for the production system but it rather represents an efficiency deficiency that we are trying to fix. In a period of economic crisis, the fact that waste is just “a misplaced resource” becomes more and more measurable in monetary terms. It is evident how the huge flow of materials transformed into waste cannot be discarded and must be exploited in some way. But how? There are several possible approaches depending on the level of innovation in the making of a product. If the manufacturer, inevitably generating waste, does not take care of the possible uses of that “waste”, then its exploitation and reutilization becomes difficult. On the other hand, if the maker of a product has devised an efficient reutilizing strategy, the quantity of wasted materials becomes minimal, amounting only to the entropy inherent in any transformation process. Nowadays there are already some materials that go through the “waste” stage with minimal loss of value. Thanks to suitable treatment, they can offer the same performance they had at the beginning of the production cycle. But the majority of materials is partially reutilized or dumped into landfills.

The Environment. The environment is involved in all the flows outlined so far. Raw materials, both organic and inorganic, are taken from the soil. Biomaterial and biofuels derive from crops that inevitably prevent other uses of the same land. Waste has an impact on the environment or causes climate-changing emissions that, in turn, affect soil’s quality and yields. In order to harmonize a different industrial strategies, two essential elements are needed. A systemic approach without which there is a risk of becoming inefficient, namely you gain with one hand while losing with the other. And, secondly, the ability to create common interests capable of steering such transformation.

From the Post-War Era we have inherited a thriving society that is now threatened by pollution and a diminishing social cohesion. These problems cannot be solved by erecting defensive walls to stop innovation but by building bridges towards an engaging future. Renewing energies, materials and relations is the way forward.