The instinct to consume is at the heart of our global economic system. Yet scientists have linked a trio of environmental crises—climate change, biodiversity, and pollution—to unsustainable production and consumption. How can innovation help us to consume more responsibly in the future?
Humanity has achieved great advances in economic growth and human well-being over the past century. But, so far, these developments have been intertwined with environmental impacts and resource consumption. In the next century we will need to work to ‘de-couple’ these two phenomena so that human development can continue without destroying the natural world or depleting the resources available to us.
An important metric for measuring our resource use is ‘material footprint’. This is defined as the total amount of raw materials extracted to meet global consumption demands. This global figure has increased by 70 per cent since 2000, and 113 per cent since 1990. In fact, our material footprint has grown faster than both the population and the standard measure of economic performance, gross domestic product (GDP). What this means in simple terms is that our growth as a species is currently linked to ever-increasing resource use – a situation that cannot be sustained over the long term.
Fortunately, at Springwise, we have seen many innovations that address the multiple issues related to resource use – from recycling plastics and avoiding food waste, to re-using metals from electronic components.
Target 12.3 within SDG 12 sets the goal of halving per capita food waste at the retail and consumer level by 2030. This is an important issue as roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption each year gets lost or wasted, while global food production contributes a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.
Springwise has spotted several innovations that tackle this problem. One strategy is to preserve the shelf life of food so that is less likely to spoil before it can be eaten. Hazel Technologies, for example, preserves fresh food by using active ingredients to moderate the air around produce. Another approach is to use digital technology to make it easier for food producers to find a home for their produce. Full Harvest has developed a platform that connects those that have surplus or imperfect produce with manufacturers who can use it.
The safe handling of waste products and chemicals is a key focus of target 12.4 within SDG 12. Wastewater is a common place where harmful compounds can be found – with 80 per cent of global wastewater currently going untreated. To tackle this problem, an international research team has developed a new ‘solar catalyst’ that breaks down harmful compounds in a process similar to photosynthesis.
The world production of synthetic chemicals is forecast to increase six times between 2000 and 2050, so finding ways to treat or avoid chemical waste is another extremely pressing issue. ‘Green chemistry’ aims to reduce the number of hazardous chemicals involved in various applications and processes. One example of this in practice, is the use of discarded crab shells as a replacement for a variety of toxic substances.
Recycling is an obvious solution for resource use, yet the recycling industry faces several practical barriers. At the same time some materials—such as certain types of plastic—are difficult to recycle using traditional methods. Innovators are using a range of technologies to increase recycling rates around the world. UK-based Impact Recycling has developed a water-based recycling process that can recycle materials such as fishing nets, flexible food packaging, and dark-coloured rigid plastics.
‘Advanced recycling’ is a catch-all term for several processes that turn plastic polymers back into their original molecules. One process, called ‘pyrolysis’, converts plastic waste into a liquid raw material that can be used to make just-like-new food-grade plastics. Transparency is another key issue for recycling, and companies are using blockchain technology to trace and certify the provenance of materials.
With the proliferation of electronic devices, electronic waste (e-waste) is emerging as an important issue. In 2019, each person generated around 7.3 kilogrammes of e-waste, yet only 1.7 kilogrammes of this was recycled. Much of the technology needed to tackle this problem remains in its infancy, but researchers are working on new processes to make recycling e-waste more efficient. For example, researchers at Rice University have developed a method for recovering metals from e-waste that uses up to 500 times less energy than current methods.
Waste and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new problems when it comes to waste and resource use. For example, the global population has been using more than 130 billion masks every month during the COVID-19 pandemic. And when these masks are thrown away, they create hundreds of tonnes of polymer waste. To tackle this, a team of researchers from Russia’s National University of Science and Technology ‘MISIS’ (NUST MISIS) have developed new technology for converting discarded masks into batteries for use in household devices.
Words: Matthew Hempstead
Do you know an innovation that’s supporting SDG 12 and the push for responsible resource use? Tell us about it!
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22nd February 2022