While Australia’s rich stocks of raw mineral resources have contributed to the nation’s wealth and given us a competitive advantage we are also one of the highest waste producing nations in the world (on a per capita basis).
But can we do things differently? Can we change our production and consumption patterns to generate wealth from what we currently designate as waste?
The potential exists
Consider e-waste, which is the old TVs, DVDs, computers, household appliances and other electrical goods that we throw away. This type of waste has emerged as one of our fastest growing waste streams but only about 10% is recovered or recycled.
But e-waste devices also include valuable metals such as copper, silver, gold, palladium and other rare materials which means they are also ending up in landfill.
By 2008 we had already sent some 17 million televisions and 37 million computers to landfill, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
But if 75% of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually could be recycled we could save 23,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, 520 mega litres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.
Another way of looking at this is to compare gold yielded from an open pit mine with that from discarded electrical goods. Mining yields 1 to 5 grams of gold for every one tonne of ore. From the same quantity of discarded mobile phones and computer circuit boards, you can extract 350 grams and 250 grams respectively.
The new urban mines
In a world increasingly addressing issues of sustainability, it’s no wonder that such end-of-life products are now being seen as urban mines – valuable sources of above-ground metals which can be recycled and reused.
There is already some extensive recycling activity in Australia, helped by schemes such as the national Product Stewardship framework which encourages people to reduce waste.
But we still lose significant amounts of valuable and recyclable materials into landfill and park valuable metals in tailings and spoil heaps.
Given Australia is already a global leader in primary resource production from the ground, it is timely to think about how we might also adapt and grow our expertise to mine and process above ground stocks and remain at the cutting edge.
Can we lead the urban mining revolution?
Globally, there is already growing capacity and innovation in recycling.
New forms of manufacturing and business models are being developed that integrate secondary manufacturing of recycled materials.
So the potential is there to diversify and adapt Australia’s skills and technologies to support the new forms of processing and manufacturing in this circular economy.
Why don’t we do this?
A major challenge lies in the ability to persuade people and industry to see waste products as a resource rather than a liability. We need to create more responsive manufacturing, processing innovation and new business models around recycling.
This will challenge the way we currently operate as a nation and ask us to rethink how we relate to consumer markets around the world.
We can’t keep relying solely on our raw mineral resources. Some commentators are now discussing materials scarcity as a bigger issue than energy scarcity.
This scarcity is driving a move towards a circular economy – one in which the value created by inputs (materials, energy and labour) is extended by enabling a material life that goes beyond product life. So we go from mineral to metal, to product, back to metal and so on.
By understanding such economies and value of how this chain operates in Australia, we can begin to understand, at scale, the barriers and opportunities to more sustainable consumption and production in a resource limited future.
Although the technological challenges of complex materials processing are fascinating, it is innovative business models that hold the key to unlocking the wealth in our waste.
We also need to understand more about the cultural norms to see what needs changing.
Clean Up Australia found that around 14 million phones sit unused in drawers or cupboards, that’s equivalent to almost one unused phone for every two people in the country.
Although 90% of the materials within a mobile phone can be re-used, globally less than 10% of mobile phones are actually recycled. So why when we already have a solution do we not act to recycle our waste?
The research programme will be about finding new ways of doing things that accommodate our relatively small domestic materials market and challengs the mindset that size matters when it comes to complex materials processing.
If we wish to add urban mining to our global mining reputation then we need to couple research, industry and policy transitions for success in a future where recycling is an integral component of resource productivity, not a niche specialism.
Anna Littleboy does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
On a personal note; I’ve long said that the most repugnant aspect that I see as inevitable about the future is that our grandchildren will be forced to mine our landfill. Our dumps will be where future generations will be forced to acquire essential resources.
If there is so much value in this material, how could we possibly justify our processing pathway (ie from people like Rinehart to the tip)? We can’t. It’s that simple.
I felt a little weird with the coined term “Urban mine” but at least the dialogue is moving forward and long before our children’s children have to uncover the mess we swept under the rug, circular processing might become mainstream. This is as fundamental to address as is climate change.
The similarities to the current situation here in Australia are obvious. Science, especially climate science, are best ignored within the political arena. Playing at war with refugees is also a good chance to such down public awareness. This is all an affront to democracy.
Early last week, I had an article published in the Independent Australia journal. The feedback was a little surprising, I didn’t realise that others would take it as a lament. The article was only based on my personal reflections as a professional ideally suited for a green sector that has failed to eventuate in Australia.
If anything, the difficulties created by this has been valuable to my career. It has provided me avenues to develop a far more diverse skills set in a short amount of time and prove myself time and time again to be highly adaptive within roles with different policies and objectives and to be innovative.
There are no laments personally. I’ve made the most of my skills and managed to navigate a difficult career path to many personal benefits. The article instead expressed concern, based on my observations; concerns for budding professionals who may not be as resourceful (or at least, still trying to find their feet) and concern for a country that seems stuck with cultural preferences that are ever increasingly unsustainable.
We have a preference for primary food production that lingers on our largely European and Asian heritage that does not suit the low quality soils and harsher climates of Australia. All while other options are readily available and have proven themselves better suited to Australian agricultural landscapes.
The same must be said about our preference with urban design, which continually impacts and degrades landscapes while increasingly putting peoples lives and properties at risk from flooding and fire events.
For such reasons, the promised green sector should be front and centre in all we do. It’s not a debate about the reality or certainties of climate change, but simply doing what we do better. The green sector is, what I’ve found to be a taboo word in some corners; efficiency. It’s also resilience.
These two lead to increased prosperity. But no-one wants to talk about culture. This is why the failure of the green sector to take off in Australia has little to do with the political debate over climate change or the left-right / environmentalism discussions more broadly.
We lack the vision, the innovation and the confidence to tackle the necessary changes pro-actively.
Interestingly, a few days after I had this article published on IA, my manager approached me to say that with the current budget constraints, my contracted position needed to be downsized for the short-term, with the hopefully expectation that they may be able to offer me something full time in the coming months.
Being the sole earner, with a wife and young baby at home, this conversation was the death knell for this role. I simply couldn’t offer my family enough on a part time wage. Again, it would seem that I have to clean up my CV and hunt around. But, just as with this post and my article; sure, there are negatives and uncertainties ahead, but lingering on such misses the point and potential entirely.
The necessary conversations will not be had unless someone is willing to start, and persistently start, them. Each time I’ve had to move on, it had brought with it new faces, new challenges and exciting opportunities to improve and demonstrate my value. I haven’t had a single employer happy to see me go. Each would happily keep me if the certainty of the role hadn’t been exhausted.
In a small way, it’s a good sign that I’m doing my job well.
I’m certain I’ll do the next one well, as well, all the while seeking out avenues to press the point that Australia is a great place, but luck shouldn’t be expected and indeed runs out; we need to work at the core foundations of our way of life if we want to continue to consider ourselves the lucky ones. The foundations are of course embedded and supported by our landscapes. Having a robust green sector therefore supports everything.
The inconvenient truth about global warming has thankfully spurred a large number of environmentally-conscious companies to research, develop and commercialise alternative fuels that enable and empower us all to make a difference by playing an important part in aiding the planet.
Alternative fuels can be created from all manner of materials, ranging from waste cooking oil to waste plastic. A vital part of the combined worldwide effort to lower Co2 emissions and reduce the global carbon footprint by finding alternatives to the non-renewable fossils fuels oil, gas and coal, the innovations within the alternative fuel sector drive the green energy agenda forward.
Based in San Francisco, LS9, Inc is committed to producing renewable and cost effective fuels and chemicals to the world markets. Their innovative biotechnology converts a diverse range of feedstocks into biofuels and green, sustainable chemicals for industry through a cost and time effective single-step fermentation process.
LS9, Inc also carries out commendable work to promote a worldwide culture of eco-friendly commerce.
Fresh to the alternative fuel sector is the innovative technology created by US company Poly2Petro. Founded in 2013, Poly2Petro has developed a technological process that converts waste plastic materials into clean, renewable biofuels. Given the large volume of waste plastics that amass in our garbage landfills, this is a crucial development that will reduce the demand of valuable virgin oil supplies used for other biofuel products.
Poly2Petro is focused on providing an extremely useful alternative to sending waste plastics to landfills that will save money and be very beneficial to the environment, reducing global garbage pollution and alleviating oil scarcity through cost efficient recycling and biofuel production.
Alternative Fuels Americas, Inc (AFAI)
Alternative Fuels Americas, Inc (AFAI) is a green energy company that has developed and widely implemented an advanced stage multi-feedstock ‘seed-to-pump’ process, establishing grain fields to produce biofuels throughout North America, Latin America and the Caribbean.
AFAI uses the grain from the fields to produce clean, renewable biofuels in their own specially designed oil refineries. Not only is their biofuel less environmentally harmful than fossil fuels, it can be produced at 32% less cost.
Based in Seville, Spanish sustainable fuel company Abengoa has a diverse portfolio of innovative green energy projects that span the globe.
Their commercial eco-friendly projects include large-scale biofuel plants, solar-thermal plants, solar-gas hybrid plants and desalination plants that can produce clean drinking water from sea water, a vital initiative for third world countries. Abengoa has extended its vision for greener commerce to more than 80 countries around the world.
Green Fuels is a British biodiesel company and the world’s leaders in the manufacture of biodiesel production equipment. It has 25 large-scale bio-refineries dotted around the world and an impressive global map of thousands of independent biodiesel processing plants. Every day the eco-friendly commercial technology created by Green Fuels produces more than 350 million litres of clean, renewable biodiesel, which saves approximately 2,500 tonnes of Co2 emissions.
For their next project, Green Fuels is developing technology to create biofuel for the aviation industry.
The Importance of Alternative Fuels
The alternative fuel sector is plays a vital role in the global green agenda. The companies above are working steadfastly to drive technological progress and commercialise alternative fuel production around the world, striving to promote a vast culture change within industry towards more eco-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels. This is important work as climate change caused by Co2 emissions is one of the most pressing threats to our planet.
Take the time to visit the websites of these five companies whose excellent work is spearheading the green agenda in industry and providing effective and efficient alternative solutions to the use of harmful fossil fuels.
“Zeke A. Iddon is a British entertainer and advocate of improving global thinking on climate change and sustainability issues. In his capacity as a writer for Poly2Petro, he hopes to help educate the public’s understanding of plastic recycling (and its current failures), if only in a small way.”
To learn more about what Poly2Petro aims to do in pursuit of this – as well as to solve other environmental and consumption problems at the same time – see this page on ‘Our Solution’.
Firstly, thank you to all followers of NewAnthro. I hope you have enjoyed my work here over the past year and will continue to do so into 2014.
My only hope for the coming year is that, with the heat waves over the past autumn, the warmest winter on record, incredible bush fires of this past spring and the first day of the new year threatening to break records for maximum Australian temperatures, the dialogue will shift away from trivialities in certainty of expected climatic change and to what matters; making Australian communities more resilient in any case.
Energy companies were once telling us that price rises were likely if Abbott removed the carbon price and now they’re telling us the opposite. The only thing I think Australian families can bank on is ever increasing prices for electricity, gas and fuel. For this reason too, the dialogue needs to shift towards making the Australian economy more resilient (which starts with those who do the work – the wage earners).
Looking at heat stress, losses in primary production, human respiratory health (air quality in relation to dust, smoke and smog), economic stress on families and direct damage to communities due to bush fire and flooding should be enough to change the tone of the conversation in Australia towards activities that would otherwise be considered to both mitigate from and adapt to future climate change. It’s a niche market that is only likely to grow and we can prosper from leading the way or pay through the nose if we lag.
Apart from this, my silence over the past few weeks is due to a few factors.
Firstly, I have been writing. I’ve produced a number of articles that I’ve provided to various outlets and been undertaking some revisions to suit their platforms. This is in the hope of increasing my audience (I’ve produced more than 600 posts now on this blog – I know it is of value from the feedback I receive, so I’m hoping to maximise the impact of my work).
I’ve also started a few projects, more or less as a hobby. I’m interested in learning more about a lot of technology. This has led to building an 115W, 12V solar panel thus far which I’m very happy with. All up, I managed to build it for under AU$100.
I have a lot of experience with off-grid systems, so I’ll make good use of it and have since moved onto other projects.
This recent activity has been spurred by the common point that a lot of climate aware commentators make; we currently have much of the technology required to decarbonise human activity.
I want to know more about what this technology actually is, how practical it is, how we can adopt, adapt and improve and what potential setbacks actually exist. I started with solar because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I hope that all of this experimentation will both help my writing and eventually shift my career into something I’m highly motivated about.
On that note, I must admit that reading and writing are among my greatest passions, which makes me feel a little disappointed with myself for leaving NewAnthro idle for so long. Hopefully, I can find a new groove into the new year and return to a better pace of writing.
Since coming into power, the Coalition have continually stated that other parties, especially the Greens and ALP, owe it to Australians to not stand in the way of their legislations. That, the people voted for the Coalition and so it is the responsibility of these parties to support core Coalition plans.
Hang on a second. The Coalition won with just shy of 46% of the primary votes. That means 54% voted for another party. So the Coalition really only speak for around half of the voting Australian public. It’s a large minority, but not an overwhelming majority.
I know the Senate will change in the middle of next year which will make life a lot simpler for the Coalition, but until then, other parties are where they are because they were voted there to do their role, based upon the principles they offered to their voters. Their obligation in these seats remains unchanged. They have a responsibility to stand up for the principles they entered with even if those are contrary to those of an incoming government.
Over the last several years we saw the Coalition stand against a wide range of changes – remember how Abbott wouldn’t agree on any asylum seeker strategy except for his favoured option of detention on Nauru… and how well has that worked out?
No, I hope the other parties continue to stand in the way of removing the carbon price for as long as possible, as do the 60,000 people who attended the nation-wide GetUp climate rallies last month (remember Abbott’s comments to the then government demanding a vote based on the few thousand protestors against the carbon price in March, 2011? It’s also note worthy that he told that crowd they would be $2000 worse off annually and now saying the average household will be $550 better off without the carbon price… “bear false witness” indeed…)
By standing in the way of removal of the carbon price for as long as possible, we have a bigger dataset, both in the cost of average bills and national carbon emissions which we can then hold up against the alternative this government wishes to implement. The larger the dataset, the most convincing the results, whether or not there turn out to be any real surprises.
A perspective piece I wrote for the Solutions Journal has now been published.
In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond provides us a chilling historical anecdote of the Greenland Vikings: faced with an increasingly harsh climate in the early fifteenth century, a large swath of the population died out from starvation. Greenland Inuit, however, continued to live during this period. Unlike the Vikings, they harbored no cultural taboo restricting them from eating fish, which remained abundant as the climate became too cold for the grazing herds maintained by Vikings.
In very much the same way, cultural preferences in Australia, concurrent with changes in climate, may limit local capacity to maximize long-term prosperity. So-called heritage preferences livestock—that is, cattle and sheep—are resource-intensive species. With increasing anthropogenic climate change, the cost of this investment may prove too much to sustain Australian populations, just as natural changes in climate proved too much for Greenland Vikings.
Of course, none of this was provided with case studies or research into it’s viability and the individual quickly left the conversation, having made their point.
But it’s worth reviewing, because I’m becoming increasingly aware of two camps, both very distinct, but sharing an absolutism approach to their favoured climate change mitigation strategy; the pro-nukes and the sequestration mob. Both are sure that their answer is the one and only true reply, but neither stack up.
I won’t bother here with the pro-nukes, because I’ve discussed them various times in the past.
Yes, biological sequestration is only one possibility. Even the modest targets set by the current Australian government within “direct action” represent massive effort, as my analysis showed. However, there is another, apparently low energy, form of sequestration which relies on rock chemically reacting with atmospheric CO2 to capture it.
This is know as “enhanced weathering” as it is a natural process in itself and what the fans of this want to do is speed it up. It’s euphemism for enhanced erosion. I’ll get to the numbers in just a moment, but we’re talking about billions of tonnes of material needed, to match the CO2. Who honestly believes that mining to this degree is viable, let alone desirable when we factor in the necessary impact to landscapes and aquatic environments both through the direct mining activities and resulting compounds as residue from this process, which will hit environments (unless we go to even greater effort and expense to again bury it) in far great amounts than the background levels?
As for numbers, looking at the Azimuth Project, two minerals that could be used for this process are Olivine and Serpentine.
The ratios for these;
Molar Mass (g/mol)
Weight ratio to CO2
Molecules requires for every CO2
0.25 to 1
0.25 to 1
1 unit weight of CO2 requires how many units?
1.6 to 4.63
0.8 to 3.2
Annual emissions of CO2 reached 34.5 billion tonnes in 2012. Therefore, for Olivine or Serpentine to capture all of this, we would need between 27.6 and 159.74 billion tonnes of these rocks annually.
From the Azimuth Project page;
Supposedly all the CO2 that is produced by burning 1 liter of oil can be sequestered by less than 1 liter of olivine. The market value of olivine is US $50 to US $100 per ton depending on quality. Plugging in the larger number then 5 trillion dollars a year of this material would absorb all the CO2 currently produced. But of course this calculation is oversimplified, since the spike in demand would send the price much higher.
None of this begins to address the billions of tonnes of residue materials as well.
Some might say that I’m being unfair – most targets aim at around 5% below, say 2000 or 1990 levels. To be generous, let’s say the emissions value was 25 billion tonnes, meaning that we want to reach emissions targets below 23.75 billion tonnes. This means that we want to capture 10.75 billion tonnes of CO2 based on 2012 levels.
This amounts to between 8.6 and 49.77 billion tonnes of Olivine and Serpentine annually for enhanced weathering. This is still a massive industry devoted entirely to scrubbing the atmosphere of our CO2 emissions.
The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, may call emissions trading a “so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one,” but how can sequestration be anything but a non-delivery market, as much a sink of money as it is carbon?
It doesn’t matter whether you rely on trees, soil, weathering or any other mechanism, sequestration is not the cheap and easy solution that it has been sold as. In every case you are also left with a bank that is useless unless it keeps carbon locked and what then of this material?
There is no such thing as a silver bullet. Reducing our emissions will require a lot of effort, behavioural change and a diversity of solutions, each contributing their own small part. Thus far, very little of this is being addressed or adopted above the barest effort.