02/04/2020 04:59 PM
IN AMSTERDAM I met a man who revealed to me the hidden currents of our lives—the massive flows of raw materials and products deployed, to such wonderful and damaging effect, by 7.7 billion humans. Our shared metabolism, you might say. It was a crisp fall morning, and I was sitting in a magnificent old brick pile on the Oosterpark, a palace of curved corridors and grand staircases and useless turrets. A century ago, when the Dutch were still extracting coffee, oil, and rubber from their colony in Indonesia, this building had been erected as a colonial research institute. Now it houses assorted do-gooder organizations. The one Marc de Wit works for is called Circle Economy, and it’s part of a buzzing international movement that aims to reform how we’ve done just about everything for the past two centuries—since the rise of the steam engine, “if you need to pinpoint a time,” de Wit said.
De Wit is 39, genial, bespectacled, a little disheveled, a chemist by training. He opened a pamphlet and spread out a diagram he called “an x-ray of our global economy.” Unlike natural ecosystems, which operate in cycles—plants grow in soil, animals eat plants, dung replenishes soil—the industrial economy is largely linear. On the diagram, fat, colored currents of the four types of raw material—minerals, ores, fossil fuels, and biomass—surged from left to right, splitting and braiding as they became products that met seven human needs. Sand went into concrete apartment towers on six continents. Metal ore became ships, cars, and also combine harvesters—in a single year we harvested 22.2 billion tons of biomass, just to feed us all. Fossil fuels powered those vehicles, kept us warm, became plastic, became all kinds of things. The total flow into the economy in 2015 was 102.3 billion tons.
All good so far; amazing even, if you’re the type to be amazed by human effort and ingenuity. It’s what happens next, after our needs are met, that’s the problem—the mother of all environmental problems, in fact. De Wit pointed to the gray fog on the right edge of the diagram. The gray fog is waste.
In 2015, he explained, about two-thirds of the material we scratched from the planet slipped through our fingers. More than 67 billion tons of hard-won stuff was lost, most of it scattered irretrievably. Plastic trash drifted into rivers and oceans; so did nitrates and phosphates leaching from fertilized fields. A third of all food rotted, even as the Amazon was deforested to produce more. Think of an environmental problem, and chances are it’s connected to waste. That includes climate change: It happens because we burn fossil fuels and scatter the waste—carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere.
(Plastic isn’t the enemy, but plastic waste in the ocean and elsewhere is a global plague. Are biodegradables and recycling the cure? Staff writer Laura Parker considers what a circular economy for plastics might look like.)
This may sound ridiculous, but as de Wit walked me through the numbers that morning, it felt like an epiphany. There was a unifying, exhilarating clarity to that wonky diagram, to the way it defined the task. Sure, it said, the threats we face are multifarious and overwhelming. Sure, they’re planetary in scale. But really, to get along on this Earth, we must do just one thing: Stop wasting so much of it. De Wit pointed to a thin arrow that circled back, from right to left, along the bottom of the diagram, representing all the material we’d managed to capture through recycling, composting, and so on. It was only 9.3 billion tons: just 9 percent of the total.
The “circularity gap,” as de Wit and his colleagues dubbed it when they presented their report at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018, is relatively new in human history. It dates to our industrial use of fossil fuels in the 18th century. Until then, most of what humans did was done with muscle power, whether human or animal. Growing things, making things, shipping things took hard labor, which made them valuable. Our limited physical energy also restricted how big a dent we could put in the planet. It kept most of us very poor, however.
Cheap fossil energy, concentrated by geologic time and pressure in seams of coal or pools of oil, changed all that. It made it easier to extract raw materials anywhere, ship them to factories, and send the merchandise everywhere. Fossil fuels exploded our possibilities—and the process keeps intensifying. In the past half century, while the world’s population has more than doubled, the amount of material flowing through the economy has more than tripled.
“Now we’re reaching the limits,” de Wit said.
For that same half century, environmentalists have been warning of limits to growth. The new “circular economy” movement is different. It’s a collection of strategies—some old, such as reducing, reusing, and recycling, and some new, such as renting rather than owning things—that together are meant to reshape the global economy to eliminate waste. The circular economy doesn’t aim to end growth; it aims to bend how we do things back into harmony with nature, so that growth can continue. “Prosperity in a world of finite resources,” as European environment commissioner Janez Potočnik once put it, in the foreword to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report. It said the circular economy could save European businesses up to $630 billion a year.
The idea is catching on, particularly in Europe, that small, crowded, rich but resource-poor continent. The European Union is investing billions in the strategy. The Netherlands has pledged to go fully circular by 2050. Amsterdam, Paris, and London all have plans. “It must happen,” said Wayne Hubbard, head of the London Waste and Recycling Board, when I asked whether the circular economy could happen.
One man who definitely thinks it could happen, and whose work has proved revelatory to many others, is American architect William McDonough. With German chemist Michael Braungart, he wrote the visionary 2002 book Cradle to Cradle, which argues that products and economic processes could be designed such that all waste becomes fodder for something else. Before setting off for Europe, I made a pilgrimage to McDonough’s office in Charlottesville, Virginia. Our conversation ricocheted from his childhood in Tokyo, through Plato, Aristotle, and Buckminster Fuller, to some new compostable blue jeans he was excited about, before I finally managed to ask him the nagging question: Is all this talk of an end to waste just pie in the sky?
“It’s absolutely pie in the sky, no question about it,” McDonough said. “You need pies in the sky to help us go forward. Because remember what Leibniz said.”
I didn’t remember much about that German philosopher.
“Leibniz said, ‘If it is possible, therefore it exists.’ And I’m saying, ‘If we can make it exist, it’s therefore possible.’ ”
Was that tautological? Was it wise? Did Leibniz really say that? It was intriguing, in any case. Not long after that, I took my busted old roller bag to be repaired (very circular, compared with buying a new one), packed the certified cradle-to-cradle jeans that McDonough had given me, and headed out to see what evidence of possible existence I could find for the circular economy.
The first small breaks in our natural circularity actually predate the 18th-century industrial revolution. The Romans, besides tossing broken amphorae around in an uninhibited way, pioneered a fraught invention: sewers. That is, they channeled human waste into rivers, instead of returning it to fields where, as any circularity maven will tell you, those nutrients belong. As a young boy in Tokyo in the 1950s (his parents were in the occupying American Army), McDonough recalls waking at night to the sound of farmers collecting the family’s night soil. His mother would soothe him with lullabies about poop, sometimes in Japanese with an Alabama accent. It made a permanent impression.
The Romans, like the Phoenicians before them, also mined copper from the rich deposits at Río Tinto in Spain. But they recycled too: They melted down bronze statues from conquered peoples to make weapons. Copper has always been a prime target for recyclers. Compared with sewage, it’s scarce and valuable.
In the yard at the Aurubis copper smelter in Lünen, in the Ruhr region of western Germany, a large bust of Lenin stands in a flower bed—a souvenir of the many bronze Lenins melted here, from towns around communist East Germany, after East and West were reunited in 1990. Aurubis, Europe’s largest copper producer, is also the world’s largest copper recycler. When the Lünen plant was built in 1916, at the height of World War I, copper for artillery shells was in short supply, and Germans were pulling bronze bells out of church towers. “Since that day, this plant has exclusively done recycling,” said Detlev Laser, the deputy plant manager.
Copper, unlike plastic, say, can be recycled indefinitely without loss of quality—it’s a perfect circular material. The Lünen plant still processes bulk copper, mostly pipes and cables, but it has had to adapt to waste with much lower concentrations. As Europe has replaced landfills with municipal incinerators, a lot of slag is showing up containing bits of metal—“because someone threw their cell phone in the trash” instead of the recycling bin, Laser said.
With Hendrik Roth, the plant’s environmental manager, I watched an excavator drop bucketloads of electronic debris, including laptops, onto a sloping conveyor that carried it toward a shredder—the first of more than a dozen steps in the bewildering and deafening sorting process. At one station, a conveyor raced by, carrying hand-size shards of circuit boards. Some fell into an abyss; others leaped as if by their own volition onto a belt above. A camera system, Roth explained, was deciding whether each shard contained metal—and if not, activating an air jet under it at just the right instant.
Aurubis sells the aluminum and plastic it recovers to those industries; copper and other nonferrous metals go into its own ovens. In the tidy yard, the dust is swept daily and fed to the smelter. “We have no waste here,” Laser said.
Worldwide, only about a fifth of all electronic waste is recycled, according to a 2017 UN report. Aurubis even takes shipments from the United States. “But I do wonder sometimes why such a highly industrialized country would give up such resources,” Roth said. “They’re sitting on billions.” That’s starting to change. Apple, for example, encourages customers to trade in old iPhones; an intelligent robot in Texas dismantles them and extracts materials for new devices.
But copper exemplifies a general challenge: There’s a limit to what even aggressive recycling can accomplish. At Aurubis, recycled copper accounts for only a third of production; the rest still comes from mines. World copper production has quadrupled in the past half century and is still growing. The technologies we need to get off fossil fuels require a lot of copper; a single giant wind turbine uses about 33 tons.