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Materials, Resources & Water

Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting.
Richard Buckminster Fuller, Inventor

In 2026 the global human population is expected to reach 8 billion. Now more than ever before, issues related to population density, poverty, peace, and security are on the minds of some of the planet’s top thinkers. This category covers all initiatives related to maintaining and improving the quality of life for all people despite the growing population. A truly sustainable world is one that produces not a single grain of waste. This requires efforts at both ends of the waste cycle. Resources must be used hyper-efficiently and materials must be made entirely recyclable. This category covers advancements in man-made materials, resource efficiency, waste reduction and water management. All of which are critical to making a sustainable positive impact in the other award categories.

Even if you are living in a part of the world where population growth is not immediately observable, have a look at the ‘Worldometer’ which tracks population growth in real time - it is rather scary. In a 2011 presentation at the UK-based Royal Society of Arts broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough  declared that we humans in our ever increasing numbers act as multiplier of all other environmental problems. In an interview from 2013, he went further, likening humanity to "a plague on the Earth" that needs to be controlled.

But would we have less of a problem if there were not so many of us? Or is it perhaps less of a question of size and more what you do with it?

According to an article in the National Geographic the space occupied by 7 billion people living on our planet back in 2011, standing shoulder to shoulder would only take up 500 square miles, or 1,300 square kilometres, the equivalent of the space occupied by the city of Los Angeles. And anyone who has a garden knows that with the right conditions - water, sunshine, fertile soil - nature is plenty abundant! Yet change the conditions, take away just one of the key ingredients, take out too much, and the potential for perpetual regeneration is gone and the horn of plenty dries up. 

A couple more thoughts on resource scarcity and abundance:

  • 5% of us consume 23% of the world’s energy
  • 13% of us don’t have clean drinking water
  • 38% of us lack adequate sanitation
  • the 42 richest individuals hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people, which is currently half of the world's population, according to research by Oxfam in published in January 2018.

In short, there are huge inequalities, and in terms of some pf us consuming beyond our fair share of resources. Indeed, if everyone wanted to live like the Australians or Americans, we’d need more than 5 planets Earth right now.

Another scary statistic: Earth Overshoot Day 2019 - the date when our demand on resources exceeds what our planet can produce in a year -  is the 29th July, though of course, this varies by country.

And there is no end to what we demand from our planet, according to report by the International Resource Panel (IRP), which is part of the UN Environment Programme. Resource extraction has grown from 22 billion tons in 1970 to 70 billion tons in 2010, expected to further double between 2015 and 2050. 

Of course it is not only the consumption or resources that causes problems, it is also the challenges and pollution that come with their use and disposal. As we elaborate on our ‘Materials Resources & Water’ category: A truly sustainable world is one that produces not a single grain of waste. 

This is where concepts such as “Cradle to Cradle” and “Circular Economy” come into play. The former was introduced by Michael Braungart and William McDonough in their 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things”, the latter had been floating around for a while, but was popularised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, not least through a report produced in collaboration with McKinsey Company, for the 2012 World Economic Forum 2012 in Davos. The Cradle-to-Cradle approach is generally described as a tool for achieving the Circular Economy.

There are also a number of other terms floating around in this space which, conveniently, are also listed on Ellen MacArthur's website, many of them with an explanatory video.: 

  • Performance Economy - introduced by architect and industrial analyst Walter Stahel in 1976, suggesting an economy in loops, rather than a linear one.
  • Blue Economy - initiated by former Ecover CEO and Belgian businessman Gunter Pauli,  is a term in economics relating to the exploitation and preservation of the marine environment.

There is no surprise there is an approach focused entirely on the oceans: 70% of our planet is covered by water. Yet only 2.75% of it is fresh water and 13% of us don’t have clean drinking water, while an astounding 38% of us lack adequate sanitation! While we humans can live up to 3 weeks without food, yet only 3 to 4 days without water.  Not surprising once you know that around 60% of the human’s body is made up of water - for the brain it’s even 75%.

Improving access to fresh water is the ambition of Saros Desalination. They realised that despite being surrounded by water, many coastal and island areas face scarcity of fresh water. To address this problem, either water is shipped from elsewhere, or desalination is used - neither solution is very sustainable, particularly the latter customary requires huge amounts of electricity and/or fossil fuels. Saros is using an alternative source of energy: waves, which are of cause in limitless and endless supply.

Manufacture of a pound of paper takes about 3,000 gallons (11,400 liters) of water, while producing one car takes, on average, about 65,000 gallons (246,000 liters). Here a few more:

  • Leather Shoes => 3,626 gallons (13,725 litres)
  • Smart phone (mobile) => 3,190 gallons (12,075 litres)
  • Bed Sheet (cotton) =>2,839 gallons (10,746 litres)
  • Jeans (cotton) =>2,108 gallons (7,979 litres)
  • T-shirt (cotton) => 659 gallons (2,494 litres)

But not only does the manufacture of products require a lot of water, it also often pollutes the water that’s being used. Global freshwater reserves are increasingly polluted due to the accumulation of persistent hazardous chemicals that remain in wastewater after current treatment methods. Here CustoMem Biobased Filtration comes to the fore: CustoMem have developed a novel biobased adsorbent material that can selectively capture micropollutants including pesticides, pharmaceuticals and high-performance chemicals like Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS, PFCs) from wastewater. 

A very different approach that tackles both the excessive number of plastic bottles that go into the waste stream and the need for building materials is taken by Agua Costa Rica who have designed and patented its plastic water bottles to be up-cycled and transformed into durable roof tiles for affordable housing in developing communities. The special shape of the bottles allows them to be crimped, and filled with a lightweight mix of aerated concrete and waste paper, which can be tinted to simulate marble, slate, or ceramic tiles. This also provides good heat insulation and can reduce CO2 emissions, thus creating a circular process of transformation and reutilization.

Tap have come up with a solution that helps avoid plastic bottles all together: their App shows the closest location of a refill station.  Tap’s Refill Station network is partly made up of partnerships with coffee shops and fast-casual restaurants, while also showing the best public places to refill water bottles around the world, be it a drinking fountain or a filtered water ATM.

  • Industrial Ecology - popularized in 1989 in a Scientific American article by Robert Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos; in Wikipedia it is defined as “the study of material and energy flows through industrial systems. ... Industrial ecologists are often concerned with the impacts that industrial activities have on the environment, with use of the planet's supply of natural resources, and with problems of waste disposal.”
  • Natural Capitalism - its four principles are introduced in Paul Hawken, Amroy Lovins and Hunter Lovins’s 1999 book:
  1. ensuring that we use any resource to their fullest potential - Nebia(Materials, Resources and Water category in 2015) have developed a showerhead that atomises water, thereby creating more surface which enables the user to experience an exhilarating shower while using 70% less water. Another interesting example of doing more with less is AeroFarms who have developed a highly resource efficient approach to indoor vertical farming. Compared to field farming they use 95% less water,  no pesticides at all, and uses less than 1% of the land required by conventional growing. A different take on making things last is Petitpli who have developed clothing that grows as the child does. Perhaps even more exciting when looking for durability is some self-healing fabric, inspired by Marvels’ Wolverine character. An exciting extension of this concept is StretchSense, soft squishy sensors and generators that closely measure motion as well as generate electrical energy from the human body.
  1. drawing on the wisdom of nature - an approach known as biomimicry (see also below). The argument here is that the designs we find in nature were perfected over 3.8 billion years. Surely, there must be something we can learn from it. An example from Katerva’s 2019 nominee pool is Denmark-based Aquaporin which has developed a groundbreaking technology that purifies water by mimicking nature. They use Aquaporins, crucial for life in all organisms - bacteria, plants, humans - which allows water molecules to rapidly pass a membrane while rejecting all other compounds.
  1. creating business models that incentivises using less rather than more, often involving a shift from products to services - Back in 1994 Interface  founder Ray Anderson decided that his company would become “the first fully sustainable industrial enterprise, anywhere.” Realising that people want to use and see carpets but not necessarily own them has led Interface to sell the service of providing carpeted floors, rather than carpets. Monthly inspections identify and replace tiles that are worn out. This leads to a 35-fold reduction in the flow of materials needed to maintain a carpet covered floor. 
  2. re-investing in natural resources - which is all about ensuring, if we take something from nature, we replace it in some shape or form.  For example, Afforest for Future, the 2018 Katerva Award winner in the Environment category, is working to reverse desertification. For one of their projects  they use patent-pending technology to sustainably and easily transport the mud from man-made lakes and use it as a top soil to plant desert native trees. See also ‘regenerative design’ further below.
  • Biomimicry - brought to the masses by Janine Benyus via her book Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature (1997). As explained on the website, “Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.” Festo Bionics is an example where nature is used as an inspiration and teacher for innovation. Festo has engaged in the field of bionics since its early days in the 1990s, mimicking animals such as the flying fox, butterflies, birds, penguins, cuttlefish, jellyfish and kangaroos. A collaboration between mechanical and aerospace engineers at Cornell University and the Italian Institute of Technology’s Center for Micro-BioRobotic has resulted in artificial octopus skin that stretches, senses pressure and emits light.
  • Regenerative Design - to quote from their website, “In the 1980s, Penny Livingston Stark and James Stark began developing their 3/4 acre home in Point Reyes, California, into what eventually became the Permaculture Institute of Northern California (PINC). They transformed an undeveloped backyard into a living permaculture classroom, with features like a cob cottage and bread oven, a koi pond that recycles and reuses laundry and bath water, rainwater catchments systems, a vaulted strawbale cottage, and a permaculture food forest garden with fruit, nuts, herbs, berries, vegetables, and more. When nearly 100 people regularly showed up for tours of their home, James and Penny knew they needed to find another demonstration site to expand their work.”

Perhaps avoiding the use of resources in the first place should take precedence. 

Packaging, while clearly necessary in many instances, tends to have  very short life cycle. Unpacking from one trip to the supermarket easily results in a large bin half full with packaging material - mostly plastic. Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre tackles the problem of plastic packaging by creating plastic-like, multilayer compostable material from agricultural and forestry by-products, which can be used to package products like muesli, nuts, and cheese.

It is rather alarming that in Australia almost half of the 4.4 million tonnes of packaging waste is no being recovered. In 2016, in the EU well over 80 million tonnes of packaging waste was generated; while it is laudable that around 80% of it were recycled (though this includes incineration), 16 million tons of packaging material is still a huge amount of resources that’s being wasted.  Rethinking packing material is one way forward. Altais Nova is a recyclable, magnetic coating that replaces multi-layered packaging developed by Spain-based Aronax Technologies. It creates better air and moisture insulation, thereby making it suitable to protect sensitive products such as coffee and medical products, while still being recyclable.

Another area where resources requirements are only likely to increase is the building industry. WinSun and GoodHout are two examples of innovation that alleviate the negative impact of the building industry - of course, in order to house those 9 billion people expected to inhabit our planet bu 2050, more housing is required! In 2008, WinSun became the first company in the world to use a 3D printer to create a building. According the company’s founder & chairman, 3D printing reduces the need for new construction materials by between 30-60%, saves 50-70% in construction time, uses 50-80%t less labour and is up to 50% cheaper. Most noteworthy is that they make our own ‘ink’, using 100 per cent recycled materials. 

Building on the notion that in nature now cycles waste becomes another cycles raw materials, GoodHout produce hardboard that is made by compressing coconut husks under high temperatures and pressures. Coconut husk has the highest lignin content of any known plant and this helps the raw material to bind into a hardboard without the addition of any damaging glue or binder. Due to its strength, the board has the potential to be used for structural elements in buildings. It also has natural anti-fungal properties and burns three times slower than wood. 

One final example is Proshield Premium, black graphene radiation protecting paint. It is an electrically conductive paint, composed of carbon particles, contained in a pure acrylic emulsion containing no metal component. It is waterproof and high adhesive to surfaces, such as plastic paint, building boards, cement, plaster, polystyrene, masonry surfaces, etc.

There are lots of exciting things happening which is wonderful, yet it is not enough to turn the ship around, not by a long shot. Help create a sense of urgency where ever you are and what ever you do, and help us shine spotlights onto those who are creating sustainable disruptive innovations that accelerate our journey towards sustainability, by nominating them for our awards program! 

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