The other side of the peak

June 4, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

This is a written version of the talk that I gave at the “ASPO-2012” meeting in Vienna, on May 31 2012. It describes my experience with waste management as a way of closing the industrial cycle and attaining long term sustainability. Here, I introduce the concept of “urban gleaning”, a high efficiency way of dealing with waste.

All right, ladies and gentlemen, let me start by noting how it has been said in previous talks that sometimes people involved with peak oil tend to focus on problems, neglecting answers. That may be true, but we also must have the problems clear in our mind if we want to find correct solutions. So, let’s see a brief introduction on what the problem is; and I mean “the” problem; the gigantic problem that is putting our whole civilization at risk. Here is an illustration of it.

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What you are seeing here, the big hole in the ground, is what is left of the abandoned diamond mine of Mir, in Russia. Of course, the hole, in itself, is no big problem (unless you happen to be walking around there by night, drunk). The problem is that the mine is gone – it doesn’t produce diamonds any more and most likely it never will. It is an illustration of a very general phenomenon. We have been drilling holes all over the planet to take out minerals. Not all these activities left such spectacular holes, but the problem is always the same. You dig, you take what you want, then there is nothing left.

Now, let me go to the “other side” of the problem. What happens with the stuff we extract from the ground? Well, it goes through the industrial system. It is processed, turned into products, these products are “consumed”, that is they are destroyed and thrown away. The end result is, normally, this:

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This is, as you see, a classic landfill – the place where we throw away everything we think we don’t need any longer. Now, why don’t we throw all this stuff into the big hole we saw before and even things out? Sure, we could do that. The problem? If we do that, we may flatten the ground again but we don’t get back the mine!

Let me explain, and I’ll do that by showing you this image of a giant mining machine (from “somethinginteresting”).

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See? This huge machine is used to extract coal somewhere in Germany. It is specifically built for this purpose, but I can take it as the illustration of a general concept that I called the “universal mining machine” a few years ago. That is, this machine shows how we extract all kinds of minerals. We collect rock, we transport it somewhere. There, it is crushed and processed. We take the elements we need and we throw away the rest. It is very general, as I said. You could do with any rock, anywhere, because any rock contains tiny amounts – very, very tiny – of all the elements of the earth’s crust.  This is the concept of “universal mining machine”: if we could turn ordinary rock into useful minerals, then we wouldn’t have to worry about running out of anything, ever. Unfortunately, doing all that work takes a lot of energy and resources: large mining machines don’t come cheap and universal mining machines would be so expensive that we can’t even dream of affording one. Right now, we have enough energy to mine from rocks that contain, typically, about 1% of the mineral we need – we call these rocks “ores”. For very valuable minerals, such as gold, we can mine much less concentrated ores, but that’s not the general case. If we want to mine from less concentrated ores, then we need much more energy. Clearly, the perspectives of having all that energy available in the future are rather dim, to say the least – unless we are saved by some kind of miracle; energy from Santa Claus or something like that.

The situation doesn’t change if you think of mining from waste. Yes, you may have read the term “landfill mining“. It is an old idea that periodically reappears. It would be nice if we could do that, but once we go to examine the idea in detail, we see that it is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible. Landfills are places where everything is thrown in, more or less at random. There are valuable metals in the mass, sure, but everything is mixed together and separation is extremely expensive. And even dangerous, because you never know what you can find in a landfill: poisonous chemicals, lethal bacteria, and more. Things don’t change so much if you think of the ashes produced by an incinerator. Yes, they contain valuable metals, but everything is mixed together and separation is even more difficult than in the case of landfill waste.

So, we have a very, very big problem; especially if you don’t believe in Santa Claus. It is a tough problem because we cannot solve it by brute force. We cannot bomb the problem away, we cannot buy the problem away, we cannot vote the problem away. We can only accept that not all problems have cheap solutions. This one, surely doesn’t. We need to be efficient, find the best possible ways and accept the fact that we can’t do everything we want just because we think we deserve it.

Once we start thinking in these terms, a possible solution can be expressed using a concept developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, shown here.

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It is an elegant and compact way to express the concept that the industrial system must be conceived as an ecosystem. You know that the ecosystem doesn’t run out of minerals, even though it uses minerals as nutrients for metabolic processes. That’s possible because the ecosystem is a nearly completely closed cycle, that is what is “waste” for some organisms is “food” for others. Nothing ever can be 100% recycled, but the ecosystem comes close to that. The tiny fraction that is lost is slowly returned into the cycle by tectonic processes powered by the Earth’s hot nucleus. The continents have been colonized by plants some 350 million years ago and plants have been “mining” minerals from the ground for all that time without ever running out of anything.

This is the way life works on this planet and if we want to survive we must learn from that. That is, we must learn that waste is food. Once you have that in mind, then you start understanding how wrong is almost everything we do with our waste. For instance, why do you want to incinerate your food? Why do you want to throw your food at the bottom of a pit and cover it with thousands of tons of dirt? You see, there are lots of things we must learn.

Now, there are many people working on the concept that waste is food although, unfortunately, still influencing only a very tiny fraction of the industrial system. Let me show you an example from a project of a few years ago. So, here is some waste:

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You may recognize this car: it is a Fiat “500” that used to be very popular in Italy and that is still popular although, of course, they don’t make it any more. The conventional wisdom on how to deal with this kind of waste, old cars, is that you take the car, you crush it into a small cube and then you throw it into the mouth of a blast furnace. In this way, you get the steel back, with which you can make a new car. Is it an illustration of the concept that waste is food? In part, yes, but not really. There are lots of problems with this approach. The main one is called “downcycling.”

Downcycling means that the material you obtain from recycling is not of the same quality as the one you started from. In this case, an old car, the problem is that the wreck doesn’t just contain iron and carbon, which are the elements you start with when you make steel. It contains other elements: zinc, silicon, chromium, copper, aluminum and more. That means that the steel you obtain has a “memory” of where it came from. Its composition may not be what you want and, indeed, normally you can’t use recycled steel to make new cars. Then, there are lots more problems with recycling old cars and the whole process is just very expensive in terms of energy. Not that recycling old cars, in itself, is something bad. It is just limited – like the many schemes of mandatory separated waste collection in place in many towns. These rules are supposed to ease recycling and they do. But the downcycling problem remains; it doesn’t matter if it is steel, plastic, glass or whatever. The quality of the recycled product worsen at each cycle and that puts a limit to what you can do.

So, let me go back to the case of the Fiat 500 and let me try to show you what could be a better way of dealing with a very old car.

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That’s the result of a project we carried out a few years ago. You see? We started from an old car, waste, but instead of recycling it, we reused it. That is, we cleaned it, repainted it, and retrofitted it with an electric motor powered by lithium batteries. The result was a light and efficient electric micro-car. Much less expensive than an equivalent one manufactured in China or in South Korea. And with the added advantage that many of the parts we used were made here, in Europe, and the manpower to do the job was local, too. By the way, the lady you see in the image is not retrofitted. Unfortunately, this process of rejuvenation is something you can do with cars but not with humans!

Our work with the Fiat 500 was picked up by other people and now in Italy you can buy electric retrofitted cars. Unfortunately, we also discovered that reusing old things is very subversive. We were told that what we had done was not the way a good citizen should behave. What the hell, aren’t we all consumers? And if we are consumers, it means that we have to buy things new, use them, and then throw them away. That’s the way society works; hey, are you against economic growth? And if you aren’t an anti-growth fanatic, then what are you doing? Don’t you know that, in order to grow, we need to manufacture new things, and if we want new things then we must throw away the old things. Otherwise, how is growth supposed to occur? Really, we received an incredible amount of flak and some recent laws made by the Italian government seem to have been conceived explicitly to discourage the retrofitting of old cars. Maybe I am a conspiracy theorist, but I could tell you a few stories about all this; but let me move on.

So, about being subversive, well, if I have to be subversive I can do much better than rejuvenating old cars. Look at this:

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Yes, that is me, Ugo Bardi, together with two Romani ladies (gypsies if you prefer) in front of a pile of steel and iron things collected in order to be recycled. That picture was taken a few years ago, just near my office at the University of Firenze. It was part of a project financed by the Tuscan regional government to help the Roma to find jobs and become financially independent. So, we had the idea of focussing on waste collection.

You know that the Roma have this fame of collecting things, occasionally, even without the permission of the owner. That’s commonly said but I am sure that the Roma much prefer to avoid the hassle and the risk of this kind of recycling if they have a chance to do their work legally. If they are given that chance, indeed, the Roma turn out to be efficient waste collectors: what they can reuse they reuse or sell, what they can’t, they sell as scrap. Indeed, the local government encouraged the Roma to set up recycling cooperatives – they even provided legal assistance for them. But governments, as you know, are completely schizophrenic. So, some different sections of the government decided that recycling steel was a criminal activity and they sent police squads with machine guns to stop the cooperatives. It is true: it was like a movie; at least as I was told (it involved different groups of Roma than the one I was working with). In addition, each cooperative was fined for a few million euros because the law, apparently, requires that each bit of steel to be recycled must be accompanied by a signed and stamped piece of paper that describes exactly where it came from. Incidentally, the Roma weren’t worried that much about all those million euros they were supposed to pay. It is the good side of owning nothing.

So, you see how subversive it can be to suggest that people can make a living by themselves and survive without receiving subsidies from the state. Yet, the idea seems to appeal to some people and it is showing signs of diffusing in the world under the name of “participatory collective waste management“. Here is an illustration.

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On the left, you see a Brazilian “catador” (waste collector), on the left you have professor Jutta Gutberlet of the University of Victoria, Canada. It is a fascinating story and Prof. Gutberlet has been working on it for years. The catadores of Latin America make a living out of collecting and recycling urban waste (and reusing what they can). It is not a way to become rich, of course, but it seems to be a way to gain dignity and a place in society. Even president Lula seems to have recognized this point – he has to be a big subversive. You see him here with some Brazilian catadores in 2009.

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I can tell you that once you start getting into this kind of things, your view of the world changes, and it changes a lot. But what exactly is that these catadores are doing? Does it make any sense? Well, I think yes; I think it makes a lot of sense if we go back to the definition of waste we had seen before. Waste is food, we said, and for these people it is absolutely true: they make a living out of waste. And what they are doing is not even new, it is part of an old and established human tradition that has been with us for millennia. Let me show it to you:

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This is a painting made in 1857 by the French painter Francois Millet. It shows gleaners at work. Now, “gleaning” is a word that today has become almost unknown. In my experience, when I ask people those who know what gleaning is are a minority, maybe 10% or so. And yet, the very fact that a specific word exist for this activity means that it used to be very common and that it had a specific purpose in the economy of long ago.

Let me explain. When we say “waste is food” we mean that the industrial cycle must be closed in such a way to make the human economy similar to an ecology: a system that recycles what it uses and never runs out of anything. Now, if you see how an ecology works, you’ll note that each organism produces waste. No organism is 100% efficient and it could not be. But what is waste for an organism is food for another one. So, an ecology is created by the collaboration of many species that manage the flux of mineral nutrients in such a way that almost nothing is wasted and almost everything is recycled.

Let’s go back to gleaning. Think of harvesting grain in ancient times. It means that a group of peasants armed with scythes would go in the fields mowing and gathering stalks of grain, and wrapping them into bundles. Note that the job of the mowers is not of collecting every spike that falls on the ground. If they were to retrace their steps to do that, they would lose time and be less efficient. It is something well known in economics: it is the law of diminishing returns.

So, the agricultural system evolved in such a way to optimize the yield of the fields by developing a sub-system called “gleaning”. Ancient peasants had to deal with a relatively low yield resource: spikes on the ground. Collecting those spikes at a positive yield required a very efficient process. That was done by mobilizing human resources that couldn’t be used for the heavy work of harvesting; women, youngsters and old people. It was done without any equipment, without any formality, without orders, hierarchies or social structures. People just walked in the fields, collecting what they found – that’s gleaning; it was done not just with grains but with all kinds of agricultural products. It looks simple, but it was extremely important in the ancient agricultural society: it is because because it was so efficient. Gleaning has a fundamental place in the Bible and it is still legal to do it in some places. Not everywhere, though. At the time of Stalin, in the Soviet Union, you were shot in place if they discovered you gleaning. So, you see, even gleaning seems to be somewhat subversive. But it is likely that many of our ancestors have survived because they could glean their food. And so we are here today!

There would be a lot to say about gleaning, but I took is as the paradigm of the way to deal with low yield resources; what we call “waste”. We can’t deal with waste in the same way as we have been doing with mineral resources. The yield of waste is too low to go at it with giant mining machines. We need specific processes adapted to low yield resources. Processes which are reasonably free from bureaucracy, hierarchies, complex legislation, top-down structures. Processes that should be the result of self organization toward maximum efficiency and that we could call “urban gleaning” or “industrial gleaning“. In my opinion, these methods cannot be mandated by law or forced from above. They have to be gradually developed by people, just as in the ecosystem species have gradually evolved in their ecological roles.

There would be much more to be said on this subject, but I think I’ll stop here and I hope that I gave to you some waste – er… food – for thought. I would like to conclude with a picture of some Roma children of the group I have been working with.

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You see, these children are considered a problem and, under several respect, they are. But they are also a great opportunity. Not because I want to see them as cheap labor for waste collection – absolutely not. It is because looking at these children, cheerful, bright, friendly as they are, you see yourself as a human being and you see the enormous human plight we are facing today. We can’t solve anything if we forget that we are all humans and we have to solve problems together. That’s the only way we have and I hope it is the road that we’ll choose.

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He is member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the study of peak oil) and regular contributor of "The Oil Drum" and "". His blog in English is called "Cassandra's legacy". His most recent book in English Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green”, 2014. He is also the author of The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).

Tags: Culture & Behavior, Waste