Sustaining Future

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

By-product management

In the discussion of "reduce-reuse-recycle", a wrong term has been used which makes our thinking biased - "waste".

Earth is a closed system (except there are solar energy coming from our sun). Earth has been evolving for thousands of million years without producing any "waste". Everything is recycled. The use of the word "waste" is WRONG.

When we use the term "waste", we immediately start to think about disposing the waste - which is practically impossible, unless somehow we send the "waste" to outer space. The concept of waste management has been a lazy way of admitting that it is a too difficult job to handle now so we put it aside and let our children to take care of them.

After 500 years of industrial development, mother Earth is now complaining. We have left too much for our children to solve. Fortunately, we are also at a stage that the current technology is capable of tackling such difficult problem.

I suggest that we should no longer use the term "waste", instead it is a by-product, a valuable product for a different sub-cycle.

We live and we produce by-product, such as our daily excretion. A water-based sewage system use perfectly clean drinkable water to flush and discharge it into sea or river resulting in more water being unsafe to drink1. This is just STUPID! Alternately, using a compost-based toilet system, the human excretion can be converted into
soil-like humus, which is essentially odorless and is scarcely 10 percent of the original volume. These compost facilities need to be emptied every year or so, depending on design and size. Vendors periodically collect the humus and can market it as a soil supplement, thus ensuring that the nutrients and organic matter return to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizer.[source]

Our prosperity depends on energy. With energy and appropriate technology, we have equivalent of hundreds of other human working for us (at least in the affluent societies like USA or Australia). Most energy we consume are in the form of electricity or heat. A typical coal-fire power station produces tons of CO2 daily together with huge amount of heated "waste" water. This discharge of CO2 into the atmosphere is worsening the "green house" effect. The dumping of heated "waste" water is killing living organisms in rivers or sea. If smaller power stations are located within cities, the "waste" heat can be used to heat the buildings, the energy loss in distribution can be reduced. The CO2 may be used to feed green houses for algae production (e.g. for bio fuel) or enhancing agricultural production in "vertical farm". Of course, this is a very simplistic view of the issue of the huge amount of CO2 produced in the current trend of human activities. However, by viewing CO2 as a waste (and hence thinking of disposing or storage) is ONLY one way of tackling the problem. Another way of thinking (not necessarily exclusive to the "disposing way of thinking") is to treat CO2 as a valuable by-product and creatively found ways of capturing that value.

The primary driving energy of our Earth is solar energy. In the past 500 years or so, human has been exploiting previously "stored" solar energy (in the form of coal or oil) and at the same time releasing huge amount of previously stored carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. The fact is that current daily energy consumption is only a tiny fraction of the daily solar energy reaching our Earth surface. We are just too lazy to harvest the current available solar energy, and use previously stored energy. Coal and oil are limited resources. One day, they will be all used up - however, before they are used up, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere may have reached a point of no-return and send our current ecosystem into choas, may be wiping off the current civilisation. Developing renewable energy technology is NOT an economy cost centre. I believe, in fact, the potential of economic gain is huge. Whoever can reach the "zero footprint" society first will be the greatest and most powerful economic country in this century.

Please eliminate the word "waste" in our technology development. Use "by-product" instead. Creatively capture the value of the by-product by working closely with "near-by" technology and create a "zero-footprint" society. Can we achieve this before the end of this century? I believe we can, but importantly, I believe we MUST!

1It is actually worse than that. Water-based sewage systems take nutrients originating in the soil and typically dump them into rivers, lakes, or the sea. Not only are the nutrients lost from agriculture, but the nutrient overload has led to the death of many rivers and to the formation of some 200 dead zones in ocean coastal regions. Sewer systems that dump untreated sewage into rivers and streams are a major source of disease and death. source


Plan B 2.0

Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble by Lester R. Brown is worth reading ($17 single copy paperback) - but you can also download the pdf for free.