New frontiers and costs of recycling

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar

open dumpster full of trash

Are we recycling all we could? Organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, accounts for between a quarter and a third of the solid waste generated in cities—the largest single municipal waste stream, according to Eric A. Goldstein, waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

If you had to identify one key area of growth for recycling, it would be organics,” he says.

Organic waste in landfills becomes mummified or decomposes anaerobically (i.e. without oxygen), producing methane, a greenhouse gas whose impact on climate change is estimated to be 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

Composted organic waste though becomes a natural fertilizer that helps soil retain moisture and hold carbon. A University of California Berkeley study found that a single application of compost led to a metric ton of carbon capture and storage per hectare annually, for three years.

However, “composting if done well isn’t cheap,” says Glenda Gies, principal of Glenda Gies & Associates Inc., an Ontario-based recycling consultancy. “It requires the right temperature, moisture levels and bacteria populations.”

There’s also the question of who’s responsible for the recycling. With plastic or electronics products, the brand is usually identifiable, even on discarded goods. The manufacturer may then be legally required to recycle them. But by the time organics become waste it’s no longer clear who the brand owner is, and recovery costs then pass to the municipality, consumer or business, “who have been reluctant to pay,” Ms. Gies says.

This hasn’t deterred some city and state authorities from taking a lead. San Francisco has introduced mandatory separate collection of compostable materials, which applies to all residences and businesses, says Kevin Drew, residential and special projects zero-waste coordinator at the city’s department of environment. Massachusetts banned food waste disposal by companies in 2014, sending organics to 49 processors.

Once there, organic waste is processed into methane through digesters (like at sewage treatment plants). And unlike landfills where the methane escapes, the digesters trap it and convert it into natural gas, while the residue is turned into compost. San Francisco and its service provider are building digesters, with the resulting gas used to fuel collection and transfer vehicles, Mr. Drew says.

There’s complete recovery of the energy and compost value in the waste,” he says. “I would argue that this program will be coming to every city in the world.”

colored clothingOther materials also have strong recycling potential. Only 15% of used clothes, towels, bedding and other textiles in the U.S. is donated or recycled, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, with the rest ending up in landfills. In the U.K., about 40% of clothing is re-used or recycled. But more can be done.

“There’s an enormous amount of textiles that are recoverable as clothing,” says Mr. Drew. “There are markets around the world that will take that material. We’re on a quest to recover more textiles.

Cost is key. With traditional recycling streams, such as paper, plastics and glass, changes in technology and commodity prices affect the willingness to recycle.

“Companies want to recycle to save money,” says John Daniel, president of Federal International Inc., a St. Louis recycling firm. “In general, companies will increase recycling to the point where it costs them money, and then they stop.”

Recycling bin with glassConsider glass recycling. When collected along with other waste materials, broken glass has to be sifted out at sorting facilities. This may have been worth doing when glass prices were high, but today, “at many facilities, it’s not cost effective to separate out that glass. A significant amount of glass put in recycling doesn’t get recycled,” he says.

Similarly, “when the price of oil was much higher, carpet was able to be recycled,” he notes. “Now it is almost impossible to recycle without the cost being higher than landfilling. The cost of recovering, transporting and processing the material is significantly higher than the value of the material.”

Virgin products may seem cheaper, Ms. Gies says. But if one were to factor in environmental costs—reflected in, say, greenhouse-gas taxes or obligations on manufacturers to recycle returned products—the resulting higher price might be more realistic, and potentially uncompetitive.

“The industry naturally will recover all material demand, provided it is cost effective,” Mr. Daniel explains. “As the price goes up, then recyclers have the ability to dive in deeper and start recovering higher-cost material. The best way to increase recycling rates is to improve the demand for products made from recycled materials. Our industry will take care of filling the supply.”

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

How can technology protect natural resources?

By Alyssa
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In recent years, due to growth in places like China and India and increasing urbanization, demand for natural resources has dramatically increased. Natural resources companies are under pressure to provide the materials to feed that growing appetite – while at the same time protecting the environment and local communities where the resources are found. Because these resources can take millions of years to replace, it’s critical to be very aware of where the resources are so that we can understand the available inventory and the costs of extracting them.

Marni millions of years-001
 

In a new video produced by Wall Street Journal Custom Studios for 3DS’s LinkedIn community, Future Realities, Dassault Systèmes Vice President of Natural Resources, Marni Rabasso, explores how technology can address these concerns. Click here to watch the 3-minute video and then jump over to LinkedIn to comment!

Harvesting data to feed the world

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar


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In the 1950s and ‘60s, the green revolution sharply increased crop yields, thanks to fertilizers, pesticides and new seed varieties. But with a billion more mouths to feed by 2025, how will we reap more food without harming the environment? Big data might help.

The global agriculture biotechnology market is forecast to grow to $46.8 billion by 2019, with the bulk focused on transgenic seeds and synthetic biology products such as DNA synthesis and biofuels.

“Technology could improve yields and reduce waste,” says David Lobell, associate professor of earth system science at Stanford University in California. “One of the biggest impacts will be to bring down input costs. That will help not so much in terms of yields but in the price of food and the environmental impact—bringing down water use and fertilizer use.”

As you have better knowledge of what you need, you can reduce the margin of error.”

Genetics: Just as big data has helped scientists tease apart genetic traits in humans, so it is doing for agriculture.

Researchers are mapping the genomes of fungi, parasites, pathogens and plants, which can speed up breeding for traits such as salt tolerance. (About three hectares per minute become too salty for conventional farming.)

“The main idea of genomic selection is that effects of abiotic stresses like heat are controlled by lots of different genes,” Dr. Lobell says. “Those types of things can be better identified by more and more data for lots of different varieties. You can start to statistically pull out smaller effects with larger data sets.”

iStock_000047221908_SmallBig data is analyzing plant populations to understand better why some plants thrive in certain environments and others don’t. The Compadre database is a collection of more than 1,000 plant population models across 600 species, while the similar Comadre database is for animals. The data are difficult to collect, with researchers visiting the sites several times, notes Yvonne Buckley, professor and head of zoology at the University of Dublin.

By looking, for example, at how big and efficient leaves are, scientists hope to be able to predict whether a species will become extinct. “It’s important for food security, which populations might be vulnerable to disappearing,” she says.

Precision agriculture: Big data can also help farmers decide which seeds to plant, whether to apply fertilizers or whether to irrigate. With sensors, they can measure conditions such as soil moisture, while drones can provide a close-up view of far-flung fields in real time. Moreover, technology required to collect this data keeps getting cheaper.

“By monitoring what’s really happening, you can give people information and boost their food security,” says John Corbett, founder and chief executive of aWhere Inc., a Broomfield, Colorado, agriculture intelligence company.

aWhere analyzes temperature, rainfall, humidity (which can affect fungus and mold), solar radiation, wind and agronomic modeling. Its high-tech methods aren’t restricted to developed countries.

Farmer or agronomist in soy bean field with tabletThe cell phone is by far the most influential technology for dispersing information,” Dr. Corbett says. “The penetration of cell phones in sub-Saharan Africa is phenomenal. Any farmer can be connected to the world’s data bank. Without changing anything like seed or fertilizer, they can improve yields 30% just by using better information.”

aWhere delivers information to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, for example, aWhere supplies weather data to iShamba, a for-profit agricultural advisory company that also produces a hit reality TV show, “Shamba Shape Up” (shamba is Swahili for “farm”) to answer subscribers’ questions and update commodity prices by SMS.

Cell phones can also collect data—aWhere surveys farmers by SMS. As the Internet of Things moves to the farm, tractors and other machinery will be able to transmit data from the field.

“If you can get on-the-ground information, and if you process it and push it back to the person, there’s an enormous amount of optimization and efficiency that will come to the agriculture value chain. Farmers can plan what will sell. They can form cooperatives, which make selling more efficient,” Dr. Corbett says. “If you do it across the value chain, the whole chain strengthens.”

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock



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