Rebuilt to Last

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Nearly 42 million tons of electric and electronic equipment, 5.9 kilograms per person, were thrown away world-wide last year. But several initiatives now aim to reduce that waste by helping people fix their appliances and devices.

People throw away lots of items that aren’t garbage yet, but simply need to be repaired. The problem is people don’t know how to do that anymore,” says Martine Postma, who launched the first Repair Café, in Amsterdam in 2009.

“But I noticed that in every community there are still some people who do know how to do it. In many cases they are older or retired or have lost their jobs—these people are not the center of attention in our society, but they do have skills.”

The Repair Café Foundation currently has more than 700 local organizers in 18 countries running their own Repair Cafés where people can bring broken appliances and be shown how to fix them by volunteer experts, for free.

“People learn something about repair,” Ms. Postma says. “They see how to open their item, what it does. Often it turns out items aren’t very broken. It’s just a wire or a screw that came loose, or maybe it needs to be cleaned or have the dust blown away. Then people see that repair is a real alternative to throwing away or buying new. Also, it’s fun.”

Small items, such as fans, cameras, vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, toasters, microwaves or electronic toys comprise the biggest category of e-waste, totaling 12.8 million tons, according to the U.N. And the amount of e-waste is growing by 4% to 5% a year.

The European Commission has set minimum targets to recover 85% of appliances, equipment and devices from landfill waste flows, and to prepare 80% for re-use or recycling.

iStock_000028806034_SmallHowever, it isn’t always easy to fix broken objects. Besides lacking know-how, people seldom have the appropriate tools. In some communities, tool libraries lend out an array of equipment, while at Repair Cafés, the repair gurus usually bring their own. “Often, fixing things is their biggest hobby, and they have the right tools,” Ms. Postma says.

They have their work cut out. “Many products have been designed to last only a few years and then be replaced with something new,” she says. “If that’s your idea, then you don’t need to design a product in such a way that it can be opened easily. Or use screws that people have the right screwdriver for. Or share information, with a manual.”

Kyle Wiens searched in vain for a manual after he broke his laptop. “I tried to take it apart, but it was hard to get open,” he says. “I managed to get the computer apart and put it back together, but it wasn’t quite right. I knew that if I had had some insight as to how it was put together, I would have been able to repair it.”

The experience led Mr. Wiens and Luke Soules, in 2003, to co-found iFixit, which writes manuals for products that lack such information. The iFixit staff disassembles products to reverse-engineer repair instructions. They also get help from the repair community, with members posting photographs and explanations to the wiki-based site, to “teach each other along the way,” he says.

iFixit’s advice is free, but the company sells spare parts and specialized tools. Indeed, Mr. Wiens sees parts and service, rather than planned obsolescence, as the future for manufacturers. “If you’re buying a power drill for €25 ($27.80), it’s probably not going to last very long,” he says. “The manufacturer is probably planning on selling you another one.” High-end construction tools, by contrast, are made to last and to be fixed, “because contractors are very demanding,” he notes.

We have a different relationship with cheap, replaceable objects compared with expensive items. With the former, “you’re more or less a slave to the product—you’re no longer master of the product—because you don’t know how it works or how to fix it,” Ms. Postma says. “You only know a new one is available. It is not sustainable to do this. Repair needs to get back into everyday life.”


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

Sewers paved with gold

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

The future gold rush might be to a sewer near you. Municipal sewage contains many metals, including gold, silver and platinum. Concentrations vary by metal, but municipal sewage tends to contain about one part per million of gold. This “isn’t a lot, but for gold it’s significant,” says Kathleen Smith, research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and an expert on metals in biosolids.

Biosolids (treated sewage sludge) are more commonly understood as fertilizer. “It’s high in phosphorus and slow-release nitrogen,” Dr. Smith says. Around half the roughly seven million dry tonnes of biosolids collected at U.S. wastewater treatment plants is recycled as fertilizer, including in public lands and forests.

But while copper and zinc, for example, are essential for plants and animals, these metals may become toxic in high concentrations, hence the need to monitor and regulate the chemical and metal content in waste.

It’s not just the regulated metals such as copper and zinc that now attract attention. “The presence of some valuable metals—such as gold, silver, platinum, and palladium—is [also] of interest, due to their concentration levels,” Dr. Smith says.

In the mining industry, sought-after metals are dispersed. “You have to spend a lot of money and move a lot of rock to get at the metals,” Dr. Smith explains. Recovering metals from sludge, however, is easier. It also complements traditional mining and can be undertaken in any market.

From a sustainability point of view, we’re…trying to find a way to extract metals from [waste streams] that contain large amounts of metals, versus just throwing them in a landfill and dealing with the effects of having the metals dispersed in the environment,” Dr. Smith says.

There’s also money to be made. Arizona State University researchers calculate that a million-strong community produces $13 million worth of metals in biosolids annually. The most lucrative elements—silver, copper, gold, phosphorus, iron, palladium, manganese, zinc, iridium, aluminum, cadmium, titanium, gallium and chromium—have an estimated combined value of $280 per ton ($308 per tonne) of sewage.

A 1978 analysis of incinerated sludge in Palo Alto, California found 30 parts per million of gold and 660 parts per million of silver in the city’s annual ash pile, worth some $2.5 million; since then the gold price alone has risen six-fold.

Knowing the total concentrations of metals in the biosolids is just the first step,” Dr. Smith notes.  The challenge is to release and recover the metals in the correct form to interest the market. “It’s not as easy as multiplying the concentration of the metals by their market value.”

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, for example, are working on a thermal-chemical process to decontaminate sludge, remove harmful heavy metals, and retain the phosphorus as fertilizer.

Meanwhile, JBR Recovery Ltd., in West Bromwich, U.K., has developed a commercially-viable method to recover silver and other precious metals from industrial sludge. Simon Meddings, JBR’s managing director, explains the process. First, a rotary kiln uses combustible silver-bearing waste to dry out most of the moisture. A high-carbon ash is produced—increasing the volume of metals to 10% to 15% from around 0.2%—and placed into a lead-based blast furnace. The lead collects the precious metals, and slag is dispersed through a tap hole at the front of the furnace. The alloy of lead and precious metals then goes into a cupellation furnace, which oxidizes the lead, allowing it to be poured off the top. The remaining bath of molten metal—around 98% pure silver with gold and other platinum group metals present—is cast into bars. These go into moebius cells where an electrical current refines the silver to 99.9%, and collects and refines the gold and platinum separately.

Sludge suppliers are paid according to how much precious metal is extracted and sold, less treatment and refining charges. The photographic industry and chemical production plants are major customers (photographs and x-rays in particular having high metals content).

Nonetheless, many large companies overlook their waste streams, and simply contract waste management companies to dispose of their sludge.

You’d be surprised how much ends up in landfill,” Mr. Meddings says. “People are not aware of the value in it.” They might take more interest “if they know they can get a financial rebate.”


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

Megacities minus mega-traffic

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar


Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The number of megacities—i.e., those with more than 10 million inhabitants—is expected to rise to 41 by 2030, from 28 today, with most of the increase occurring in emerging economies.

Urbanization is particularly strong in China, where some 16 million rural Chinese migrate to cities every year. In addition, China also suffers from chronic air pollution, made worse by rising middle-class car ownership. With 154 million cars on the road in 2014, particulate-matter counts—a measure of air quality—regularly surpasses 500 micrograms per cubic meter, about 20 times the World Health Organization pollution guidelines.

China’s government is trying to improve the urban environment. Its six-year New Urbanization Plan includes plans for hundreds of new “eco-cities,” though existing eco-cities, such as Shenyang, Caofeidian, Nanning, Dongtan, Qingdao and Sino-Singapore Tianjin, have had mixed results.

“They’re making courageous attempts and are learning from success and failure,” says Victor Vergara, lead urban specialist at the World Bank. “If you have a situation where you have a greenfield and you have a lot of capital, you’re able to do things that otherwise couldn’t be done.”

But sometimes the cities don’t have the natural economic base to grow organically. You can’t invent a city. It has to emerge from a marketplace where people work and study and enjoy themselves.”

However, cities in emerging economies tend to grow haphazardly, with irregular settlements that don’t conform to (often unrealistic) zoning laws. Indeed, urban growth is so rapid that even cities with strong traditional institutions have a hard time keeping up, Mr. Vergara notes.

Despite these challenges, some cities are working to grow in ways that make them sustainable and pleasant places to live. That means rejecting the urban sprawl typical of U.S. and some Latin American cities, in favor of urban areas that are compact, walkable and well-served by public transport.

Such transit-oriented development prioritizes support for public transport over private cars. It aims to make the best use of land around transit nodes and stations, attracting more people and increasing land prices in the process. “It’s basically good urban planning, which puts long-term public interest before short-term private gain,” Mr. Vergara says.

One key to success is ensuring that schools, shops, health care, work, and other basic facilities are available locally. “The first thing is designing, or at least steering, their growth in ways that limit as much as possible the need for mobility,” Mr. Vergara says.

Cities have to be polycentric, with more than one area where services are available to citizens. They also have to have many neighborhood centers where people can walk to get their basic daily needs, like shopping.”

Walkable cities must also have good sidewalks and prioritize pedestrian safety, avoiding dangerous intersections and long waits when crossing broad avenues. And when longer journeys are necessary—for example, commuting across town for work—cities must ensure that good public transport is available, Mr. Vergara says.

In the past, you have had the whole thing upside down. You had roads that defined how cities grow, rather than cities that want to grow a certain way and have roads that enable that growth,” he adds.

As a result, some initiatives to limit car usage, such as car ownership quotas or odd- and even-license plates for driving on alternate days, have backfired. “In middle-income countries, people just buy a second car,” he says, and often one that’s older and pollutes more. A better way to discourage car use is by charging for driving on congested roads and through stricter parking policies.

Meanwhile, cities can make public transport more attractive: by subsidizing ticket prices; allowing single-ticket transfers between transport modes—such as from bus to metro—and reducing connection times; introducing more bus lanes to make bus journeys faster than by car; and by making buses and train cars more comfortable.


And many cities are doing just that. Curitibia, in southern Brazil, first focused on rapid-transit bus services four decades ago, later upgrading with dedicated bus lanes, level boarding, free transfers and futuristic tube-like bus stops. Despite its high level of car ownership, 70% of the city’s commuters use the bus system.

In East Africa, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are adopting rapid-transit bus systems to improve service while shifting commuters away from unregulated, high-polluting minibuses.

“There are new ways of living that people have to understand to make large cities viable,” Mr. Vergara says. “Cities need to be both efficient and equitable in order to ensure shared prosperity and poverty reduction.”


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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