Taking the high road

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar


Roads are not just a way to get from A to B. They change how the land is used, especially in rural areas, and can transform lives and livelihoods. But “more” is not always “better.”

Roads allow people to reach health centers, schools and markets, which produces healthier, more skilled citizens, and in turn generates trade, jobs and economic growth. Roads can also lower food and other prices, and cut waste. Indeed, a paved road can halve the chances of spoilage, by getting fresh food to market quicker. According to the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a $239 billion investment in roads (as well as rail and electricity networks) in developing markets over the next 15 years could eliminate $3.1 trillion in food waste.

Yet about 1.2 billion people worldwide still lack access to an all-weather road, according to the World Bank. That is changing rapidly. Roads are being built at an unprecedented pace: 25 million kilometers of paved thoroughfares are expected to be built by 2050—enough to circle the Earth 600 times, says William Laurance, research professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, and director of its Center for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science.

But are these roads being built where they are most needed?

We need to focus on roads within a few hours of cities, where most land is settled, agriculture is inefficient and there’s a lot of wastage getting crops to urban markets,” Dr. Laurance says.

“The place NOT to build roads is in the last wilderness areas,” he adds. “The first cut is the deepest. Deforestation is like cancer, and a road is the first tumor.”

iStock_000071608141_SmallThe United Nations estimates that 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed annually, producing 12% to 20% of greenhouse gas emissions—and roads make things worse. A study of Brazil’s Amazon basin found that for every kilometer of legal road, there are three kilometers of illegal roads, and that 95% of deforestation occurs within 5.5 kilometers of roads.

Even with positive initiatives such as the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, good intentions in one area can backfire in another. Consider, for example, efforts to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people without power. This can improve health by keeping food and medicine fresh, and reduce poverty by boosting economic development. Moreover, electricity from hydroelectric dams doesn’t directly emit greenhouse gases. Currently, 3,700 hydroelectric dams bigger than one megawatt are under construction globally, mostly in developing countries.

However, besides flooding large areas of land, remote dams also require new road networks for passing power lines and for maintenance, Dr. Laurance says. And once roads are built into forests, logging, land speculation, illegal mining, poaching, farming and other activities tend to follow.

“It isn’t the project itself. It’s the secondary impacts of all the road building that causes the biggest damage,” he says.

iStock_000063980733_SmallIn March 2015, Foundation Earth, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank, wrote to the Group of 20 (G-20) major nations urging their leaders to avoid the kind of large infrastructure projects that lock in emissions and environmental damage seen in past developments.

“We need full cost accounting, to disclose externalities—the pollution—and that’s not done now,” says Randy Hayes, Foundation Earth’s executive director.

He proposes three categories for land development: “no go” zones, which should exclude development on biodiversity and other environmental grounds; “go” zones, developed areas that would benefit from more roads; and “careful” zones that include biodiversity and economic activity, where selective infrastructure development might be beneficial.

For example, Costa Rica integrated its national parks via corridors for animal (rather than human) migration. The country’s “biodiversity and restoration go hand in hand with economic development,” he says.

Dr. Laurance and his colleagues believe similar can be achieved if nine steps for navigating conflicts between ecological and economic interests are followed:

  1. Avoid the “first cut” in forests and wilderness areas.
  2. Recognize how paving existing roads will change their character and speed.
  3. Consider indirect costs, especially in energy and mining projects.
  4. Treat projects in the wilderness as “offshore,” and rely on river or helicopter access.
  5. Engage all parties early in the planning process, when changes are easier to make.
  6. Improve project evaluation tools.
  7. Include environmental and social experts alongside the financial teams.
  8. Reject arguments that harmful projects will be done regardless and without supervision.
  9. Involve non-governmental organizations and the public.

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

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

Sustainability Series blog post: Packing Things Up

By Christina

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” might sound like a horror story but, unfortunately, it is very real:  a giant collection of marine debris in the waters between North America and Japan that is primarily made up of plastic.  In addition to polluting ocean waters, this collection of bags, caps, bottles and cups is detrimental to marine life, which mistakes plastic items for food and consumes them, only to die from complications.  According to a study published in the journal Science in February 2015, 8 million tons of plastic packaging are deposited into oceans annually.

In order to help solve this problem, many companies are now turning to new biomaterials, smarter manufacturing methods and other end-of-life alternatives to reduce the environmental impact of their plastic packaging throughout its lifecycle.

A number of multi-national food and beverage brands and packaging manufacturers have launched or integrated bioplastic products into their portfolios. Bioplastics are derived from renewable biomass sources including vegetable fats, corn starch and agricultural byproducts.  A study by European Bioplastics predicts that bioplastics production capacity will increase by 400 percent, from 1.6 million tons in 2013 to around 6.7 million tons by 2018.

Packaging companies are also using new manufacturing techniques to optimize packaging design and reduce their use of virgin materials. For example, Amcor used 3D virtual design, finite element analysis, collaborative innovation and workflow management to remove more than 12,000 tons of plastic resin from its bottles.  MWV used lightweighting techniques to remove 18 percent of the plastic from medication packets made for a superstore.

IFWE Dassault Systèmes BrandingCompanies are also taking into account how the raw materials are sourced, transported, manufactured and disposed of.  A cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach, designed to mimic natural processes, ensures that products contain materials that can be reused or recovered at their highest possible value multiple times after their first use.

Other recent innovations have included edible containers and biodegradable coffee cups that are embedded with seeds and can be buried after use.  In the U.S. alone, coffee “to go” is a daily staple, with an estimated 6 million cups of coffee sold in shops each day—think of the possibilities!KFC image (Image credit KFC via The New York Times)

For more details on how the CPGR industry is transforming packaging, read the full COMPASS article “Responsible packaging:  Producing reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging is a key goal for many companies”.

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