8 lessons from Egypt in building a cleaner chemicals industry

8 lessons from Egypt in building a cleaner chemicals industry

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

The technology is there to reduce the environmental impact of Egypt’s chemical sector, but finance and capacity are still lacking.

In previous articles, I have looked at the impacts of the chemicals sector and innovations like green chemistry. But how do we share the technologies that are making the chemicals sector more sustainable, especially in rapidly emerging countries?

To answer this question, I’m going to shine the spotlight on Egypt – where factories are discharging 2.5m cubic metres of untreated effluent into the rivers every day, much of it laced with toxic chemicals. The country also faces a water and energy crisis. But three Egyptian companies are tackling these environmental issues through technology adoption and transfer.

The first is Arab Steel Fabrication Company (El Sewedy), which has applied a technological solution to recover hydrochloric acid from its galvanisation process. Besides the obvious environmental benefits, the company is saving 345,000 Egyptian pounds (£30,000) a year. The second company, Mac Carpet, has used technology to create an automatic system for recycling of thickener agents, which saves it about EGP5m per year.

The third case is El Obour for Paints and Chemical Industries (Pachin), which manufactures paints, inks and resins. As with many chemical companies, the manufacturing process is very energy intensive. As part of a government programme to promote renewable energy in Egypt (part-funded by the EU), a technology company in Germany has installed solar collectors at the Pachin facility. These heat the water to 65C, then by using a heat exchanger, recover the heat and use it to keep the fatty acid store at an optimal temperature, saving the company EGP100,000 a year.

In all three cases, there are lessons to be learned.

1. Economic drivers

When asked about the top three benefits from implementing sustainable technology, El Sewedy and Mac Carpet Company both mentioned resource productivity and economic development. Environmental improvement was also a key factor (in the top three for both), but would have been insufficient on its own to motivate the technology change.

2. Skills development

Significant barriers to technology adoption for both companies were the lack of local qualified workers and institutional capacity. To overcome this, the technology provider and the Egyptian National Cleaner Production Centre (ENCPC) had to do training. Ali Abo Sena, an ENCPC representative, said that education was needed not only on the specific technologies, but also more broadly on the seriousness of the water crisis in Egypt.

3. Business continuity

For Pachin, energy consumption is not just an environmental issue, but one that is business critical. In 2013, the Egyptian government announced plans to ration subsidies for petrol and diesel fuel, and hiked fuel prices for heavy industry by 33% at the beginning of the year. Power outages have become more commonplace, resulting in significant disruption to business continuity and loss of economic value.

4. Market potential

The German solar company was prepared to part-fund, install and support the technology transfer to Pachin in Egypt because it enabled them to show a working demonstration of a project in a market that has massive potential for the business. The marketing benefits of sustainable technology in developing countries should not be underestimated.

5. Macro conditions

It is unlikely that the Pachin project would have been embraced so enthusiastically had Egypt not experienced an energy crisis – and accompanying rises in energy costs – in recent years. Although these macro conditions are beyond the control of sustainable technology providers, being sensitive to the opportunities that they can provide can help ensure that the correct markets are chosen for deployment.

6. Financial support

Although long-term economic development is an important benefit of the adoption of sustainable technologies, the high initial cost of the these projects and the relatively long payback period can be a significant barrier. In the case of Pachin, this was overcome by getting financial support for the project (from the EU and the technology provider).

7. Plan for scaling

A lack of qualified workers to install, operate and maintain Pachin’s solar technology was overcome by providing the relevant skills training. However, in order to ensure future scaling, a plan was also devised for moving towards local manufacturing (possibly through a joint-venture).

8. Local adaptation

The ENCPC – working as an intermediary – determined that the German solar technology was over-engineered for the local conditions. In particular, since the technology was made in Germany and had to comply with EU specifications and perform in a region with ambient sunlight, it was found that the insulation materials could be replaced with less expensive substitutes, which performed adequately under local conditions.

Major reductions in the environmental impacts of the chemicals industry – as well as economic benefits – can be achieved by adopting and transferring existing best practice sustainable technologies. The problem, therefore, is not our lack of sustainable technologies, but our ability to finance, incentivise and build capacity for their deployment where they are most needed in the world.

 

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Visser, W. (2014) 8 lessons from Egypt in building a cleaner chemicals industry, The Guardian, 8 October 2014.

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Will green chemistry save us from toxification?

Will green chemistry save us from toxification?

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

A swath of green chemistry initiatives could revolutionise the industry but just taking the toxic stuff out isn’t the answer, ingredients and design need to change.

The ‘green’ label has been so abused over the past few decades that it is wise to suspect PR spin (what many call greenwashing). In the case of green chemicals, however, there is at least some serious thinking and extensive application to back up its claims.

Let’s start with what it means. The OECD defines green chemistry as “the design, manufacture and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes”. More specifically, green chemistry should use fewer hazardous and harmful feedstocks and reagents; improve the energy and material efficiency of chemical processes; use renewable feedstocks or wastes in preference to fossil fuels or mined resources; and design chemical products for better reuse or recycling.

Popular categories of green chemistry include biochemical fuel cells, biodegradable packaging, aqueous solvents, white biotechnology (the application of biotechnology for industrial purposes), totally chlorine-free bleaching technologies and green plastics.

One research report suggests that the green chemistry market will grow from $2.8bn in 2011 to $98.5bn by 2020 and will save the industry $65.5bn through direct cost savings and avoided liability for environmental and social impacts.

Others are even more bullish, predicting growth in the bio-based chemicals market from $78bn in 2012 to $198bn by 2017, eventually accounting for 50% of the chemicals market by 2050.

Can we trust green chemistry?

One way to check is the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) Safer Product Labeling Program. The Safer Chemical Ingredients List contains chemicals that have been screened to exclude CMRs (carcinogens, reproductive/developmental toxicants and mutagens) and PBTs (persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic compounds) and other chemicals of concern.

At present, about 2,500 products carry the DfE Safer Product Label, with compliance verified by certifiers such as NSF Sustainability.

Beyond this, there are a host of multi-stakeholder initiatives that give further guidance, checks and validity to claims, including Clean Production Action’s GreenScreen, GreenBlue’s CleanGredients and iSustain’s Alliance Assessment.

All these hazardous chemical screening lists may seem like striving for ‘less bad’ rather than ‘good’, but they are also sparking innovations around the world.

Imagine what would happen if we substituted all our fossil fuel derived plastics with Brazilian company Braskem’s sugarcane ethanol derived Bio-PE (polyethylene) and Bio-PP (polypropylene), which removes up to 2.15 metric tons of CO2 for each ton produced.

What if many of the plastics used in the automotive sector were replaced by a new latex-free material produced through a dry powder coating technology by French project Latexfri? Or perhaps we could move to starches created by Ethiopian company YASCAI from enset, a local plant?

Another approach, which UNIDO has been promoting, is to move towards chemical leasing, where chemical manufacturers take responsibility for the safe recovery and disposal of the chemicals they sell. For example, in Colombia, a chemical leasing programme between Ecopetrol and Nalco de Colombia resulted in a reduction of the costs of the treatment process by almost 20%, with savings of $1.8m for Ecopetrol and $463,000 for Nalco.

In Sri Lanka, chemical leasing between Wijeya Newspapers and General Ink resulted in ink savings of around 15,000kg, equivalent to approximately $50,000 per year. In Egypt, Delta Electrical Appliances, Akzo Nobel Powder Coating and Chemetall Italy reduced consumption of chemicals for pre-treatment chemicals by 15-20% and for powder coating by 50% as a result of chemical leasing.

A new era for the chemical industry

Will all of these green chemistry initiatives revolutionise the industry?

Cradle to Cradle, a product certification scheme, hopes to do just that. Co-founder and German chemist, Michael Braungart, told me that in 1987 when he was analysing complex household products, he identified 4,360 different chemicals in a TV set and concluded: “It doesn’t help just to take any toxic stuff out of it”. Rather, products have to be redesigned so that all inputs are either biological nutrients (that can harmlessly biodegrade) or technical nutrients (that can be endlessly and safely recycled).

So does Cradle to Cradle represent the cutting edge of green chemistry? In my book, The Top 50 Sustainability Books, Braungart says: “I’m just talking about good chemistry. Chemistry is not good when the chemicals accumulate in the biosphere; that’s just stupid. Young scientists immediately understand that a chemical is not good when it accumulates in mother’s breast milk. It’s just primitive chemistry. So now we can make far better chemistry, far better material science, far better physics.”

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Visser, W. (2014) Will green chemistry save us from toxification? The Guardian, 24 September 2014.

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Why banning dangerous chemicals is not enough

Why banning dangerous chemicals is not enough

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

To feed the world’s chemical addiction, production has had to grow rapidly over the last 40 years. Are companies doing enough to make products and processes safer?

The growth in chemical production in the past 40 years has been nothing short of explosive, with global output of $171bn in 1970 burgeoning to more than $4tn in 2010 (an increase of more than 2,000%). By 2050, the market is expected to expand further to more than $14tn (an increase of more than 250% from 2010), with the BRICS countries dominating and accounting for more than $6tn together ($4tn for China alone).

The message is clear: this is not an industry that is going away. We are all, with our modern lifestyles, totally hooked on chemicals, whether for energy (petrochemicals), colourants (paints, inks, dyes, pigments), food production (fertilisers, pesticides), health (medicines, soaps, detergents) or beauty (perfumes, cosmetics).

Yet, like all drugs, chemicals have some serious side effects. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the chemical industry causes around a million deaths and 21m disability adjusted life years (DALYs) globally every year (based on 2004 data). DALYs are a measure of overall disease burden, expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.

The main cause of these serious health impacts are acute poisoning , occupational exposure and lead in the environment. What’s more, these WHO figures are almost certainly an underestimate, since they exclude (due to incomplete data) chronic consumer exposure to chemicals and chronic exposure to pesticides and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury.

So here is the dilemma: chemicals are harming people – and even killing some of them – yet because of their benefits and the world’s addiction, they cannot be eliminated, even if the renewable energy and organic farming sectors continue their boom of recent years. Taking this as a starting point, the next question becomes: what has the chemical industry done to make its products and processes safer?

The industry has a self-regulatory programme called Responsible Care, which was created in 1985. According to the International Council of Chemical Associations’ (ICCA) decennial report on progress in 2012, 85% of the world’s leading global chemical companies have already signed up to its Global Charter. The ICCA can show significant improvements since 2002 in fatalities, injuries, carbon intensity and transportation incidents (others like water consumption, energy use and total carbon emissions are still heading in the wrong direction).

All this is part of ICCAs contribution to the UN’s Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), which aims to achieve “sound chemical management” and to “minimise significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health” by 2020. That sounds good. But is it working? The data suggests we have a long way to go.

For example, in North America alone, 4.9m metric tons of chemicals are released annually into the environment or disposed of, according to 2009 figures. This includes nearly 1.5m metric tons of chemicals that are persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic; more than 756,000 metric tons of known or suspected carcinogens; and nearly 667,000 metric tons of chemicals that are considered reproductive or developmental toxicants.

Besides the health impacts of these emissions, the disruptive effects of chemical pollution on ecosystems also have significant economic consequences. The cost to the global economy of chemical pollution has been estimated at $546bn. This is projected to rise to $1.9tn by 2050, or 1.2% of global GDP. 57% of these externalities are associated with listed companies and their supply chains, and $314bn can be attributed to the largest 3,000 public companies in the world.

Scary numbers, but the chemicals sector says everything is under control. They are aware of the problems and are dealing with them, multilaterally and as a sector, through a plethora of initiatives – such as the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, the US Toxic Release Inventory and the EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals programme. The ICCA’s Chemicals Portal also offers free public access to product stewardship information. To date, product safety summaries are available for close to 3,500 chemicals.

And besides these collective efforts, most large companies now also have lists of chemicals they ban and those they prefer, such as Nike’s Considered Chemistry, Boots’ Priority Substances List, SC Johnson’s Greenlist and Sony’s Green Partners Standards. However, the issue is that these are defensive actions, a bit like trying to lock up a fierce lion in a cage, rather than taming it – or better still, exchanging it for a pet cat or dog.

Can the chemical sector ever be sustainable? The answer is maybe. The big leap forward – with a tantalising promise of not only making chemicals safer or ‘less bad’, but potentially harmless or even ‘good’ – is the emerging green chemistry industry, which I will explore in the next article.

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Visser, W. (2014) Why banning dangerous chemicals is not enough. The Guardian, 16 September 2014.

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Sustainable tech in Africa: 10 lessons from a cassava company

Sustainable tech in Africa: 10 lessons from a cassava company

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Cassava flour company C:AVA has valuable insight from five years’ experience spreading sustainable technology in Africa

To understand the potential impact of sustainable technologies and why their adoption is often difficult, especially in developing countries, it is helpful to examine a specific case study.

C:AVA, the Cassava: Adding Value for Africa Project, promotes the production of High Quality Cassava Flour (HQCF) as an alternative for starch and other imported materials such as wheat flour. C:AVA has developed value chains for HQCF in Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria and Malawi aiming to improve the livelihoods and incomes of at least 90,000 smallholder households, including women and disadvantaged groups.

The main opportunity for technology to make a difference is in the drying process. A flash dryer dries cassava mash very quickly, preventing fermentation. The flash dryers that were available in Nigeria before C:AVA’s intervention were run on used motor oil or diesel and tended to be highly fuel inefficient and costly.

C:AVA – led by the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich, working with the Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – evaluated the traditional flash dryers in 2009. Since then, they have introduced more efficient technology (double cyclone flash dryers). These involve heat exchange systems – using “waste” heat from one part of the process to feed into another part – better insulation and faster drying speeds. The efficiencies have increased the diesel fuel to flour production ratio by an 18 factor improvement according to C:AVA tests, reducing costs and CO2 emissions.

However, these achievements have not been easy. Over the last five years, C:AVA has learned 10 crucial lessons about the successful diffusion of more sustainable technologies in Africa:

1. Capacity building

A critical part of the technology transfer process was that C:AVA mentored a Nigerian fabricator to produce a flash dryer that meets international standards. As a result, new engineering knowledge and skills are being developed and embedded locally.

2. Regional trade and infrastructure

C:AVA organised experience sharing visits between cassava stakeholders in western and eastern Africa. Transporting a flash dryer from Nigeria to Malawi revealed significant constraints to technology transfer in the region due to poor transport infrastructure and high transaction costs (bureaucratic red tape).

3. Value chain fluctuations

Technology can improve one part of the value chain, but changes in other parts can neutralise these benefits. For example, prices of fresh cassava roots can vary by more than 300% in one season. So C:AVA is also working with others to ensure that farmers obtain higher yield per unit area of cassava.

4. Macro trends

It is critical to monitor how changes in the macro environment could impact the technology investment. In Malawi, C:AVA identified large markets for HQCF and organised raw materials in anticipation of the introduction of artificial drying. But due to a drought, cassava suddenly became a major primary food in a predominantly maize consuming nation, resulting in a raw materials shortage.

5. Working with investors

The new dryers required investors willing to make an investment of $200,000 (£120,600). This difficulty was overcome by addressing the fuel inefficiency of the traditional flash dryers, and working with potential investors on their business plans, identifying market opportunities and raw materials supply.

6. Finance dependent delays

For C:AVA, almost all project targets that were dependent on private investor decision making have been off-course. Technology projects need to include or seek guidance from private sector partners in determining their expectations and fixing their decision-making timelines within project cycles.

7. Expectations management

The perception that technology interventions will bring financial or tangible hand-outs can lead to disappointment and even hostility from potential beneficiaries when these expectations are not met. This can be exacerbated by development agencies providing short-term donations.

8. Policy support

C:AVA benefitted from a favourable government policy environment in Nigeria, particularly in the period between 2002 and 2007 when the Presidential Initiative on Cassava was in operation. Currently, the Cassava Transformation Programme of the federal government provides another favourable environment to promote the technology.

9. Private sector partners

One of the big lessons from C:AVA was that their set of collaborative partnerships, although well balanced in other respects, lacked private sector representation. As a result, when it came to getting access to capital, the technology adoption time was considerably delayed.

10. Spreading the benefits

To scale the positive impact, there are plans for spreading the more efficient flash dryer technology through south-south investments, (between developing countries). To this end, the Gates Foundation has funded demonstration projects in four additional countries, including Malawi, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda.

 

With thanks to Richard Coles and Christopher Thorpe from Emagine and the University of Greenwich C:AVA team for the interviews and/or the information they provided.

 

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Visser, W. (2014) Sustainable tech in Africa: 10 lessons from a cassava company. The Guardian, 26 August 2014.

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Meeting water and energy challenges in agri-food sector with technology

Meeting water and energy challenges in agri-food sector with technology

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Innovations in sugar cane processing to reduce water use and produce energy will help to meet future agricultural product demands

Worldwide, the overall growth in demand for agricultural products will require a 140% increase in the supply of water over the next 20 years compared to the past 20 years. While the bulk of this demand will be from irrigation, food processing plants can also be water intensive. So, any technological innovations in the industry that save water are welcome.

One such innovation is by Mars Petcare, which has developed a recirculation system that reduces the potable water used for cooling in its pet food production process by 95%. Wastewater is also down by 95% and gas by 35% through the use of a treatment method that keeps the water microbiologically stable.

In Brazil, water used in sugar cane processing has gone down from 5.6 to 1.83 cubic metres (m3) per tonne in recent years, due to improved technologies and practices in waste water treatment.

Further reductions can be made by replacing the standard wet cane washing process with a new technique of dry cane washing. Costa Rican company Azucarera El Viejo SA has found that this switch has resulted in more than 6m gallons of water being saved each day during the harvest season, netting savings of approximately $54,000 (£32,000).

Of course, in food processing, it is not only volume of water that is important, but also the quality of water effluent associated with the manufacturing process. In Brazil, sugar cane is partly processed into ethanol. Vinasse is a byproduct of this process that pollutes water. Technological innovation shows that, while in Brazil emissions of 10-12 litres of vinasse per litre of ethanol are standard, levels of 6 litres can be achieved.

Other examples of innovative water quality solutions in the agri-foods sector are Briter-Water, which has been piloted in the EU and uses intensified bamboo-based phytoremediation for treating dairy and other food industry effluent; and the Vertical Green Biobed, developed by HEPIA, a school from the University of Applied Sciences of western Switzerland, to improve water treatment of agricultural effluents.

Generating energy from agricultural waste

Besides water issues, agriculture is also very energy intensive, accounting for 7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to 2010 figures. Even carbon emissions associated only with direct energy use by the sector stand at 1.4% of the world’s total. Energy efficiency technologies will certainly help, but there is an equally big innovation opportunity in generating energy from agricultural waste.

It is estimated that the global biofuels market could double to $185.3bn (£110.5) by 2021 and that next generation sugar cane bagasse-to-biofuels technologies could expand ethanol production in key markets like Brazil and India by 35% without land or water intensification. Experiences in this rapidly growing industry suggest some lessons which can be applied to sustainable technology innovation more generally.

Lesson 1: technologies must be ready-for-market

There are always competing technological solutions at the Research and Development (R&D) phase, but a critical test is which ones are ready to scale commercially. In the case of cellulosic biofuel technologies, despite early research into wheat straw and corn stover, sugar cane biomass ended up being more commercially attractive to big investors like Blue Sugars, Novozymes, Iogen, Beta Renewables, DSM and Codexis.

Lesson 2: partnership is critical for success

There have been few standalone projects announced. Instead, technology companies from the US and the EU have generally teamed up with large aggregators of bagasse like Raizen and Petrobras. Apart from technology transfer benefits, access to already-aggregated bagasse is economically essential.

Lesson 3: policy support and market demand attract investment

Brazil is especially attractive as a technology transfer destination due to a combination of policy certainty and strong ethanol demand. This combination is also stimulating parallel next generation biofuels. Most notably GraalBio and Praj have significant projects targeting other feedstocks such as straw.

Investment in biofuels can also generate significant economic value for agri-food processors. During the sugar cane harvest, the left over fibre is burned and converted into energy via bagasse-to-biogas production. During the 2011-12 harvest, approximately 38m kWh of energy derived from bagasse-to-biogas production was sold by Azucarera El Viejo to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, bringing over $3m (£1.79m) of income to the company.

In Nepal, the Biogas Support programme installed over 250,000 domestic biogas plants in rural households between 1992 and 2011, using cattle manure to provide biogas for cooking and lighting, replacing traditional energy sources such as fuel wood, agricultural residue and dung. Besides health benefits from less indoor smoke, the project has cut 625,000t of CO2.

And in Rwanda, there is a proposal – yet to be approved and implemented – for two biofuels companies, Eco-fuels Global and Eco Positive, to invest $250m (£149m) and grow 120m jatropha trees, helping to make Rwanda self-reliant in biodiesel by 2025 and bringing jobs to 122 small oilseed-producing cooperatives with over 12,000 members.

 

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Visser, W. (2014) Meeting water and energy challenges in agri-food sector with technology. The Guardian, 13 August 2014.

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Tackling the food waste challenge with technology

Tackling the food waste challenge with technology

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Innovation in packaging and refrigeration can reduce waste – as can changes in behaviour.

The challenges of the 21st century will stretch our collective capacity for innovation like never before.

Take food security. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is first to find 175-220m hectares of additional cropland by 2030; second, to increase total food production by about 70% by 2050, mostly through improving crop yields; and third, to achieve all this without damaging the land, poisoning ourselves or impairing the health of our finite and already fragile ecosystems.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that meeting this challenge will require investment in developing countries’ agriculture of $9.2tn (£5.4tn) over the next 44 years – about $210bn (£123bn) a year (PDF) – from both private and public sources. Just under half of this amount will need to go into primary agriculture, and the rest into food processing, transportation, storage and other downstream activities. A priority will be finding ways to close the gaps between crop yields in developed and developing countries, which are around 40%, 75%, and 30-200% less in developing countries for wheat, rice and maize, respectively (PDF) – all while using fewer resources and less harmful substances.

This challenge is hard enough, but we also have to tackle the problem of 1.3bn tonnes of food wasted every year (PDF) – roughly a third of all food produced for human consumption. Fortunately, this is an area where technology can play a strong role, and where the economic, human and environmental benefits are compelling. An assessment of resource productivity opportunities between now and 2030 suggests that reducing food waste could return $252bn (£148bn) in savings, the third largest of all resource efficiency opportunities identified by a McKinsey study.

Reducing food waste through improved packaging

Although food waste is highest in Europe and North America (PDF), it is also a problem in developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa and south and south-east Asia.

According to the FAO, the total value of lost food is $4bn per year in Africa and $4.5bn a year in India, with up to 50% of fruit and vegetables ending up as waste. In developing countries including China and Vietnam, most food is lost through poor handling, storage and spoilage in distribution. It is estimated that 45% of rice in China and 80% in Vietnam (PDF) never make it to market for these reasons.

One of the most effective ways to reduce food waste is to improve packaging, for example by using Modified Atmosphere Packaging (Map) – a technology that substitutes the atmosphere inside a package with a protective gas mix, typically a combination of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen – to extend freshness.

This is a well-proven solution that calls for technology transfer rather than invention, which has been the approach of the Sustainable Product Innovation Project in Vietnam. Through the project, Map has been applied to over 1,000 small-scale farmers, resulting in reductions in post-harvest food waste from 30-40% to 15-20%.

Another simple packaging solution being promoted in developing countries is the International Rice Research Institute Super Bag. When properly sealed, the bag cuts oxygen levels from 21% to 5%, reducing live insects to fewer than one insect per kg of grain without using insecticides – often within 10 days of sealing. This extends the germination life of seeds from 6 to 12 months and controls insect grain pests (without using chemicals).

Improved storage and transportation

Besides improved packaging, a second way to reduce food loss and waste is through improved storage and transportation. A new report on creating a sustainable “cold chain” in the developing world estimates that about 25-50% of food wastage (PDF) could be eliminated with better, more climate friendly refrigeration. For example, Unilever has committed to using hydrocarbon (HC) refrigerants, which saved 40,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2013.

Waste into energy

Finally, even when food waste cannot be eliminated, its impacts can still be reduced, or even converted into benefits. For instance, animal by-products from slaughterhouses that are usually incinerated or disposed of in landfills can be treated by a new technology called the APRE process (PDF), which can treat 11 tonnes of dead animals every day, producing 4,000 metres cubed of bio-gas (60% of which is methane) and 44 tonnes of liquid fertiliser. The heat generated can be turned into electricity to be used in production or sold on.

As we can see, many technological solutions to agri-food waste already exist and only need to be more effectively shared and affordably adapted to local contexts. However, as always, technology is only part of the answer – something that Paris retailer Intermarché creatively, humorously and profitably demonstrates with its recent Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign, which discounts and celebrates fresh food that does not comply with EU size and colour restrictions and would otherwise have been dumped.

The sustainability revolution is as much about changing perceptions, attitudes and behaviours – the software – as about changing the technology.

 

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

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Visser, W. (2014) How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less. The Guardian, 29 July 2014.

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How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less

How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Sustainable Innovation & Technology series for The Guardian.

Investment is booming in clean and green technologies. But can they be implemented quickly enough to meet current challenges?

The controversial demographer Paul Ehrlich distilled the essence of his somewhat apocalyptic 1968 book, The population bomb, into a simple equation: impact (I) = population (P) x affluence (A) x technology (T). Twenty years later, Ray Anderson, the sustainability pioneer and then-CEO of Interface, asked the question: what if it were possible to move T to the denominator, so that technology reduces, rather than increases, impact on the environment and society?

Anderson’s challenge is the Apollo mission of the 21st century – a near impossible project that, if achieved, will inspire generations to come. The only difference is that achieving a sustainable technology revolution – let’s call it Mission SusTech – is playing for much higher stakes than JF Kennedy’s space race. Failure is an option and it’s called “overshoot and collapse”.

The good news is that Mission SusTech is well underway. This article is the first in a series that will spotlight trends, breakthroughs, cases and lessons on the development and transfer of sustainable technologies around the world. But be warned: it won’t focus on the latest touted miracle technologies but on the challenges of sharing, implementing and bringing to scale existing sustainable technologies.

What are the trends?

Not only is technological innovation booming, but it is rapidly shifting towards sustainable solutions. For example, many of the World Economic Forum’s top 10 most promising technologies have a clear environmental and social focus, such as energy-efficient water purification, enhanced nutrition to drive health at the molecular level, carbon dioxide (CO2) conversion, precise drug delivery through nanoscale engineering, organic electronics and photovoltaics.

The 2012 Global Green R&D Report found that private investments in clean technology and green economic and commercial solutions reached $3.6tn for the period 2007-2012. This included more than $2tn in renewable energy, $700bn in green construction, $241bn in green R&D, $238bn in the smart grid and $231bn in energy efficiency.

For specific clean energy technologies – including wind, solar and biofuels – the market size was estimated at $248bn in 2013 and is projected to grow to $398bn by 2023, according to the 2014 Clean Energy Trends report. Biofuels remain the largest market ($98bn), followed by solar ($91bn) and wind ($58bn). In what Clean Edge hails as a tipping point, in 2013 the world installed more new solar photovoltaic generating capacity (36.5 gigawatts) than wind power (35.5 GW).

This rapid growth is being fuelled by significant investment in research and development and breakthroughs in sustainable technologies, as indicated by a spike in patent applications.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), more patents have been filed in the last five years than in the previous 30 across key climate change mitigation technologies, or CCMTs (biofuels, solar thermal, solar photovoltaics and wind energy). While the average global rate of patent filing grew by 6% between 2006 and 2011, these CCMTs have experienced a combined growth rate of 24% over the same period.

Contrary to what some may think, emerging markets cannot automatically be assumed to lag on sustainable technological innovation. China and the Republic of Korea have filed the most patents in recent years across all four CCMT technology areas, while in solar PV, the top 20 technology owners are based in Asia.

What does the future hold?

The sustainable technology innovation wave is only just building. Research by McKinsey shows that improvements in resource productivity in energy, land, water and materials – based on better deployment of current innovative technologies – could meet up to 30% of total 2030 demand, with 70% to 85% of these opportunities occurring in developing countries. Capturing the total resource productivity opportunity could save $2.9tn in 2030.

We are living through the birth of what David King, director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, calls “another renaissance” in the industrial revolution: “Human ingenuity is the answer”, says King.

“We created the science and engineering technological revolution on which all our wellbeing is based. That same keen intelligence can point to the solutions to the hangover challenges and this requires nothing less than another renaissance.”

 

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

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Visser, W. (2014) How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less. The Guardian, 16 July 2014.

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To survive in a volatile world businesses must build in resilience

To survive in a volatile world businesses must build in resilience

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Unlocking Change series for The Guardian.

In a changing world it is not the fittest who will survive; it is the most adaptable.

If you have landed on this page wearing your superhero outfit – and I admit, I may be partly to blame – I’m going to have to ask you to remove your mask, cape and tights now. Don’t get me wrong, when the world needs saving and I’m done paying off my mortgage and carrying out the trash, I’ll be the first one to dial-a-superhero. But in the meantime …

You see, the world has this nasty habit of changing without our permission; in fact, without us having so much as poked it in the eye. And so we – as individuals, organisations or whole nations – often find that we are no longer the agents of change, but rather its victims. Change happens! And we are left somewhere between mildly irritated and battling for our very survival.

According to Business Week, the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company is between 40 and 50 years. One-third of the Fortune 500 companies in existence in 1970 had vanished by 1983 – acquired, merged, or broken to pieces. Looking across the full spectrum of companies, large and small, the average life of companies may be as low as 12.5 years.

Can we really afford to talk about long-term sustainability, when short-term survival is so hard to achieve? The sobering fact is that we face a future in which saving the world may have to wait, while we save ourselves first. Chances are, we will even have to give up the smooth and swanky practice of sustainability, while we get down and dirty in the trenches of rough, rude resilience.

The bad news is that our silky green spandex outfits are probably not going to survive the trip. The good news is that resilience can be learned and planned for in advance. In a world of increasingly volatile sustainability challenges, there are five strategies for resilience that can dramatically increase our chances of survival when the waves of disruptive change come crashing in. They are to: defend, diversify, decentralise, dematerialise and define.

A defensive strategy can take on many forms, the most obvious of which is to insure against catastrophe, whatever form that may take. This only works if the crash is not systemic, but it is a good start. Other tactics include having a crack-squad of trouble-shooters trained to respond in times of crisis, and building up reserves for the proverbial rainy day, which may turn out to be a tsunami.

A diversification strategy applies to people, products and markets. For example, if you bet your corporate life on being a fossil fuel company, rather than an energy company, or if you are locked into a local market without any global investments, you are highly vulnerable. Likewise, if you hire an army of clones, your lack of diversity will leave you brittle in the face of change.

A decentralisation strategy is based on the same rationale that inspired the Internet. By decentralising information and building in redundancy on local servers, the internet is far less vulnerable to being taken out in a single hit. In the same way, by decentralising operations, infrastructure and solutions – as with decentralised energy for example – we can be better prepared to cope with disruption.

A dematerialisation strategy means moving to an industrial model that reduces dependency on resources. The only viable way to do this in the long term is to shift to renewable energy and to optimise the circular economy. Hence, anything we can do to decouple economic growth from environmental impacts is a step in the direction of greater resilience.

A defining strategy is about giving people a purpose to believe in. Victor Frankl, survivor of four Nazi concentration camps and psychiatric author of Man’s Search for Meaning, gives compelling evidence that our resilience under extreme circumstances often comes down to having an existential belief about something worth living for. Can sustainability offer us this compelling cause?

By pursing these five resilience strategies, individuals, organisations and even countries will be much better placed to endure the creative destruction to come. However, preparing for change is not the same thing as surviving it. Resilience is not a strategy, but an ability – one which is shaped and tempered in the fire of extreme experience.

At its heart, this ability to be resilient is about adapting when everything around us is changing – like an aspen tree. Aspen forests are able to survive frequent avalanches that literally flatten them. The trees survive and spring back up because they have an interconnected network of underground roots and their trunks and branches are highly pliable.

This brings us back full circle to the message of my first article on unlocking change, namely that the secret to transformational change in the world is connectivity – to which we can now add that dexterity is also absolutely critical. After all, Darwin never claimed that the fittest would survive, only the most adaptable.

 

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2013) To survive in a volatile world businesses must build in resilience. The Guardian, 28 October 2013.

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Finding your inner sustainability superhero

Finding your inner sustainability superhero

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Unlocking Change series for The Guardian.

For change to be sustained and transformational we need to tap into the powers of different types of sustainability superheroes.

Have you ever wondered why do we do it? The sustainability hokey cokey, I mean. Most of us – whether we are sustainability professionals, academics, consultants, students, activists or wannabes – could have pursued different career paths. For my sins, having studied marketing, I could have become a spin-doctor or an ad-man. So what makes us choose sustainability instead? What makes us tattoo the S-word to our foreheads (metaphorically speaking, I hope)?

My research shows that there are deep psychological – even existential – reasons why we ‘do’ sustainability. And you may be surprised to know that it is not because we want to save the world, or because we care about people, or even because we want to ‘make a difference’. At least, not directly. The real reason is because it gives us personal satisfaction – not of the sugar-rush or warm-cuddly variety, but of the purpose-inspired, life satisfaction kind.

If we dig a bit deeper, we find that six motivational forces drive our work in sustainability. First, it allows us to feel that our work is aligned to our personal values, whether these are faith-based or humanistic. Second, we find the work stimulating. Sustainability a bit like Sudoku for hippies – it is complex, dynamic and challenging, like an ultimate earth-puzzle that needs solving. Most sustainability enthusiasts share these two drivers.

The other four drivers tend to be distributed across the sustainability tribe. Some find meaning in giving specialist input, while others prefer empowering people. Some are motivated to come up with effective strategies, while others feel most satisfied if they are making a contribution to society. These drivers translate into a set of sustainability leader archetypes – think of them as our very own Fantastic Four, namely: Experts, Facilitators, Catalysts and Activists. Each represents a different kind of sustainability change agent.

Sustainability Experts tend to be focused on the details of a particular issue, with a deep knowledge and understanding, often of a technical or scientific nature. They like working on projects, designing systems and being consulted for their expertise. Their satisfaction comes from continuous learning and self-development. They are most frustrated by the failure of others to be persuaded by the compelling evidence, or to implement systems as they were designed.

Sustainability Facilitators are most concerned with using their knowledge to empower others to act, using their strong people skills to make change happen. They like working with teams, delivering training and giving coaching. Their satisfaction is in seeing changes in people’s understanding, work or careers. They become frustrated when individuals let the team down, or when those in power do not allow enthusiastic groups to act.

Sustainability Catalysts enjoy the challenge of shifting an organisation in a new direction, using their political skills of persuasion to change strategies. They like working with leadership teams and articulating the business case for sustainability. They are often pragmatic visionaries and are frustrated when top management fails to see – and more importantly, to act on – the opportunities and risks facing the organisation.

Sustainability Activists are typically passionate about macro-level issues and their impacts on society or the planet as a whole, using their strong feelings about justice to motivate their actions. Their satisfaction comes from challenging the status quo, questioning those in power and articulating an idealistic vision of a better future. They tend to be great networkers and are mainly frustrated by the apathy of others in the face of urgent crises.

As you reflect on what type of sustainability superhero you may be, I expect all four will resonate to a greater or lesser extent. This is because we are composite beings when it comes to making sustainability change happen. But we do gravitate more strongly to one archetype, based on what gives us the deepest personal satisfaction. And there are three good reasons why you should know which cape and tights fits you best.

First, aligning with your inner superhero means embracing a mode of action in which you are most professionally effective and purpose-inspired. Second, it allows you to check that your formal role, or the direction of your career, is consistent with your archetype – the mask must fit the cape and tights. And third, it encourages you to consciously put together teams with a balance of Experts, Facilitators, Catalysts and Activists – the ideal earth-crime fighting force.

So it is not enough that all change begins with individuals. For change to be sustained and transformational – for sustainability to be a force for good in the world, and to save the earth from humans – we need the joint efforts of the Fantastic Four, each with their particular superpowers: knowledge for the Experts, collaboration for the Facilitators, imagination for the Catalysts, and compassion for the Activists. Will you join in the heroes’ crusade?

 

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

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Visser, W. (2013) Finding your inner sustainability superhero. The Guardian, 21 October 2013.

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Unlock Change with Big Beliefs, Blue Skies, Burning Platforms and Baby Steps

Unlock change with big beliefs, blue skies, burning platforms and baby steps

Article by Wayne Visser

Part of the Unlocking Change series for The Guardian.

You’ll need a range of strategies to overcome the inevitable and much-underestimated resistance to sustainable organisational change. Here’s how to make it happen.

I know I’ve been banging on about “changing the world” in this series about unlocking change, but let’s be honest, for most of us, that is a bit like shooting for the stars. In practice, the moon we’re most likely to hit is changing our own organisations. Easy to say, hard to do. If there is one reason why organisational change fails, it’s because we underestimate resistance to change. As Hunter Lovins once told me, “Only a baby with a wet diaper wants changing, and even then, it cries throughout the process.”

Resistance to change comes from inertia – and inertia happens because, as Bob Doppelt, author of From Me to We, puts it, change is like an iceberg. It is futile to keep pushing against what is above the surface – the things we can see and control directly, such as rules, policies and procedures. Shifting the volume and weight of what lies below the surface – our habits, attitudes, beliefs and values – is the real secret to making change happen.

Unfortunately, this requires the intrinsic drivers of human behaviour to be rewired, which is what makes it so much more difficult. And yet, when we succeed, the scale and speed of change can be profound. Turning carpet company Interface into the first truly restorative business on the planet began with founder Ray Anderson’s “spear in the chest” revelation. Changing his worldview was the first step in changing his organisation.

Change was possible because Anderson was able to combine decades of experience as an industry leader with the fire-in-the-belly that came from his conversion to a new belief system. And, as with Steve Jobs, if a leader has true conviction, he or she can create a “reality distortion field” in which others get swept up in the cause.

Sadly, these missionary-type leaders with their big beliefs are about as common as Greenpeace activists serving on the management boards of oil companies. Most organisations have to rely on three other strategies to overcome inertia: burning platforms, blue skies and baby steps, which echo the elements of Gleicher’s formula for change.

Let’s start with baby steps, because this is usually the easiest strategy. Most organisations do not need much persuasion to commission a pilot facility, construct a demonstration project or develop a showcase product, especially with the giddy prospect of good PR-spin. In fact, sustainability reports are practically burping with all the “low-hanging fruit” that these companies have gorged themselves on.

The reason these baby steps for sustainability have never become giant leaps for humankind is because there is no real incentive to stride out. For that, we need the other two strategies, starting with blue skies. The fact is, as humans, we are always “chasing the blue”. But first we have to be convinced that where we are going is sunnier. Yet, for most people in most parts of the world – as crazy as it seems – we don’t believe that a sustainable future is necessarily a better future.

Veteran environmentalist Jonathan Porritt is hoping he can still change our minds. His new book, The Future We Made, sketches a vision of a what he calls a genuinely sustainable world in 2050 and why it is so much better than today. It’s a change management tactic that we could all learn from – the kind of thinking that inspired Elon Musk to invent Tesla Motors. Until then, nobody believed that electric cars could be not only green, but fast and cool too.

A blue skies strategy means being willing to take a risk as a leader, to set big hairy audacious goals. Whether it is Unilever’s plan to double in size, while reducing its environmental footprint and helping a billion people out of poverty, or Google’s ambition to make all the world’s knowledge free and accessible, blue-sky leaders know that we are only inspired by reaching for an impossible dream. That’s why we desperately need more Apollo-like sustainability missions that the public can get genuinely excited about.

The combination of big beliefs, baby steps and blue sky strategies will almost certainly get us moving forward, but if we want a pace to match the urgency of our global challenges, organisations need a burning platform. Someone else’s burning platform – HIV/Aids in South Africa, Amazon destruction in Brazil, or corruption in Russia – won’t do the trick. Impacts that are far away, or in the future, are like smouldering fires in the distance: noteworthy but not action-worthy. People need to feel the heat: directly, personally, here and now. For organisations and leaders, that might mean lighting a few fires.

In summary, if you’re trying to make change happen in your organisation, use burning platforms to create the urgency for change, blue skies to create the reasons to change, baby steps to create the momentum for change, and big beliefs to sustain the energy for change.

 

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2013) Unlock change with big beliefs, blue skies, burning platforms and baby steps. The Guardian, 14 October 2013.

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