Top 10 web trends shaping the future of sustainable business

Top 10 web trends shaping the future of sustainable business

Article by Wayne Visser

Written for The Guardian.

Web 2.0 is not just about sharing photos on Facebook. It is a new mindset focused on collective intelligence and co-creation.

Web 2.0, or the ability to share and manipulate information online through user collaboration, has had a disruptive effect on business. Customers now expect to participate in the corporate world, and place a greater value on transparency in return.

This new environment, termed “wikinomics” by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, is based on four principles: openness, peering, sharing and acting globally. Here are the top 10 ways that web 2.0 technologies and digital cultures will impact on business, driving them towards more sustainable behaviour during the next decade.

1. Net value footprinting

Business has evolved over the past two decades from being highly opaque to gradually embracing more transparent practices. This has been a result of regulation, such as the Toxic Release Inventory in the US, which requires thousands of American companies to report their use of more than 650 toxic chemicals, and voluntary efforts including the Global Reporting Initiative’s sustainability guidelines.

But in a web 2.0 world, companies are expected to measure and disclose their impact across the entire lifecycle of their products. This process of quantifying business’s economic, social and environmental costs to society is sometimes called full-cost accounting. I call it “net value footprinting”. Good examples of this approach include Puma’s environmental profit and loss statement and the research carried out by Global Footprint Network.

2. Forensic impact analysis

While progressive companies are steadily improving their transparency, there will also be millions of irresponsible companies trying to fly under the radar of regulation and public scrutiny, running polluting operations that expolot cheap labour and abuse human rights.

These rogue businesses can now be caught and exposed through the emerging practice of forensic impact analysis. This will happen through a combination of traceability technology (which finds the electronic footprints left by all businesses in the supply chain), forensic substance analysis (which can identify the source of fibres, chemicals and other product components) and vigilant activists and consumers who capture malpractices using photographs, videos and audio recordings leaked via social media.

This approach has been pioneered in the food industry, where reputable businesses use barcodes to monitor and qualify every stage of their production process. Tracking techniques were also used to expose Trafigura’s dumping of toxic waste along the Ivory Coast.

3. Crowdsourcing

Companies from the pre-digital age still believe that focus groups, public meetings, stakeholder panels and the occasional online or instore survey are adequate for taking the pulse of their customers and investors. At the same time, they are often distrustful of ideas suggested outside their organisations.

By contrast, web 2.0 savvy companies realise that the world has moved into an era of crowdsourcing. Future businesses will use filtered, or expert, crowds to monitor their reputation, get feedback on sustainable innovations and ask for help in solving difficult dilemmas. For example, Sony’s Open Planet Ideas and FutureScapes campaigns aimed to generate new sustainable technology ideas.

4. Disruptive partnerships

Companies have had a decade to get used to the idea of cross-sector partnerships, which have been heavily promoted through the United Nations and given a boost through inclusion in the Millennium Development Goals. But now business is expected to get into more challenging partnerships that disrupt the status quo. One example is Rio Tinto working with the World Conservation Union to reduce the impact on biodiversity.

These relationships also play out online. Greenpeace used social media very effectively to campaign against Nestle’s Kit Kat brand, after finding an Indonesian supplier was clearing tropical rainforest to grow palm oil. A year later the campaign group praised Nestle for its no deforestation commitment through its challenging partnership with TFT, a sustainable forestry NGO.

5. Open sourcing

One of the biggest changes in the society over the past 10 years has been the explosion of social media. This revolution goes beyond sharing our holiday photos on Facebook or micro-blogging the minutiae of our lives on Twitter. The more fundamental innovation is a shift in thinking and practice towards open sourcing, which at its heart is about the idea of co-creation.

This has influenced good business practices. After a decade under siege – with big pharma being accused of overpricing patented brands and blocking access to cheaper, generic and often life-saving drugs – GlaxoSmithKline committed to put chemical processes that it has intellectual property rights over that are relevant to finding drugs for neglected diseases into a patent pool so they can be explored by other researchers. Similarly, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk decided last year to open up all its patents “for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.”

6. Wiki-ratings

A common feature of web 2.0 design is that it allows users to express an opinion on content, from the ubiquitous “like” button on Facebook to the fresh-red versus rotten-green tomato movie rating system on rottentomatoes.com. When it comes to business, wiki-based platforms allow the public to rate and comment in detail on the economic, governance, social and environmental performance of companies. One such platform is Wikirate, where I serve on the advisory board, which allows for real-time updating. Any ethical infringement – or a positive sustainability innovation – will be reflected almost immediately in the company’s rating. Other pioneering examples in the ratings space are GoodGuide, WeGreen, and Project Label.

7. Prototyping

In a web 2.0 world prototypes are launched early, as imperfect versions used solicit rapid user feedback in a process known as”beta-testing”. One way to bring about such rapid, open-source prototyping is through competitions.

The X-Prize describes itself as “bringing about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” by offering multi-million dollar prizes in return for innovative ideas to tackle global problems. Another example is Virgin’s $25 million Earth Challenge to help design a “commercially viable design which results in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of the earth’s climate system”.

8. Smart mobbing

Web 2.0 technologies have spawned a new type of protest activity called smart mobbing. This means using real-time media and sharing platforms, such as text messages and social media status updates, to rapidly organise a crowd.

Viral text messaging in the Philippines helped to oust former President Joseph Estrada in 2001 and the use of Twitter proved pivotal during the Arab spring uprisings in 2011. Smart mobs can also co-ordinate virtual activity, such as when the hacktivist group Anonymous encouraged its followers to launch cyber attacks against Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and other companies opposing Wikileaks in 2011.

Mission 4636, meanwhile, created a text-mapping emergency communications system after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. In future, companies and governments will need to anticipate and respond to activist smart mobs as well as seed their own.

9. App farming

The war of the computing giants has turned into the battle of the apps, spawning a new generation of software applications focused on social and environmental solutions. Google Play lists more than 400 sustainability-related apps. The most popular is BlaBlaCar, which connects drivers with empty seats with people looking for a ride, allowing users to search the biggest European car-sharing community.

Common tools in this genre include ethical shopping guides, carbon footprint calculators and educational games. Businesses of the future will be judged on whether they can seed and grow farms of apps that provide solutions to the world’s most serious challenges.

10. Plug and play

Today’s smart technology detects its operating environment, installs whatever software is needed and begins operating without any action by the user. Rather than having to manually unplug or switch off household electrical devices to save energy, plug-and-play technology for the home automatically detects all idle devices and disables them remotely. Similar approaches apply to optimal energy-efficient heating and cooling of buildings, and low-carbon driving, which automatically chooses acceleration and cruise speeds that reduce emissions.

In future automatic product filters will match our preferences for fairtrade, organic, beauty without cruelty, or other ethical products. When shopping online, we will only see those items that match our preferences. In store, we will be alerted to products that meet our standards by automatically scanning barcodes through mobile devices.

The message is clear for business. Web 2.0 is not just about everybody being continuously online. Rather, it is a new business mindset that uses collective intelligence and co-creation to find solutions to our global challenges, and uses technology to achieve speed and scale in spreading innovation to the parts of the world with the most urgent unmet needs.

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Visser, W. (2015) Top 10 web trends shaping the future of sustainable business. The Guardian, 22 January 2015.

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Why metals should be recycled, not mined

Why metals should be recycled, not mined

Article by Wayne Visser

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

Extractive companies need to recast themselves as resource stewards and embrace the circular economy by investing in recycling, not mining.

There is no denying that the sustainability impacts of the extractive sector are serious – sometimes even tragic and catastrophic. But they are not without solutions. Technology, which is the source of so much destruction in the mining and metals industry, can also be its saviour.

The most obvious opportunity for the sector is to embrace the circular economy. Many metals can be recycled – and in some cases, actual recycling rates are already high. For example, 67% of scrap steel, more than 60% of aluminium and 35% of copper (45-50% in the EU) is already recycled. Apart from resource savings, there is often also a net energy benefit. Energy accounts for 30% of primary aluminium production costs, but recycling of aluminium scrap uses only 5% of the energy of primary production.

Recyclability of metals is as important as recycling rates. We need more companies that grow the markets for recycled materials, like Novelis, which announced the commercial availability of the industry’s first independently certified, high-recycled content aluminium (90% minimum) designed specifically for the beverage can market.

The opportunity to increase recycling rates is significant. Today, less than one third of 60 metals analysed have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50% and 34 elements are below 1%. The irony is that recycling is often far more efficient than mining. For example, a post-consumer automotive catalyst has a concentration of platinum group metals (like platinum, palladium and rhodium) more than 100 times higher than in natural ores. Already, special refining plants are achieving recovery rates of more than 90% from this ‘waste’.

This sustainability business case logic has not gone unnoticed. Given the importance of rare earth metals in electronics and renewable technologies, Japan has set aside ¥42bn (£231m) for the development of rare earth recycling, while Veolia Environmental Services says it plans to extract precious metals such as palladium from road dust in London.

Some recycling technologies are hi-tech. For example, the Saturn project in Germany uses sensor-based technologies for sorting and recovery of nonferrous metals. Similarly, Twincletoes is a technology collaboration between the UK, Italy and France that recovers steel fibres from end-of-life tyres and uses them as a reinforcing agent in concrete.

By contrast, E-Parisaraa, which is India’s first government authorised electronic waste recycler, is much more low-tech, using manual dismantling and segregation by hand before shredding and density separation occur. This is a good reminder that the best available sustainable technology is not always the most applicable, especially in developing countries.

Recycling is not the only way for technology to reduce the impact of metals. If we look at energy consumption, each phase of the steel-making process presents opportunities. For example, direct energy use can be reduced by 50% in the manufacture of coke and sinter through plant heat recovery, and the use of waste fuel and coal moisture control. In the rolling process, hot charging, recuperative burners and controlled oxygen levels can reduce the energy by 88% and electricity consumption by 5%.

Other technologies, like using pulverised coal injection, top pressure recovery turbines and blast furnace control systems, can reduce direct energy use by 10% and electricity by 35%. In Electric Arc Furnace steelmaking, improved process control, oxy fuel burners and scrap preheating can cut electricity consumption by 76%. In fact, applying these kinds of energy saving technologies could result in energy efficiency improvements in the steel sector of between 0.7% and 1.4% every year from 2010 to 2030.

Water is another critical issue, but with significant opportunities. For example, BHP-Billiton’s Olympic Dam in South Australia achieved industrial water efficiency improvements of 15%, from 1.27 kilolitres to 1.07 kilolitres per tonne of material milled. That may not sound like a lot, but when scaled across the operations of the world’s fourth largest copper and gold source and the largest uranium source, it makes a huge difference.

Sometimes the technologies are fairly simple. In the metal finishing sector, improving rinsing efficiency represents the greatest water reduction option. For example, C & R Hard Chrome & Electrolysis Nickel Service switched its single-rinse tanks to a system of multiple counter-flow rinse tanks, and installed restrictive flow nozzles on water inlets. As a result, the process line has reduced water consumption by 87%.

We can see, therefore, that technology can help to rescue the high-impact extractives sector from its siege by the forces of sustainability. However, it requires some critical shifts. Extractives companies need to recast themselves as resource stewardship companies – experts at circular production and post-consumer ‘mining’. And customers and governments need to give up their compulsive throw-away habits and embrace the take-back economy.

 

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[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) Why metals should be recycled, not mined. The Guardian, 5 November 2014.

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Iron ore and rare earth metals mining: an industry under siege?

Iron ore and rare earth metals mining: an industry under siege?

Article by Wayne Visser

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

Resource scarcity and human rights issues surrounding metals extraction, coupled with unrelenting global demand mean the industry is facing some tough realities.

The good news: the number of people living in extreme poverty could drop from 1.2 billion in 2010 to under 100 million by 2050, according to UN projections. The bad news is that the flotilla of hope currently rising on the tide of economic growth in emerging countries is at serious risk of being dragged down under the waves. The reason is growing resource scarcity and the environmental disasters that could ensue.

As always, the poorest will be worst affected. The UNDP projects that, under an environmental disaster scenario, instead of reducing the population living in extreme poverty in south Asia from over half a billion to less than 100m by 2050, it could rise to 1.2bn. In sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers may rise from under 400m to over a billion. For the world as a whole, an environmental disaster scenario could mean 3.1 billion more people living in extreme poverty in 2050, as compared with an accelerated development scenario.

The message is simple: unless these booming economies – and the high-income countries they churn out ‘widgets’ for – can lighten the weighty anchor of resource consumption, we will all, sooner or later, get that sinking feeling. To illustrate the point, demand for steel – driven in no small part by a global car fleet doubling to 1.7bn by 2030 – is expected to increase by about 80% from 1.3bn tonnes in 2010 to 2.3bn tonnes in 2030. These trends raise red flags about material shortages of many metals in the future.

Besides steel, rare earth metals are cause for concern, as they comprise 17 chemical elements that are critical in the automotive, electronics and renewables sectors. Not only is demand for these metals rising, China is responsible for about 97% of global production. The United States, Japan and Germany are making big investments to secure their own supplies, but these new mining projects may take a decade to come on stream. As a result, supply shortages are predicted. Yet rare earth metal recycling rates remain very low – only 1% in Germany, for example.

Add the challenge of ‘conflict minerals’ – and the metals sector starts to look like the Titanic. The metals of most concern right now are tantalum (or coltan), tin, tungsten and gold – collectively known as 3TG – which are used extensively in the electronics industry. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and adjoining countries have been the hot spots – and the target of legislation like the Frank Dodd Act in the US – but other conflict minerals can (and probably will) arise for other metals in other parts of the world in future.

Besides resource scarcity and human rights issues, the mining and metals industry has significant environmental impacts, especially on land, energy and water. Trucost estimated that the largest metals and mining companies of the world have environmental external costs of around $220bn, 77% of which relate to greenhouse gases.

For iron ore, if carbon prices would rise to a level of $30 per tonne, iron ore costs would increase by 3.3% across the industry. An adequate incorporation of the water costs of iron ore mining would result in a 2.5% cost increase. Combining carbon and water costs, this could mean increased costs of up to 16% for some operators in water-scarce regions. These land, energy and water impacts also appear to be increasing, as about three times as much material needs to be moved for the same ore extraction as a century ago.

The picture that emerges is of a metals sector under siege, an industry that is soon to be the victim of its own success. And yet it is also one of the sectors that has the most potential for innovation and technological solutions. McKinsey and Co estimate that iron and steel energy efficiency and end-use steel efficiency could deliver $278bn in resource savings by 2030 and go some way towards addressing the metals scarcity crisis. The metals sector may still be in danger, but sustainable technologies could make the situation better.

 

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Visser, W. (2014) Iron ore and rare earth metals mining: an industry under siege? The Guardian, 24 October 2014.

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Quotes on Partnerships

Enjoyed being on the Lasting Change panel chaired by Jo Confino at the Guardian Sustainable Business event (25 November 2014) on creating better partnerships for sustainability. Here are some of the things I said that were tweeted by the Guardian:

Partnership quotes

Many partnerships are not healthy; they’re often hugely imbalanced in terms of power.

What each partner brings to the table has to be different but equivalent.

NGOs enter partnerships to change firms, but most corporates don’t want to change. Sounds like marriage!

Hidden agendas such as fundraising (NGO) or PR (corporate) may impact on the success of the partnership.

You can’t get to solutions quick enough and to big enough scale without partners.

The partnerships that last are those which have been committed to strategically. Everyone has to buy-in to it.

I suspect we’ll see more sociologists/psychologists helping partners to address resistance/challenges.

Companies often think they have solution for a community. Yet they don’t always work in that environment/culture.

Partnerships should be aimed at policy change – start with the coalition of the willing.

Half of the partners we researched hadn’t done consultation with beneficiaries.

The majority of partnerships are stuck in project mindset; we need more innovation laboratory mindsets.

 

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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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[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) 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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[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.kaleidoscopefutures.com”]Link[/button] Kaleidoscope Futures (website)

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

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