How changing sustainable production could take us to Mars

First published by World Economic Forum, 4 January, 2017.

In September 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced that we could have human missions to Mars as soon as 2022. One side effect – apart from pushing the frontiers of space travel – is that it will challenge us to design and perfect various systems of sustainable production. The reason is quite simple: Mars is a barren, hostile planet, where all life support systems – from food and water to air and energy – will need to be artificially made and sustained, mostly using the limited resources the crew take with them.

In essence, what Musk and his space cadets will be trying to do is replicate what nature already does for us here on earth: creating an intelligent biosystem that can endlessly reuse or recycle resources in a way that allows life to survive and, ultimately, to thrive. This is the same idea that underlies the philosophy of sustainable production – albeit that the motivation and applied context is different – and it is by no means a new idea.

1960s and 1970s: recognising limits

In the 1960s and 1970s, a growing cadre of concerned scientists, economists and activists began warning us of the dire impacts of the exponential growth in our consumption of resources and the associated proliferation of toxins, waste and pollution. This included the likes of: Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, 1962; Barbara Ward, author of Spaceship Earth, 1965; Buckminster Fuller, author of Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969; and the Club of Rome, authors of the ground-breaking Limits to Growth study, 1972.

Ironically, “spaceship earth” thinking is exactly what Elon Musk and SpaceX are going to have to apply on Mars. It recognizes the fact that we live with limited resources on one planet that acts as a “metabolic, regenerating system”, as Fuller described it, or a “living, self-regulating organism” in the words of NASA scientist, James Lovelock, who named this the Gaia theory.

Unfortunately, we have been living (and hence producing and consuming), as if we were in a “cowboy economy”, rather than a “spaceman economy”, according to economist Kenneth Boulding. The cowboy, Boulding explained in 1966, is “symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behaviour”, while the spaceman represents the recognition of the earth as “a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution.”

The logical conclusion of accepting such a world of limits is, says Boulding, that humanity “must find its place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.” Walter Stahel, an architect and industrial analyst, added meat to the bones of Boulding’s vision by proposing, in a 1976 report to the European Commission, a “closed loop” approach to production processes. He called this “cradle to cradle” and developed it further through the Product Life Institute, which he founded in Geneva.

At the same time that these concerns and philosophical ideas were gaining traction, a more pragmatic solution was also emerging. At the World Energy Conference in 1963, Harold Smith proposed looking at a “cumulative energy concept”, which laid the foundations for life cycle analysis/assessment (LCA). In 1969, Coca-Cola extended this idea by assessing the resource and pollution impacts of different beverage containers. This emergent methodology became known as a Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis (REPA) in the US and as an Ecobalance in Europe.

1980s and 1990s: rethinking production

In the 1980s, while LCA gained momentum, a related concept called industrial ecology emerged. It was popularized in 1989 in a Scientific American article by Robert Frosch and Nicholas E. Gallopoulos, in which they declared: “Why would not our industrial system behave like an ecosystem, where the wastes of a species may be resources to another species? Why would not the outputs of an industry be the inputs of another, thus reducing use of raw materials, pollution, and saving on waste treatment?”

Industrial ecology, therefore, proposes that businesses should not only look at the life cycle impacts of individual products of individual companies, but also look for ways in which to link up with other businesses to minimize their impacts. The Danish industrial park in the city of Kalundborg is a classic example, where a power plant, oil refinery, pharmaceutical plant, plasterboard factory, enzyme manufacturer, waste management company and the city itself, all link together to share and utilize resources, by-products, energy and waste heat.

Meanwhile, life cycle assessment was becoming so popular that, in 1991, eleven state attorney generals in the US expressed concerns that the method was being used to make misleading green claims. This concern, together with pressure from elsewhere in the world, led to the development of two LCA standards as part of the International Standards Organization (ISO) 14000 series: ISO 14041:1998 on Life cycle assessment (goal and scope definition and inventory analysis); and ISO 14043:2000 on Life cycle interpretation.

Another concept that was gaining popularity around the same time was cleaner production, promoted by institutions like the OECD and UNIDO and resulting in the UNEP Declaration on Cleaner Production in 1998, in which they defined cleaner production as “the continuous application of an integrated, preventive strategy applied to processes, products and services in pursuit of economic, social, health, safety and environmental benefits.” To support its application, UNEP and UNIDO collaborated to set up a global network of National Cleaner Production Centres (NCPCs) in the 1990s.

2000s and 2010s: a new industrial revolution

In the new millennium cleaner production continued to spread, receiving further endorsement at the UN’s 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2010, UNEP and UNIDO also revived the NCPCs with the launch of a Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production network (RECPnet), with 41 founding members. This reinvigorated the practice of eco-efficiency, which the World Business Council for Sustainable Development had been championing since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It also introduced decoupling as a goal, referring to the need to delink economic growth and environmental degradation.

The EU government meanwhile began working with business to create product roadmapping as a way of systematizing the application of LCA in different industries. This culminated in the adoption, in 2003, of the EU’s Integrated Product Policy (IPP) to promote conducting LCAs with a view to potential policy interventions. Two familiar products with diverse impacts were chosen by the EU to demonstrate IPP: one was a mobile phone, put forward by Nokia; the other, a teak garden chair from Europe’s largest retailer, Carrefour.

While these multilateral efforts were going on, sustainable production really began to catch the imagination of business after architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart published their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, in 2002. The cradle to cradle concept evolved from Braungart’s earlier work on lifecycle assessment with Germany’s Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA), in which he grew disillusioned with the limitations of LCA.

Working with McDonough and applying their intelligent design insights to products and processes, they proposed a circular model of production in which there are continuous flows of biological nutrients (i.e. any renewable materials that can harmlessly go back to nature and be regenerated) and technical nutrients (i.e. any non-renewable, or manufactured materials that are not biodegradable, but remain useful if returned and reused in the production of products).

The future: towards a circular model

Today, “cradle to cradle” has been adapted, promoted and mainstreamed as a circular economy approach, which relies on sustainable production as a key link in the chain. The way I like to describe it is that we are now moving from an old industrial model, in which we take, make, use and waste, to a new “syndustrial” model (designed for industrial and ecological synergies), in which we borrow, create, benefit and return.

In the old linear industrial model, business and consumers take, make, use and waste. We take by depleting non-renewable resources and over-using renewable resources, and by striving for limitless economic growth. We make by producing any products and services that the market demands and persuading customers to buy and consume more. We use by buying more than needed, leading to over-consumption and by individually owning what could be shared. Finally, we waste by turning consumed products into trash and pollution and by creating toxins and impacts that harm people and nature.

By contrast, in the new circular “syndustrial” model, in which we design for industrial synergy, business and consumers borrow, create, benefit and return. We borrow by conserving all natural resources and increasing renewable resource use; and we create by designing and making products with no negative impact and innovating products with positive impact.

For example, Novamont, as an Italian producer of bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics, has adopted a renew and refine strategy. Among their clients are the global coffee company Lavazza, which now sells compostable coffee capsules that Novamont have produced, which biodegrade within 20-40 days. Similarly, BioGen in the UK has a renew and restore strategy, producing renewable energy (biogas) from food waste and then using the waste slurry as bio-fertilizer, which has been shown to produce higher crop yields when compared with chemical fertilizers.

In the new “syndustrial” model, we benefit by extending a product’s life, by repairing and reusing and by leasing and sharing. We return by using end-of-first-life materials to recreate the same products and to create new products.

For example, Caterpillar, the heavy machinery company, has pursued a reuse strategy through their Remanufacturing Centre in South Africa (the second largest in the world), which is designed to rebuild “as new” CAT components for 20-60% less than the cost of replacing with new parts. Similarly, Dutch aWEARness in the Netherlands is one of the first textile companies to make fully “circular” clothes, thus demonstrating a true recycle strategy. For example, their WearEver suits are made from 100% recyclable polyester, which can be turned back into a suit at least 8 times, giving a total life for the materials of 40-50 years.

Tetrapak in Ecuador is part of a reinvent strategy, whereby beverage packaging waste is being upcycled by an independent company into a range of high quality products, such as corrugated roofing, furniture, tabletops and jewellery. Similarly, REDISA in South Africa is managing the recovery and reprocessing of 70% of waste tyres in South Africa into a variety of rubber and steel products, while creating more than 3,000 jobs.

These examples are all featured cases in a forthcoming documentary called Closing the Loop, due for release in 2017. By adopting and scaling these new business models, we can achieve a transformative sustainable and social responsibility, which focuses its activities on identifying and tackling the root causes of our present unsustainability and irresponsibility.

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Visser, W. (2017) How changing sustainable production could take us to Mars, World Economic Forum, 4 Jan.

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Synergy: The Driver of Integrated Value in the New Nexus Economy

First published by HuffPost, 10 April, 2017.

We are at a unique moment in history, when five economic trends are coming together into a Nexus Economy that is rapidly transforming our world for the better.

Source: Wayne Visser (2017) Nexus Economy Framework

The Resilience Economy includes all the defensive expenditures and investments that lower risks in society, from property insurance and health and safety controls to flood defences and emergency response training. The Stockholm Resilience Centre defines resilience as “the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about how humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking.” As we enter a period of greater turbulence, we expect the resilience economy to grow as a strategy to survive and thrive.

The Digital Economy includes all the technological expenditures and investments that increase connectivity and intelligence in society, from high-speed internet and The Internet-of-Things to MOOCs (massive open online courses) and artificial intelligence. The increased use of digital technologies could add $1.36 trillion to total global economic output in 2020, according to a recent study by Accenture and Oxford Economics (that’s the same size as the whole South Korean economy). The World Economic Forum calls this the Fourth Industrial Revolution and describes it as a “blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”, which is growing exponentially.

The Access Economy includes all the expenditures and investments on shared services that increase efficient utilisation of assets, resources and capacity, from car-sharing (like Zipcar) and “couch surfing” (Air BnB) to entertainment streaming (Netflix) and crowdfunding (Kickstarter). The access economy (a term promoted by Harvard Business Review to suggest that customers increasingly want utilitarian value from accessing benefits from a product or service, rather than social value from intimate exchanges) is also known as the sharing economy, peer-to-peer marketplace, or collaborative consumption. PwC estimates the access economy may be worth $335 billion by 2025.

The Circular Economy includes all the expenditures and investments that decouple economic growth from environmental impact by ‘closing the loop’ on resource and energy flows, from waste recycling and biodegradable plastics to renewable energy and biomimicry designs. The circular economy draws on an evolution of concepts and practices since the 1960s that include ‘spaceship earth’ thinking, eco-balance, life cycle analysis, industrial ecology, industrial symbiosis, cleaner production, eco-innovation and cradle to cradle. In the book Waste to Wealth, based on analysis by Accenture, the circular economy opportunity is valued at $4.5 trillion by 2030.

The Wellbeing Economy includes all expenditures and investments that increase human health and happiness in society, from stress-relief practices and life coaching to plant-based diets and solutions to social diseases (like crime, inequality, suicide, domestic violence). There are various national indicators that have been created to demonstrate the limitations of economic growth as an indicator of progress in society, by measuring human wellbeing instead, such as the Social Progress Index, the Happy Planet Index and the OECD Better Life Initiative. As we become more conscious of the health impacts of lifestyle, consumerism, diet and pollution, the wellbeing economy is set to grow rapidly.

Each of these economic trends have spawned an aligned business strategy in response to the opportunities that they represent. Each on their own is a strategy for future-fitness.

Source: Wayne Visser (2017) 5-S Synergies for Creating Integrated Value Framework

A Safe Strategy is one in which our organisations, communities, cities and countries do not damage our health and wellbeing; rather, they minimize our exposure to toxins, sickness, disease and danger, allowing us to feel physically and psychologically secure. The test question is: to what extent does your organisation protect and care for us, i.e. your stakeholders? Keywords are: healthy, secure, resilient. Example indicators include: occupational health & safety, toxicity, risk, and emergency preparedness.

A Smart Strategy is one in which our organisations, communities, cities and countries use technology to better connect us to each other and allow us to share what we value most, and facilitate more democratic governance by allowing us (as customers or citizens) to give direct, immediate feedback. The test question is: to what extent does your organisation connect and empower us? Keywords are: educated, connected, responsive. Example indicators include: connectivity, access to knowledge, and R&D investment.

A Shared Strategy is one in which our organisations, communities, cities and countries address issues of equity and access by being transparent about the distribution of value in society and working to ensure that benefits are fairly shared and diversity is respected. The test question is: to what extent does your organisation include and value us? Keywords are: fair, diverse, inclusive. Example indicators include: value distribution, stakeholder participation, and diversity.

A Sustainable Strategy is one in which our organisations, communities, cities and countries operate within the limits of the planet by radically changing resource consumption and ecosystem impacts, with a shift to renewable energy and resources, closing the loop on production and moving to a low carbon society. The test question is: to what extent does your organisation protect and restore our environment? Keywords are: renewable, enduring, evolutionary. Example indicators include: externality pricing, footprint analysis, and renewability.

A Satisfying Strategy is one in which our organisations, communities, cities and countries produce high quality services that satisfy our human needs, as well as enabling a lifestyle and culture that values quality of life, happiness and other indicators of wellbeing. The test question is: to what extent does your organisation fulfil and inspire us? Keywords are: beneficial, beautiful, meaningful. Example indicators include: quality standards, levels of satisfaction, and happiness.

Source: Wayne Visser (2017) Strategic Value Creation Matrix

When an organisation, community, city or country pursues one of the 5-S strategies, they are making themselves future-fit. There are four strategic value-creation options available: singular, focused, diffuse and integrate value.

Singular Value is when an organisation focuses on one of the 5-Ss as its strategic goal, but does so in an incremental way. This means they will have a management system (objectives, targets, programs, KPIs, reporting, audits, etc), but they are content to make a marginal contribution on the issue. The potential for synergy is low, because they are only focused on one S. For example, a chemicals company may decide that a Safe strategy is key for their success.

Diffuse Value is when an organisation focuses on multiple of the 5-Ss as strategic goals, but does so in an incremental way. This means they will have a management system, but they are content to make a marginal contributions on the issues they have prioritised. The potential for synergy is high, because they are looking to leverage more than one S at a time. For example, a mining company may decide that a dual Safe and Sustainable strategy is key for their success.

Focused Value is when an organisation focuses on one of the 5-Ss as its strategic goal, but does so in a transformative way. This means they will have a disruptive innovation approach, and they will only be content with rapid, scalable change on the issue, especially within their industry. The potential for synergy is low, because they are only focused on one S. For example, a food and agricultural company may decide that a Shared strategy is fundamental and they wish to completely transform the lives of farmers in their supply chain.

Integrated Value is when an organisation focuses on multiple of the 5-Ss as strategic goals, but does so in a transformative way. This means they will have a disruptive innovation approach, and they will only be content with rapid, scalable change on the issues, within and beyond their industry. The potential for synergy is high, because they are looking to leverage more than one S at a time. For example, an electric car company may adopt an integrated 5-S strategy that takes Safe, Smart, Shared, Sustainable and Satisfying to a completely new level of performance.

The way in which Integrated Value manifests – when more than one of the 5-S strategies is applied simultaneously in a transformative way – is through synergy, which American professor Russell Ackoff described in his studies of purposeful organisations as “the increase in the value of the parts of a system that derives from their being parts of the system”. We know this more commonly by the catchphrase: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Synergy is the driver of the new Nexus Economy and will be the key to competitiveness in the coming decade.

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Visser, W. (2017) Synergy: The Driver of Integrated Value in the New Nexus Economy, HuffPost, 10 April, 2017.

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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=””]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] Kaleidoscope Futures (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]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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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] Kaleidoscope Futures (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

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



[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] Sustainable tech in Africa: 10 lessons from a cassava company (article)

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] Kaleidoscope Futures (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

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.



[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] Meeting water and energy challenges in agri-food sector with technology (article)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] Kaleidoscope Futures (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

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.



[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] Tackling the food waste challenge with technology (article)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

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.”



[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] How to use technology to make our planet more sustainable, not less (article)

Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

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

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