The Future is Rubbish

Hello, Antony Funnell here, and welcome to another edition of Future Tense.

In opening the program today I have a special guest. I'm pleased to be joined by scientist and entrepreneur James Bradfield Moody. James is a former executive director with the CSIRO, Australia's premier research agency, he was a regular panellist on the New Inventors TV show, and he's currently the CEO of a company called TuShare.

So why is James here? Well, I've asked him along to help me talk rubbish, in the nicest possible sense. Welcome James.

James Bradfield Moody: G'day.

Antony Funnell: Now, I should also mention that James is the co-author of a book called The Sixth Wave: How to Succeed in a Resource Limited World.

James, I heard you speak at a seminar recently on future trends, and one of the things that struck me was this idea that rubbish, trash, garbage, whatever you want to call it, is increasingly becoming not just a by-product of our consumerist world, but a major economic driver. How so?

James Bradfield Moody: Well Antony, it happens that we are entering a very interesting period in human history, and that's a period where we are reaching almost a perfect storm of three things. On one side we are seeing demand for products, demand for resources continuing to increase all around the world, but on the other side we are seeing the supply of those resources, the availability of those resources, whether it's fresh water, whether it's commodities, whether it's things like even phosphates, that supply is actually starting to run out.

But coupled with those two things—rising demand for resources, and scarcer supply of resources—there is a third thing that's happening and that is we have this enormous amount of waste that is sitting there in our community. For example, the OECD estimates that we see more than 4 trillion kilograms of waste be produced in the OECD nations every single year. And what we saw when we wrote the book was that that waste becomes the opportunity that can solve the problem of increasing demand and reducing supply.

Antony Funnell: That idea of waste as opportunity really goes against what a lot of us have always thought. We think of waste as waste, it's something to get rid of, it's not something that can be repurposed and reused and can be an economic driver.

James Bradfield Moody: Absolutely, and when we were in a world where we were just harvesting resources that were plentiful and cheap, waste was simply that, it was something to get rid of and ignore. But now we are entering a world where resources are scarce and valuable and we want to manage them. And so waste suddenly…for many entrepreneurs, many businesses, waste takes on a completely different tone. Waste could be, say, for a business, it's something that you are producing but not selling, it's unsellable production. So if you could find somebody else who wants to take that waste product and use it as a feedstock, that's great. Indeed, you might even be able to use it as a feedstock for something yourself.

There's a company in the US called Storm Brewing, and that company is a beer company, it actually found that there was nothing it could do with its grain waste. So grain waste is this stuff which is really messy, animals can't ingest it or anything, but they did eventually find one thing that they could do with it and that was growing shiitake mushrooms on it. So now they are not just a beer company, they are a beer and shiitake mushroom company. And the shiitake mushrooms changed it so they could turn the remaining grain waste into fish food. So now they are a beer, shiitake mushroom and fish food company. And that sort of example is happening all over the place.

Antony Funnell: So has a significant change occurred in our attitude towards rubbish or waste, not just because we've got so much of it and we've had to work out what we're going to do with it, but also because we've started to understand waste streams, if you like, the different ways in which waste can be recycled and to understand the different ways in which other people might want to recycle the waste that we produce.

James Bradfield Moody: Absolutely. In fact many countries are now trying to import waste. I know China looks at importing a lot of, say for example Christmas lights that are no longer being used so that they can be stripped down for copper, for the plastics in them. A shoe that you might buy from China might have once upon a time been a Christmas light. So all these things are starting to happen where we are realising that waste, the things that we might be throwing in the bin suddenly become valuable resources for a second use or a second purpose.

Antony Funnell: Look, thank you very much for that, for kicking us off on the program today. But before I let you go, I also want to talk about collaborative consumption, which is allied to the idea of recycling. And I mentioned earlier that you are the CEO of a company called TuShare. Tell us about collaborative consumption and the way in which a company like yours, TuShare, fits into that idea.

James Bradfield Moody: It's really interesting that there is waste, you know, the waste products that you might see, they get thrown into the bin, you know, general rubbish, but there is also waste in terms of all the idle assets that are sitting around our homes and our society in general. And we identified that the reason why our homes are full of things that we might not be using anymore is because they generally fall into one of four categories: they are either lifestage items, like kids clothes or, you know, I was unwell and so I needed crutches, or whatever it might be; they are media, like books where you have read the book; they are things like upgradables like mobile phones, but sporting equipment, kitchenware will fit into that category as well; and they're fashion.

And when we were starting TuShare we did a global analysis of those things, those things which by their very nature are probably not going to see their full lifespan under the first owner, and we found that there are over 100 billion of those things that get sold every year, so 100 billion things which are not going to be worn out before they are effectively thrown out or need a new home.

Antony Funnell: So goods that people don't want any more but they don't necessarily want to throw them away.

James Bradfield Moody: Absolutely, and the interesting thing is that really for the competition for those things…we do manage to find new homes for about 5% of them via charity or all these other areas, but interestingly that's 95% of these billions of items which do not find a new home. And one of the reasons is because it's almost too easy for us to leave it on the shelf or it's too easy for us to throw it in the bin.

And so TuShare, the idea behind that is that it's actually a website where you go to where you can give things to others for free, and other people can get them for free. And what we found is that the biggest pinch point there was actually transferring the item from one person to another, so what we built was a logistics service. We can now ship anything from one side of a capital city to another, up to 25 kilograms for $10, and the receiver pays. So the whole purpose of TuShare is to say how do we make a service for re-use, so I've got a lot of kids clothes everybody, if you want some kids clothes, let me know…but basically how do we make it so easy for me to find a new home for those kids clothes such that it's almost as easy as throwing them in the bin? And the way that we did that is created a courier service, door-to-door pickup, where if somebody wants my kids clothes they simply get the courier and the courier will pick it up from my home and bring it to them.

Antony Funnell: And so we have this idea of collaborative consumption. And again, like waste recycling, this is a real growth area, isn't it, an economic growth area in the world.

James Bradfield Moody: Absolutely, so the idea behind collaborative consumption (and another way of putting it is sharing) is that if we can share assets with each other, you know, whether it's sharing a car as we see with car companies like GoGet where you can rent a car for a short amount of time, if we can share rooms such as we've seen with Air BnB, or if we can share household goods such as we see with TuShare, if we share them not only do we improve the utilisation of those assets, so you can see sometimes a 10-fold utilisation of a car…so not only can you actually improve the utilisation of the asset which makes it more efficient, you save money, and more interestingly you build community because people are actually sharing with each other, they are engaging with each other. And those three trends—save money, save the environment, build community—are really fuelling another perfect storm called collaborative consumption, the idea that taking idle assets, things that we are not using 100% of the time, and for the application of technology we can improve their utilisation.

Antony Funnell: Well, James Bradfield Moody, thank you very much for joining us, and we'd better get on with the rest of the program, but thanks.

James Bradfield Moody: Thank you.

Adam Minter: The global recycling industry employs more people on this planet than any other industry but agriculture. On average it turns over as much money as is generated within the Norwegian economy. On balance it touches almost everything that you buy, not just the products that say 'recycled' or 'postconsumer waste included', but everything from your automobile engine to the bumper on the back of your automobile. This is Adam Minter, the author of Junkyard Planet.

Antony Funnell: Yes, Adam Minter wrote the book on rubbish, literally; a detailed study of the globalised industry that takes our waste and turns it into profit, a vast enterprise that few in the West understand, let alone appreciate.

Adam Minter: We're not talking about a niche industry that makes some cute sustainable greeting cards made from yesterday's newspapers, we are talking about an industry that turns over roughly $500 billion per year, and by some estimates could be pushing out as much as $1 trillion per year come 2020.

In terms of employment the scale is staggering, it's quite likely the world's second largest employer after agriculture. And if you spend any time travelling in the developing world you kind of know this to be the case, because if you travel through the countryside or in Chinese or Indian cities, the thing you see most people doing other than agriculture or maybe keeping a stall is actually walking around and picking up whatever refuse is available on the ground behind people's houses, in alleys. And more often than not that's not refuse, that's recyclable material that they take home and sort and help turn into raw materials. So it's a staggeringly large industry.

The statistic I like to give people in the United States and Europe is that by volume the largest volume export from the US and from the EU to China is none other than scrap, meaning waste paper, plastic, rubber, textiles, all put together, metals of course. It's gigantic.

Antony Funnell: And it is a truly global industry in that sense, isn't it. I mean, there's a lot of trade going on between the developed world and the developing world.

Adam Minter: Right, and there's a lot of trade going on between the developing world and the developing world. Currently China is the world's largest importer of recyclables, and its four largest suppliers are, in order; the United States, the EU, Japan, and ASEAN, of all places, and ASEAN is largely a developing region. Why is ASEAN sending so much scrap material to China, even though in many cases its labour rates are cheaper? Because China is the world's biggest manufacturer, and manufacturers need raw materials. And what goes into your recycling bin, we all might think of it in beautiful environmental terms, but if you are a manufacturer you think of it in terms of supply chain, it's your raw materials. And so just as we think of, say, the global IT industry, the manufacture of iPads is a globalised business, so too is the recycling that you put in your bin, it supplies raw materials to manufacturers all over the world.

Antony Funnell: Many people would be surprised to hear just how extensive and how sophisticated the global recycling industry is, because a lot of us in countries like Australia and the United States, we think of recycling and we think of it as being pretty low-level domestic, it's the sort of thing that we do with our household products. And we also tend to look down on it, don't we, we tend to talk about junk and trash, we don't talk about these things as potential raw materials.

Adam Minter: Right, exactly. Well, you know, here's a couple of things to think about as we sort of move into this topic. Roughly 10% to 15% of the global recycling supply chain comes from your home recycling bin. The home recycling bin is an important place but it's only a very small and one might even argue slightly insignificant portion of what the globe recycles. What is recycled more than anything else? Automobiles. And of course that's not something you put in your home recycling bin, it goes to your local junkyard, a place that many of us think of as kind of dirty.

After automobiles, it's factory waste. Meaning if you go to, say, a Toyota plant in south China, that Toyota plant is going to be drilling holes into automobile engine blocks. Those grindings, those shavings from the manufacturing process, all of that is recycled, nothing goes to waste, and that's probably the world's second largest source of recycling, is what comes out of manufacturers.

Utilities, utility scrap, and Australia, just as in everywhere else in the world, utilities are constantly upgrading their powerlines and their telecom infrastructure, so what happens to those old cables that used to carry your telephone conversations? They go to a scrapyard where they are stripped out, maybe the insulation is recycled, definitely the copper is recycled. So it's a much bigger piece of the global economic pie than most people, even people in the industry, fully appreciate. It encompasses everything we do, not just the stuff we put into our recycling bins.

Antony Funnell: And crucially there, as you say, this is an economic story. Again, we are used to thinking about recycling in a country like Australia or the United States as an environmental issue, but this is not necessarily about environment. Yes, it can help the environment, but it's principally about economics, isn't it.

Adam Minter: Absolutely right. I mean, as I like to tell people, good intentions don't turn old beer cans into new beer cans, profit motives do. Nobody is going to pick through somebody's trash, which in many cases is what recycling is, without an economic incentive to do so. It's very nice that there are environmental benefits to this industry, I think that's fantastic, but ultimately it's an industry that competes with the primary raw materials industry, which is to say your old recycled beer can when it goes into a scrapyard, it's directly competing with aluminium directly mined out of a bauxite mine, say up in Tibet. I mean, that's ultimately what makes this industry work.

A few years ago after the global economic crash in 2008 the price of raw materials around the world crashed. And why did it crash? Because consumers stopped buying things, they were frightened of the economic consequences of, say, emptying out their bank accounts. So what that did to global recycling prices, things like scrap steel, scrap copper, scrap paper, they dropped in many cases as much as 90%. And so why did the price drop? Because nobody wanted it anymore.

And so in places like the United States and the EU and Australia, warehouses that would take scrap paper in, for example, but with the purpose of sending it to China where it would be manufactured into new boxes, they had to start sending it to the landfill and to incinerators because simply nobody in China needed it anymore because nobody in China was manufacturing boxes for things like new iPads or new Nike shoes. It's only when China's economy recovered and when Australia's economy recovered and the US economy recovered and everybody wanted to buy iPads and Nike shoes again that there was a demand and a reason to recycle. And we have to think of recycling in those terms. Without consumption, without people wanting new stuff, there is no reason for anybody to collect your recycling out of a bin.

Antony Funnell: Adam Minter, author of the newly-released book Junkyard Planet, and he's also the Shanghai-based correspondent for Bloomberg World View.

This is Future Tense, with a good-news story about rubbish and recycling. I'm Antony Funnell.

Time to move north from Shanghai to chilly Stockholm and to Weine Wiqvist, managing director of the national Swedish waste management organisation.

You see, a decade ago the Swedish government banned the use of waste as landfill, a move which, as you can imagine, left them with a rather large rubbish problem. So, what did they do? Well, they built themselves a recycling industry which now repurposes half the country's annual waste. And the rest? Well, the rest they incinerate, and the sophisticated system they built to do that now converts 30% of the heat it generates directly into electricity, and diverts the rest to heating water pipes.

In fact, the Swedish waste management system has proved so effective it's started to run out of waste, and Sweden is now in the unusual position of having to import rubbish from neighbouring countries in order to keep it going.

Weine Wiqvist: First of all you can say it's successful because we have a very high level of energy efficiency because we can use more or less all of the energy in the waste whilst producing simultaneously electricity and district heating, which means that we can use maybe 95% of the energy content, which is extremely high. This of course is very good for the economy as well.

On the other hand, due to increased recycling programs and also because of a decrease of waste generation, especially after the industry crisis in 2007 and 2008, the waste volume in Sweden had dropped, so that is the reason why some waste is being imported from nearby countries, mainly from Norway.

Antony Funnell: And how much waste do you actually need to import at the moment?

Weine Wiqvist: For the moment in percentage of the waste of which is going to those waste energy facilities is about 15% of the total volume that is imported. In real tonnes we are talking about 800,000 to 900,000 tonnes.

Antony Funnell: And as I understand it, Norway is actually paying you to take that excess garbage, isn't it.

Weine Wiqvist: That's correct, because that is also the case in Sweden that normally you have to pay to get rid of your waste because though we can earn money from selling the energy, on the other hand the installation itself and the flue gas cleaning and everything, that is a very huge investment and costly operation. So you have to pay something for that, and of course normally that is more expensive than if you have a cheaper landfill site, for example, but it's much better for the environment.

Antony Funnell: It's easy to see why a landfill site wouldn't be good for the environment. But on the face of it, incineration also doesn't sound like a very good idea. How do you ensure that you're not creating a different environmental problem with the smoke that comes out of the incinerators?

Weine Wiqvist: Yes, right, of course that could be a problem if it's not managed in the right way. However, waste to energy, the way that is organised today, not perhaps in the past, is a very good environmental solution, and of course much better than landfill, and that is because today the emissions, for example, from the stack from a waste energy facility normally is much less than that from a coal fired unit, for example. So that is not a problem anymore and it's not a discussion at all actually, not in our country. Also this is a fuel which we can control and it's in the country, and since not all waste cannot be recycled anyway, so there will always be some waste which will have to be treated elsewhere, and then the waste energy is a good solution. But it's important to understand that we also the whole time are striving to increase the recycling of course.

Antony Funnell: Well, Weine Wiqvist, thank you very much for joining us.

Weine Wiqvist: Thank you.

Nathan Devine: Retrash is a project that I started three years ago, and it's a website that supports and promotes the grassroots movement of recycling and upcycling. So what we do is we showcase the best ideas on reusing existing materials, with the main goal of reducing landfill globally through inspiring creativity and innovation.

Antony Funnell: That's Nathan Devine who lives in the Blue Mountains, not far from Sydney, and what he didn't mention there about his Retrash website is that it's all about art. Yes, art. After all, why shouldn't rubbish be put to an aesthetic as well as a practical purpose? Or should that be repurpose?

Nathan Devine: Upcycling is all about reusing second-hand materials or salvage materials to create a product or a piece of art that is of higher quality or value than the original piece. And working through Retrash over the last three years it has been really exciting seeing an increase in not only the awareness around upcycling but also the social impacts through increasing the amount of people actually involved in the movement. So it's a really exciting kind of trend that has come out.

Antony Funnell: Now, it's about art, as we've heard, but the community that utilises the Retrash website and which it in turn serves is interested in creating art, says Nathan Devine, that has a functional dimension to it.

Nathan Devine: For example, I recently ran a series of workshops teaching people how to upcycle old timber windows into chalkboards and photo frames. That not only gave them basic workshop skills but it also opened up their minds to reusing something that was previously discarded that they would now bring into their homes. So if you see an old window on the side of the road and think, well, I don't need a window, then you would drive straight past. But if we can start to see that an old window could also be a chalkboard or a photo frame or a greenhouse, then all of a sudden we can start to see value in that that it may have to all of us.

Antony Funnell: Your website promotes and showcases the work of artists reusing trash. Could I get you to give us a couple of examples, for people who aren't familiar with the website, of the sorts of images they would find on the site?

Nathan Devine: Yes, absolutely. So it's an international platform, so really there are artists and designers from all over the world. But there is one guy called Jason Podlaski who's an avid upcycler from the United States, and he transforms broken skateboards into high-quality furniture. So it's kind of taking a product that breaks on a regular basis and just reusing those same materials to create the same kind of products over and over again.

There's a lady called Kristina Webb who is a jeweller, and she collects glass washed up on beaches in Puerto Rico and creates stunning jewellery. There's a man called Dan Phillips who builds entire houses from salvaged and recycled materials for single mothers and low-income families. So there's a real wealth of inspiration and innovation out there that can teach us all how to live more sustainably, and that's why I really want to try and promote this movement.

Antony Funnell: Retrash has an emphasis on those personal stories, of the ways in which people are rethinking their approach to waste. I take it those personal stories are more valuable, in a sense, than simply trying to inform people, in trying to lecture them.

Nathan Devine: I think so. I think if you can lead by example and give a real insight into what people are doing, then as a human you can kind of connect to that more than just being told, you know, 'this is how you do this' or 'this is what you should be doing'. If you can be inspired by someone…and there's some really amazing things coming out that people are working with and creating. I think that has a lot more impact on people's lives and it stays in their memories a lot deeper than just seeing or hearing about what they should be doing.

Antony Funnell: Once again the website is called Retrash, and that was Nathan Devine, its art director and founder.

Plastic Bank promotional video: The Plastic Bank is the world's first processed and monetised waste plastic. It's an opportunity to take that waste plastic and incentify the world's poor to collect it and exchange it as a currency. Plastic is a very valuable, it's pound for pound worth more than steel. Until now the challenge with plastic is it has been mixed and you can't mix plastics together to recycle them.

Antony Funnell: The Plastic Bank is the final recycling initiative we want to focus on today on Future Tense. It's the idea of Canadian entrepreneur and businessman David Katz.

Every day around the world discarded plastic bags and bottle tops and sundry other items wash up onto beaches. It's a huge problem, particularly in poor countries. Now, what David Katz is trying to do with his Plastic Bank initiative is to persuade existing recycling centres in developing countries to change their way of operating. He wants them to get more interested in plastic waste and to set up exchange centres, if you like, where poor people can bring scrap plastic and then trade it, not for money, but for goods or, more importantly, for access to state-of-the-art 3D manufacturing technology.

David Katz: The Plastic Bank's mission is ultimately to reveal plastic waste as a currency and to give people in the developing world the opportunity to use that plastic waste as a currency to help them come out of poverty. And they do that by collecting plastic, and pound for pound it is exchanged for access to technology and specifically 3-D printing. So the more plastic waste they collect the more that they can on-site create the items that will impact their community, whether it be an educational toy, something that they can resell, something that they can use to collect water, something for filtration. The opportunity there is that they get to reveal their own creativity by manufacturing what they can resell or reuse.

Antony Funnell: How do you set the exchange rate for that plastic with people in local communities? How do you go about working out what is fair and what is not?

David Katz: Well, one of the great parts about not having a cash exchange rate is that money is very linear, you know, you give me 20c of value in plastic and I give you 20c back or 10c back, that's only 10c. When you give me a dollar's worth of plastic and I can give you an opportunity to re-purpose that plastic and change that plastic to be the greatest value that you can imagine, well, then that becomes exponential.

It is ultimately created on a pound for pound system. All plastics…that's one of the beauties of our process, is that we can accept all plastics, whether it be film or PET or high density or whatever it might be, and be able to bring that back and have that weighed. And as it's weighed you then receive a credit for time into an exchange of goods or the credit into the exchange of time into manufacturing.

Antony Funnell: And it's important, is it, that it not be money, that the exchange not involve currency?

David Katz: I think it's critically important and I think that the opportunity of not exchanging it for money provides the opportunity to have an exponential solution to a linear problem. And when I can take a look at plastic and say what can I make from that plastic, what kind of great value can I reveal from that waste, what else can I do with it? It's not just a straw, it shouldn't just be a cup, perhaps it's a flange, perhaps it's a gasket, perhaps it's a filtration system, perhaps it's something that I can resell into the community for 1,000 times the value of the plastic itself because I reveal the design and idea in that plastic. And if I can give people the opportunity to reveal in themselves their own creativity and their ability to perpetuate solutions, the whole world will change.

Antony Funnell: So, that's the Plastic Bank initiative. David Katz there. It's different, it's ambitious, it's out-there, but will it actually work? We'll just have to wait and see. David Katz says he's hoping to have the first Plastic Bank recycling exchange set up and operating in Peru later this year.

Further details and links to all the websites and books we've mentioned today are on the Future Tense website. Just search 'RN Future Tense ABC' and you're sure to find us.

Aside from David Katz our other guests today were: Nathan Devine from the website; Weine Wiqvist from the Swedish waste management organisation; Bloomberg's Shanghai correspondent Adam Minter, the author of the book Junkyard Planet; and finally Australian scientist James Bradfield Moody, the founder of TuShare.

Andrew Davies is my co-producer. The sound engineer this week was Peter McMurray. I'm Antony Funnell. If I'm not hit by a bus, I'll be back again next week. Until then, cheers.


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