How will Circular Economy be in the Future?

If we want to save our environment, we cannot solve today’s problems with yesterday’s technology.

St. Francis of Assisi was one of the most important people in the religious world. He symbolizes a type of society that values ​​humility at the expense of excess, but he is also an example of a society based on the lack of economic security. In fact, like Francesco, many people used to live with those objects they used daily and to which they always attributed a particular function.

The big change, however, occurred when, thanks to the industrial revolutions, we became able to produce everything we wanted without the need to use what we already had. At that time you could buy televisions, chairs, sweaters and any other item that could cross your mind.

However, this attitude is not at all positive towards the environment and, therefore, towards all those marine, terrestrial and vegetable species that have had to adapt to our new behaviour, damaging us indirectly.

An example is a mercury in fish. Due to the excessive extraction of coal, oil and cement, in fact, the levels of mercury in the seas have increased almost 10 times compared to a few centuries ago. This situation means that people have to limit the amount of fish they eat (especially large fish). Someone, therefore, might think that to avoid this, we need to go back to the happy times of Charlemagne or the golden period of Emperor Augustus. In truth, however, the periods I have mentioned were not happy at all. We are talking, indeed, about times in which people could die even because of flu, not to mention slavery rates which were dozens of times higher. Therefore, I thought about finding solutions to understand how we can return to a society based on circular economy thanks to the use of technology.

I thought about what could be the correct waste management by creating a new waste pyramid, which is schematized as follows:

Prevention

Production

Transport

Reuse

Recycle

Energy recovery

PREVENTION

In the future, the best way to live in a world based on the circular economy will be to prevent the production of products.

By “prevention” we do not mean “getting the same results”, but “getting them differently”. One example is editing a file. A long time ago, in fact, to modify or even to sign a file you had to print it, wait for it to be printed, modify it, scan it, wait for it to be scanned, find it on your computer and see if the scan was done correctly.

You can easily understand how this whole process was only wasting time, and in fact, it was not the right way to proceed. Now, however, there is the possibility to edit any file directly through the computer and also online. There are numerous programs such as PDF editor that allow all this.

Someone could also think that in addition to digitization for the simple modification of files, in less than 10 years, it will be possible to have the digitization of real-life experiences.

A first example is the “Virtual reality viewer”, which, “without any waste”, allows you to experience a reality never thought of before. In this regard, many applications allow you to do the most unimaginable things such as flying, going underwater and even on Mars. In less than 10 years, however, all this will not only be visible and distributed as it is now, but it will also be possible to really experience those events.

The XPrize Foundation, in fact, through the “Ana Avatar” project, finances the best start-up with a grant of 10 million dollars that allows real teleportation of all our senses in a robotic body far from us: this would be the best way to command a robot and live a very distant experience from us. The only problem, however, would be the increase of the time needed to get the information to that point, due to the increasing distance.

A basic example is that of the mobile phone. If you live in Rome and you have to send a signal to New York, you have to wait about 0.02 seconds, just over a blink of an eye, to let the signal arrive at its destination. If the same signal arrived on Mars, however, it would take about 10 minutes. It may seem strange but living 10 minutes late is a big problem: think that we can’t even wait a few seconds to open an internet page.

Quantum computers, however, would allow us to solve this problem; in fact, in the case of these particular computers, the information should not arrive from point A to point B but would be directly in those two points through what is called quantum entanglement.

PRODUCTION

If it cannot be prevented, then it is necessary to produce, but production is not always the same in all cases.

Less than twenty years ago, in fact, production generally took place in a similar way to that through which Michelangelo sculpted his statues. There was a block of variegated dimensions to which it was necessary to eliminate the excess parts, so you can clearly understand that the process was not efficient at all.

With the use of 3D printers, instead, all these changes; in fact, using latter there is the possibility of having maximum efficiency by minimizing waste, but it is also possible to delocalize and democratize the production of objects. An Italian example is Visionari, which demonstrated how it is possible to produce masks or other protections through the use of the 3D printer. This initiative made it possible to instantly have objects without ordering them from some faraway countries.

The great advantages were time (instantaneous in the first case and the transport of the product in the second, which can take up to a few weeks), cost (having to produce it on your own does not cost so much) and environmental impact (not having to transport the object over long distances, no method of transport is used).

The 3D printer must not only be seen on a small scale, but it must also be seen on a large scale; in this regard, most of the waste we produce is due to the construction of buildings and palaces. The latter unnecessarily produce a lot of waste. The 3D printer, on the other hand, allows you to minimize waste, not have any staff but, above all, to have a home in less than a day.

The most important company in the world that idealizes houses for the construction of 3D printers is ICON3D. These houses are specially designed for those people who, earning less than 3 euros a day, cannot afford a decent home. In collaboration with ICON3D, there is the nonprofit New Story, which has built numerous homes in Mexico and El Salvador.

House built with a 3D printer.

Water production is another sector that will be very different from how it is today. The global bottled water market size was valued at USD 113.14 billion in 2016. We can understand how the process is highly inefficient with a huge expenditure of energy. In the future, however, there will be two major trends:

  1. The use of purifiers
  2. The use of highly innovative water extraction systems.

In the first case, many companies are deciding to create purifiers, but fortunately, there are also many more companies that are using them. On Kickstarter, for example, can be able to find thousands of campaigns to solve this problem. One of the latest has been AcquaTru Connect fund campaign, which aims to eliminate the production of plastic and, according to them, purifiers remove 15 times more contaminants. Besides, to check the quality of the water you drink, there is also a fantastic application.

In the second case, however, the XPrize Foundation financed skywater with 1.75 million dollars, which was able to recover water from the air.

TRANSPORT

According to the Waste Management Hierarchy, if you can’t produce at home, then you have to transport items.

Until now, to transport the objects you had to go in person or call a bellboy to do that for you. The first method would waste a lot of time, the second one a lot of money. Through self-driving cars, however, there is no need to be present or to ask someone to do the job for you.

The most obvious example is Nuro, a startup that has created a robot capable of transporting objects around the city, and it is already available in many parts of the world. Aside from carrying the items, however, it could also transport the waste we produce. If Nuro had already been present in our cities, in fact, we would not have posed the problem of recycling our waste during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Drones could also revolutionise our current system. The absence of traffic in the air and the speed of the drones makes it understandable why we should invest in this market.

The reason why they aren’t present, yet, are various:

  1. They may fall during flights
  2. They can be used by terrorists
  3. They make a lot of noise

Drones are very noisy because the frequency in which the blades rotate is the same of our audibility range, which is between 20 and 20k Hz. The first solution, therefore, would be to decrease the frequency below 20Hz even if, in that case, the drone would not have the energy needed to take off. The second possibility, which is also the best choice, is to make the blades rotate above 20k Hz.

In physics, the relationship between moment of inertia and angular velocity demonstrates that as the distance of the body from the center of mass decreases, angular velocity increases. The most common example is the ice skater one. The skater, in fact, to rotate faster, must keep his arms closer to the body.

A solution to the last problem would be to create aeroplanes that can move thanks to very numerous and tiny blades. In this way, the rotation speed of the blades themselves would be greater, and the frequency of the noise would shift in inaudible values. Transportation by air will be handy, especially for medical reasons. An example is Rwanda, whose streets are horrible and, to transport objects, you have to wait whole days; thanks to Zipline, however, lives could be saved through the almost instantaneous transport of medicines and medical items in general.

REUSE

Many projects are investing in this field. For example, if I had extra chairs or an extra table, I could give them away through numerous platforms on the market. Jokingly, another advantage would also be not worrying about making it undifferentiated because there is someone who comes to get it. In the USA a similar idea is already present and Adam Grant, one of the best psychologists in the world, has shown how people become less focused on themselves and more inclined to donate and do charities if they use these systems.

Freecycle is another example. Here people write the items they need. Regarding this platform, a reference was also made to point out that some people, who had signed up to the site to earn free stuff, found themselves donating it instead: a plot twist.

Another development of this idea is linked to food gamification. Many restaurants produce excess food that they don’t know what to do with that. In the majority of cases, they throw it away.

If the principles of gamification were applied, however, restaurants could create an online landing page where people can book to get the food not consumed. Adding points, you could compete to see who has the most points for getting food. For example, points can be earned by advertising online the shop itself (showing the goodness of the latter) or by bringing tourists to the shop. In this way, many restaurants would be “forced” to give free food. Adding a leaderboard people can see who has contributed the most and is more likely to get the food.

These systems, even if they develop, could have repercussions of an ethical nature. In fact, thinking that, to have food, a person in difficulty would have to advertise the company, someone might notice a similarity with what happened with the cliens and patronus in the Roman world.

RECYCLE

“Matter is not created and destroyed, but it’s transformed”. These words were written by Antoine Lavoisier, one of the most important chemists in human history. This law, which was later revised by Einstein, shows the possibility of transforming waste into a product.

One of the most important examples in Italy is EarthBi one which deals with degradable polymers both in the air and in water, which is a particular fact given that many biodegradable plastic polymers are only biodegradable in contact with air and not with water. Furthermore, the plastic management system is managed by a blockchain system that makes every move safe.

The delocalization of the separate collection of plastic will be present, too. In many cities, including Rome, there is already the possibility to recycle plastic and earning credit that can be used for transport. Despite a much more subtle way, this is close to Chinese social credit which pushes citizens to act in a better way; in fact, it is possible to have a prize (the discount for the ticket of the vehicles) for those who perform good actions such as recycling a bottle.

In the future, there is going to be even another type of recycling inherent to CO2. At the end of December, the Cosia XPrize prize of 20 million dollars will be awarded to the best start-up that manages to convert CO2 into products of all kinds.

At the University of Bari, thanks to a member of the scientific committee of Cosia XPrize, it is possible to follow the first Masters in the world to transform CO2 into various types of products.

In conclusion, we can understand how, thanks to technological development, it will be largely possible to return to a circular economy as it was many centuries ago without losing, by the way, all the benefits and possibilities that are available now.

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Guido Putignano

Guido Putignano

Synthetic Biology + Quantum Computing for drug discovery