The Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity has used more from nature than our planet can renew in that entire year. In 2018, the date was August 1. This is the global average, some countries reached that point already in February (Quatar in #1 spot), others in December (Vietnam at the tail). We are currently using 1.7 times more resources then the earth can regenerate.
I am assuming the average blockchain enthusiast is fairly good at math, so you don’t need a complex calculation to figure out this won’t last for long. This is a problem that needs to be addressed urgently. We NEED a circular economy or we are doomed. There is no silver bullet approach here (one trick to solve all problems) but there will be many innovations, new business concepts, industry changes, consumer behaviours, government regulations, tax incentives… needed to come anywhere near a solution.
A critical mind-shift is our attitude to waste. This is generally regarded as a nuisance and costs money to get rid of or worse, it is a nuisance and gets dumped, creating environmental hazards for future generations. When you look at waste streams from a different perspective, there are very few waste streams that would actually classify as pure waste with only one final purpose: incinerate and at least harness some energy from it. Almost all other waste streams can be re-purposed, upgraded, converted or split to become a valuable resource for another process.
A well-known example is the recycling of mobile phones where precious rare-earth materials can be re-used in the same industry. Older examples are recycling of newspapers, soda cans or cloth fabrics. These are low-hanging fruit examples, but when industries start thinking about their own processes in more detail (and are getting fined for producing waste), they can come up with surprising answers and turn a costly waste problem into a profitable byproduct. E.g. fruit processing plants produce waste that can be turned into leather-like materials, water purification plants harvest organic materials in pure enough forms to be re-sold, new real estate can be designed in such a way that all materials are recyclable, waste streams from cheese or beer manufacturing can be biologically converted to valuable chemical compounds.
In my youth, substantial parts of the Netherlands would smell rotten because all cheese manufacturers would simply dump the whey (a byproduct from cheese making) in the nearest river or canal. About 40 years ago, this was no longer allowed and they were forced to clean up their act. Most of these factories did the obvious: one heat step in the waste pipe to denature proteins and feed the resulting cakes to cattle. At best this was done at break-even, but usually they lost some money here. The smarter companies started refining that waste stream into basic food products and eventually high end pharmaceutical products. This has gone so far that nowadays they recover more money from their waste and financially, the cheese has become a by-product of their “waste” processing.
EME, the Market Maker
Once you see waste streams as opportunities, you need to find partners where your waste could be the start of a new process. It could be something that is completely off your radar and you would not easily find a good match. This is where the Excess Materials Exchange (EME) comes in. Think of it as a sort of Tinder for raw materials where matches with the highest added value can be made. Domain experts are currently training AI models to include contextual data, permit data and company requirements besides the chemical and physical data, leading to what they call a Resources Passport.
The Resources Passport is recorded on ETH smart contracts. This fills several purposes:
- the composition of the raw material may be company confidential
- the providers are the only ones in control of their raw data
- the composition must be verifiable and immutable, but allows for cross-product and -sector comparisons within a quality standard
- the matchmaking must be an anonymous process until confirmed by both parties.
The EME company is still young, but the concept is already attracting worldwide attention (Accenture Innovation Awards, MIT Technology Review, Innovators under 35). Being (one of the?) the first to develop this concept, EME stands a good chance to make it. But the next phase will be crucial: marketing. They need to on-board tens of thousands companies that start filling Resource Passports to become a meaningful Exchange. On the other hand, a company has nothing to loose and much to gain to upload details of their waste streams, so the entry barrier is minimal. So, if you have a candidate in your circles, pass on the link for EME.
The bigger picture
I believe that waste processing is not a minor activity but in the end it will determine the viability of a company or industrial sector. If you are not part of the circular economy, you are in a dead-end street. Companies like DSM, Nestle, DowChemical, P&G, Unilever are diverting massive amounts of R&D money to decrease their dependency on non-renewables. Although shareholders are always looking at the next quarterly results, you see a shift from institutional investors like pension funds to address long term risks as well, and the circular economy is high on their agenda.