Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The other side of the peak

Long term tendencies of waste management

This is a written version of the talk that I gave at the "ASPO-2012" meeting in Vienna, on May 31 2012. It describes my experience with waste management as a way of closing the industrial cycle and attaining long term sustainability. Here, I introduce the concept of "urban gleaning", a high efficiency way of dealing with waste.

All right, ladies and gentlemen, let me start by noting how it has been said in previous talks that sometimes people involved with peak oil tend to focus on problems, neglecting answers. That may be true, but we also must have the problems clear in our mind if we want to find correct solutions. So, let's see a brief introduction on what the problem is; and I mean "the" problem; the gigantic problem that is putting our whole civilization at risk. Here is an illustration of it.

What you are seeing here, the big hole in the ground, is what is left of the abandoned diamond mine of Mir, in Russia. Of course, the hole, in itself, is no big problem (unless you happen to be walking around there by night, drunk). The problem is that the mine is gone - it doesn't produce diamonds any more and most likely it never will. It is an illustration of a very general phenomenon. We have been drilling holes all over the planet to take out minerals. Not all these activities left such spectacular holes, but the problem is always the same. You dig, you take what you want, then there is nothing left.

Now, let me go to the "other side" of the problem. What happens with the stuff we extract from the ground? Well, it goes through the industrial system. It is processed, turned into products, these products are "consumed", that is they are destroyed and thrown away. The end result is, normally, this:

This is, as you see, a classic landfill - the place where we throw away everything we think we don't need any longer. Now, why don't we throw all this stuff into the big hole we saw before and even things out? Sure, we could do that. The problem? If we do that, we may flatten the ground again but we don't get back the mine!

Let me explain, and I'll do that by showing you this image of a giant mining machine (from "somethinginteresting").

See? This huge machine is used to extract coal somewhere in Germany. It is specifically built for this purpose, but I can take it as the illustration of a general concept that I called the "universal mining machine" a few years ago. That is, this machine shows how we extract all kinds of minerals. We collect rock, we transport it somewhere. There, it is crushed and processed. We take the elements we need and we throw away the rest. It is very general, as I said. You could do with any rock, anywhere, because any rock contains tiny amounts - very, very tiny - of all the elements of the earth's crust.  This is the concept of "universal mining machine": if we could turn ordinary rock into useful minerals, then we wouldn't have to worry about running out of anything, ever. Unfortunately, doing all that work takes a lot of energy and resources: large mining machines don't come cheap and universal mining machines would be so expensive that we can't even dream of affording one. Right now, we have enough energy to mine from rocks that contain, typically, about 1% of the mineral we need - we call these rocks "ores". For very valuable minerals, such as gold, we can mine much less concentrated ores, but that's not the general case. If we want to mine from less concentrated ores, then we need much more energy. Clearly, the perspectives of having all that energy available in the future are rather dim, to say the least - unless we are saved by some kind of miracle; energy from Santa Claus or something like that.

The situation doesn't change if you think of mining from waste. Yes, you may have read the term "landfill mining". It is an old idea that periodically reappears. It would be nice if we could do that, but once we go to examine the idea in detail, we see that it is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible. Landfills are places where everything is thrown in, more or less at random. There are valuable metals in the mass, sure, but everything is mixed together and separation is extremely expensive. And even dangerous, because you never know what you can find in a landfill: poisonous chemicals, lethal bacteria, and more. Things don't change so much if you think of the ashes produced by an incinerator. Yes, they contain valuable metals, but everything is mixed together and separation is even more difficult than in the case of landfill waste.

So, we have a very, very big problem; especially if you don't believe in Santa Claus. It is a tough problem because we cannot solve it by brute force. We cannot bomb the problem away, we cannot buy the problem away, we cannot vote the problem away. We can only accept that not all problems have cheap solutions. This one, surely doesn't. We need to be efficient, find the best possible ways and accept the fact that we can't do everything we want just because we think we deserve it.

Once we start thinking in these terms, a possible solution can be expressed using a concept developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, shown here.

It is an elegant and compact way to express the concept that the industrial system must be conceived as an ecosystem. You know that the ecosystem doesn't run out of minerals, even though it uses minerals as nutrients for metabolic processes. That's possible because the ecosystem is a nearly completely closed cycle, that is what is "waste" for some organisms is "food" for others. Nothing ever can be 100% recycled, but the ecosystem comes close to that. The tiny fraction that is lost is slowly returned into the cycle by tectonic processes powered by the Earth's hot nucleus. The continents have been colonized by plants some 350 million years ago and plants have been "mining" minerals from the ground for all that time without ever running out of anything.

This is the way life works on this planet and if we want to survive we must learn from that. That is, we must learn that waste is food. Once you have that in mind, then you start understanding how wrong is almost everything we do with our waste. For instance, why do you want to incinerate your food? Why do you want to throw your food at the bottom of a pit and cover it with thousands of tons of dirt? You see, there are lots of things we must learn.

Now, there are many people working on the concept that waste is food although, unfortunately, still influencing only a very tiny fraction of the industrial system. Let me show you an example from a project of a few years ago. So, here is some waste:

You may recognize this car: it is a Fiat "500" that used to be very popular in Italy and that is still popular although, of course, they don't make it any more. The conventional wisdom on how to deal with this kind of waste, old cars, is that you take the car, you crush it into a small cube and then you throw it into the mouth of a blast furnace. In this way, you get the steel back, with which you can make a new car. Is it an illustration of the concept that waste is food? In part, yes, but not really. There are lots of problems with this approach. The main one is called "downcycling."

Downcycling means that the material you obtain from recycling is not of the same quality as the one you started from. In this case, an old car, the problem is that the wreck doesn't just contain iron and carbon, which are the elements you start with when you make steel. It contains other elements: zinc, silicon, chromium, copper, aluminum and more. That means that the steel you obtain has a "memory" of where it came from. Its composition may not be what you want and, indeed, normally you can't use recycled steel to make new cars. Then, there are lots more problems with recycling old cars and the whole process is just very expensive in terms of energy. Not that recycling old cars, in itself, is something bad. It is just limited - like the many schemes of mandatory separated waste collection in place in many towns. These rules are supposed to ease recycling and they do. But the downcycling problem remains; it doesn't matter if it is steel, plastic, glass or whatever. The quality of the recycled product worsen at each cycle and that puts a limit to what you can do.

So, let me go back to the case of the Fiat 500 and let me try to show you what could be a better way of dealing with a very old car.

That's the result of a project we carried out a few years ago. You see? We started from an old car, waste, but instead of recycling it, we reused it. That is, we cleaned it, repainted it, and retrofitted it with an electric motor powered by lithium batteries. The result was a light and efficient electric micro-car. Much less expensive than an equivalent one manufactured in China or in South Korea. And with the added advantage that many of the parts we used were made here, in Europe, and the manpower to do the job was local, too. By the way, the lady you see in the image is not retrofitted. Unfortunately, this process of rejuvenation is something you can do with cars but not with humans!

Our work with the Fiat 500 was picked up by other people and now in Italy you can buy electric retrofitted cars. Unfortunately, we also discovered that reusing old things is very subversive. We were told that what we had done was not the way a good citizen should behave. What the hell, aren't we all consumers? And if we are consumers, it means that we have to buy things new, use them, and then throw them away. That's the way society works; hey, are you against economic growth? And if you aren't an anti-growth fanatic, then what are you doing? Don't you know that, in order to grow, we need to manufacture new things, and if we want new things then we must throw away the old things. Otherwise, how is growth supposed to occur? Really, we received an incredible amount of flak and some recent laws made by the Italian government seem to have been conceived explicitly to discourage the retrofitting of old cars. Maybe I am a conspiracy theorist, but I could tell you a few stories about all this; but let me move on.

So, about being subversive, well, if I have to be subversive I can do much better than rejuvenating old cars. Look at this:

Yes, that is me, Ugo Bardi, together with two Romani ladies (gypsies if you prefer) in front of a pile of steel and iron things collected in order to be recycled. That picture was taken a few years ago, just near my office at the University of Firenze. It was part of a project financed by the Tuscan regional government to help the Roma to find jobs and become financially independent. So, we had the idea of focussing on waste collection.

You know that the Roma have this fame of collecting things, occasionally, even without the permission of the owner. That's commonly said but I am sure that the Roma much prefer to avoid the hassle and the risk of this kind of recycling if they have a chance to do their work legally. If they are given that chance, indeed, the Roma turn out to be efficient waste collectors: what they can reuse they reuse or sell, what they can't, they sell as scrap. Indeed, the local government encouraged the Roma to set up recycling cooperatives - they even provided legal assistance for them. But governments, as you know, are completely schizophrenic. So, some different sections of the government decided that recycling steel was a criminal activity and they sent police squads with machine guns to stop the cooperatives. It is true: it was like a movie; at least as I was told (it involved different groups of Roma than the one I was working with). In addition, each cooperative was fined for a few million euros because the law, apparently, requires that each bit of steel to be recycled must be accompanied by a signed and stamped piece of paper that describes exactly where it came from. Incidentally, the Roma weren't worried that much about all those million euros they were supposed to pay. It is the good side of owning nothing.

So, you see how subversive it can be to suggest that people can make a living by themselves and survive without receiving subsidies from the state. Yet, the idea seems to appeal to some people and it is showing signs of diffusing in the world under the name of "participatory collective waste management". Here is an illustration.

On the left, you see a Brazilian "catador" (waste collector), on the left you have professor Jutta Gutberlet of the University of Victoria, Canada. It is a fascinating story and Prof. Gutberlet has been working on it for years. The catadores of Latin America make a living out of collecting and recycling urban waste (and reusing what they can). It is not a way to become rich, of course, but it seems to be a way to gain dignity and a place in society. Even president Lula seems to have recognized this point - he has to be a big subversive. You see him here with some Brazilian catadores in 2009.

I can tell you that once you start getting into this kind of things, your view of the world changes, and it changes a lot. But what exactly is that these catadores are doing? Does it make any sense? Well, I think yes; I think it makes a lot of sense if we go back to the definition of waste we had seen before. Waste is food, we said, and for these people it is absolutely true: they make a living out of waste. And what they are doing is not even new, it is part of an old and established human tradition that has been with us for millennia. Let me show it to you:

This is a painting made in 1857 by the French painter Francois Millet. It shows gleaners at work. Now, "gleaning" is a word that today has become almost unknown. In my experience, when I ask people those who know what gleaning is are a minority, maybe 10% or so. And yet, the very fact that a specific word exist for this activity means that it used to be very common and that it had a specific purpose in the economy of long ago.

Let me explain. When we say "waste is food" we mean that the industrial cycle must be closed in such a way to make the human economy similar to an ecology: a system that recycles what it uses and never runs out of anything. Now, if you see how an ecology works, you'll note that each organism produces waste. No organism is 100% efficient and it could not be. But what is waste for an organism is food for another one. So, an ecology is created by the collaboration of many species that manage the flux of mineral nutrients in such a way that almost nothing is wasted and almost everything is recycled.

Let's go back to gleaning. Think of harvesting grain in ancient times. It means that a group of peasants armed with scythes would go in the fields mowing and gathering stalks of grain, and wrapping them into bundles. Note that the job of the mowers is not of collecting every spike that falls on the ground. If they were to retrace their steps to do that, they would lose time and be less efficient. It is something well known in economics: it is the law of diminishing returns.

So, the agricultural system evolved in such a way to optimize the yield of the fields by developing a sub-system called "gleaning". Ancient peasants had to deal with a relatively low yield resource: spikes on the ground. Collecting those spikes at a positive yield required a very efficient process. That was done by mobilizing human resources that couldn't be used for the heavy work of harvesting; women, youngsters and old people. It was done without any equipment, without any formality, without orders, hierarchies or social structures. People just walked in the fields, collecting what they found - that's gleaning; it was done not just with grains but with all kinds of agricultural products. It looks simple, but it was extremely important in the ancient agricultural society: it is because because it was so efficient. Gleaning has a fundamental place in the Bible and it is still legal to do it in some places. Not everywhere, though. At the time of Stalin, in the Soviet Union, you were shot in place if they discovered you gleaning. So, you see, even gleaning seems to be somewhat subversive. But it is likely that many of our ancestors have survived because they could glean their food. And so we are here today!

There would be a lot to say about gleaning, but I took is as the paradigm of the way to deal with low yield resources; what we call "waste". We can't deal with waste in the same way as we have been doing with mineral resources. The yield of waste is too low to go at it with giant mining machines. We need specific processes adapted to low yield resources. Processes which are reasonably free from bureaucracy, hierarchies, complex legislation, top-down structures. Processes that should be the result of self organization toward maximum efficiency and that we could call "urban gleaning" or "industrial gleaning". In my opinion, these methods cannot be mandated by law or forced from above. They have to be gradually developed by people, just as in the ecosystem species have gradually evolved in their ecological roles.

There would be much more to be said on this subject, but I think I'll stop here and I hope that I gave to you some waste - er... food - for thought. I would like to conclude with a picture of some Roma children of the group I have been working with.

You see, these children are considered a problem and, under several respect, they are. But they are also a great opportunity. Not because I want to see them as cheap labor for waste collection - absolutely not. It is because looking at these children, cheerful, bright, friendly as they are, you see yourself as a human being and you see the enormous human plight we are facing today. We can't solve anything if we forget that we are all humans and we have to solve problems together. That's the only way we have and I hope it is the road that we'll choose.

Some links

The Universal Mining Machine - by Ugo Bardi.  

The "Cradle to Cradle (C2C) concept

The electric 500 project

Participatory collective waste management. 

Jutta Gutberlet's page.



1. The electric 500 project: Pietro Cambi, Massimo De Carlo, Corrado Petri, Riccardo Falci and others

2. Participatory sustainable waste management: Jutta Gutberlet, Elisabetta Cortelli, Marina Bacciotti and all the families of the Roma camp of Madonna del Piano, in Sesto Fiorentino – Italy

3. Other waste management projects: Antonio Cavaliere, Luca Marcantonio and the whole IRIS group


  1. Steel could be recycled indefinitely given a bit of effort.  The carbonyl process can separate iron and nickel from the rest of the alloying elements, concentrating them so they could be recycled too.  All this takes is heat.  Electrowinning is another possibility.

    Graphene is shaping up to be the material of the 21st century.  An allotrope of carbon, the raw material can be extracted from CO2.  A plant to make graphene could be much like a plant, running on nothing but energy and air.

    1. Yes, there are ways to purify steel. But you are talking of building up a completely new iron processing system and producing enough energy to power it up. Consider that we are producing today more than one billion tons of steel and you see that it is not something we can afford today.

    2. It takes a small fraction of a ton of coke to re-melt a ton of steel, and the world uses billions of tons of coal per year.  Iron and nickel carbonyl decompose at temperatures under 300°C.  The output of pressurized-water reactors is hot enough to get into that range.  This is a possible use for off-peak power from nuclear plants; melting charges of scrap, atomizing the liquid to powder, carbonyl separation of the iron and nickel, cracking the carbonyls back to metal, and re-melting the purified metals are all well within our capabilities.

      Then again, graphene-reinforced polymers may replace most uses of steel before any of that becomes a major issue.

    3. 'most uses' <> 'all uses'.

      In fact, without serious studies and hard numbers it's just one big techno-optimist bluff.

      A good try, though. Producing large quantities of steel without using fossil fuels isn't going to happen any day soon.

      We need the alternatyives now, not in some fantasy-filled future.

    4. EP, graphene is the latest fad in materials science. It is an interesting material and maybe it will find structural applications in the future (right now, it is awfully expensive). But that's not the point. If we want to substitute steel with something more easily recyclable, we can make perfectly good cars out of wood (and planes, too). The problem is that we don't have enough forests!

      That's why we have been using steel: mass motorization wouldn't have been possible without the availability of low cost steel. That is the result of the low cost of coal and the low cost of iron. Both are the result of ancient bacterial activity that has generated coal seams in Paleozoic forests and "banded iron" at the bottom of Archean oceans. We are not close to deplete banded iron, perhaps closer to deplete coal resources. In any case, steel is so cheap because we are exploiting the energy provided by ancient solar-powered processes.

      I mentioned steel in my post only to give an example of the concept of "downcycling". It doesn't mean that you can't recycle materials as much as you want by employing lots of energy and resources. It means simply that recycled materials turn out to be more expensive than mined materials for the same purity. That's the problem, since we are not any more as rich as we used to be.

    5. We're not as rich in materials (especially high-quality ores) as we used to be, but our problems with energy qua energy are mostly due to politics (nuclear energy) rather than availability.  The political action against MSRs and especially the IFR indicates suppression of competition, not infeasibility.

      However, some things are getting easier and politics is not in the way.  Polypropylene with the strength of steel is not subject to the limitations of materials drawn from ores; arguably, we could pull carbon out of the air to make it and remediate the atmosphere at the same time.  I understand that PP recycles well, and if worse comes to worst it can itself be "downcycled" into other materials or fuel and new PP created.  The bare essentials are CO2, water and energy.

  2. Ugo, of course, there is no peak oil.

    More wonderful photos on www.edwardburtynsky.com ;-)


  3. There are only three things we can do.
    Population reduction, resource and consumption management using quotas and plant lots and lots of trees.
    It takes more fossil fuel energy to produce a renewable generator than is returned. Considering that we depleting our fossil resources and there is nothing to replace them, what else is there to do? Doing nothing will only solve the overpopulation problem.
    If every coal fired power station was replaced with nuclear, the uranium would last about forty years.

  4. I little while back I had an interesting online conversation with an English Romany woman on the subject of Peak Oil and Peak Everything. She was well aware of it, and suggested that the Romanies were best placed to thrive during the coming collapse. People like me, she said, unlike them, had no useful skills, a point which I would at least partly concede.

    1. Oh, yeah, absolutely. The Roma know about Peak Oil - at least they perceive what's happening. It is just that it makes little difference to them - it is us, middle class westerners, who will be most affected.

  5. I remember in England - as late as the early 1980s - we had people called 'rag and bone men'. They didn't literally collect rags and bones (but who knows, maybe once they did) but they would come round once a week and take anything away that you didn't want. They were particularly fond of metal, I recall.

    Perhaps we need more rag and bone men again. It could be tomorrow's hot ticket career.

    1. Rag and bone men..... maybe I should mention this to my students as a possible future career for them

  6. I wonder if we are going to have to lose just about everything, before we wake up out of our rational, insatiable stupor.


  7. "The Gleaners and I (French: Les glaneurs et la glaneuse), a documentary by Agnès Varda is a great examination of the concept of gleaning in the modern world. She did another documentary on the subject two years later, around 2002.

    There is also a more recent documentary called "Wasteland" about Brazilian catadores, trash pickers:

    There are also the independent cardboard collectors of Buenos Aires and the various recycling projects that have come out of that. See http://basurama.org/en/ for more.

    We need to start thinking about a zero emissions economy within McDonough's ecological design principles:
    waste = food
    use only available solar income
    respect diversity
    love all the children

    1. Thanks gmoke for the links. I knew about the French film: a great source of inspiration! I'll go give a look to the "Wasteland" documentary.

  8. Hi, Ugo! Brilliant speech, as ever! Thank you for beginning with Mirny mine in Russia. That helped me realize that not only small Italy has garbage problems. Huge Russia has huge problems not only with the waste but with all those huge holes in the ground since we are a raw-mats economy. I've seen a spectacular hole at the amber mine near Kaliningrad.
    I like very much your idea of renovating Fiat 500. I'd love to buy such a car.

  9. Thanks Ugo, as interesting as ever.
    The Gleaners pic reminded me that artists too recycle ideas: http://coxsoft.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/banksys-gleaners.html

  10. I'm curious about your personal situation, Mr Bardi. Problems with your wife? Health problems (especially impotence)? Possible layoffs at your place of work? Bad investments, crippling debts, etc? Love, health, money--the three reasons people seek out spiritual healers or engage in do-it-yourself spiritual healing, which is what most of this "peak oil" foolishness appears to be about.

    As engineer-poet points out, we have essentially inexhaustible supplies of clean nuclear fission energy waiting at our fingertips. A fact about which, as a physical chemist, you must surely be aware. Consider the incredible achievements that took place with respect to nuclear fission between 1939 and 1954. From nothing in 1939, to a working electricity producing reactor in 1951, to a reactor on a submarine (a submarine!) in 1954. No doubt you are also aware of the other significant events which took place between 1939 and 1951, such as the near total destruction of Germany and Japan, deaths of tens of millions of people, etc, etc. Converting our entire energy system from fossil fuels to nuclear fission would be a trivial inconvenience compared to what the developed world went through between 1939 and 1951. And given the incredible carnage (both deaths and reduced health) and pollution (including the coming global warming) caused by fossil fuels, it is hard to imagine nuclear energy would be a step backwards even if we suffered a fukishima or chernobyl event once a decade. That a physical chemist of all people would be ignorant of the facts staring him in the face makes it clear that this blog has nothing to do with a crisis in the material world, but rather is merely using certain not-too-importance facts about the material world (we've mined the easy deposits, now we're left with the difficutl deposits of raw materials) as a metaphor for some sort of spiritual crisis, though the nature of that spiritual crisis isn't clear. Or perhaps the real crisis is indeed material in nature: physiological sexual impotence caused by hormone disruptor chemicals in the environment, translated into the spiritual realm as psychological powerless (but only at the subconscious level), projected back into the material world as lack of electrical power which is then blamed on running of petroleum. It seems to be mostly men who are obsessed with "peak oil", and mostly middle-aged men, the time of life when virility fades...

    We may indeed run out of petroleum, just as we previously ran out of sperm and other oily whales (here we go again with metaphors: lack of sperm whales <=> lack of fuel <==> powerlessness <=> sexual impotence), but THERE WILL NEVER BE A SHORTAGE OF ENERGY. And, as engineer-poet notes, as long as we have energy, we will never run out of other resources.

    1. Anonymous, you surely have a curious strategy for selling Viagra. Why don't you just send junk mail, as all the others do?

  11. The paper at http://www.pnas.org/content/109/19/E1173.full tells an impressive story about resource gleaning in gutless worms outside of Elba -- gutless because they are so efficient that symbionts have taken over the role of their digestive and waste generating organs. Maybe this is the reason the poor shall inherit the earth?

    Great blog!


  12. The paper at http://www.pnas.org/content/109/19/E1173.full tells the story of nanoscale gleaning by a gutless worm -- gutless because its symbionts are so efficient that it has lost its digestive and eliminative organs. Maybe this is why the poor shall inherit the earth?

    Great blog! But your anti-spam protection in the comments blanked out my response twice, with no explanation.


  13. Kallash,I see that you were eager to publish your comment - sorry that it was delayed. It is not because of the spam filter; it is just the moderation