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Title:  The “Alchemy” of the ZERI Systems Approach: A golden opportunity for chemists!

Summary:  Chapter for Sustainable Development in the Chemical Industry: A Practical Approach. Beth Beloff, Robert Pojasek, et al. Publication Summer 2004. John Wiley Press

The “Alchemy” of the ZERI Systems Approach:

A golden opportunity for chemists!

Their Title:  “ZERI principles as a form of industrial ecology”

Imagine for a moment that everything we throw away is an asset… it has value.  Why on earth would we want to throw it away, much less pay to throw it away, much less incur the risks and costs of having to clean it up later?  Imagine the excitement of being the one to find the value in the things we are throwing away.  Chemists have the keys to those answers.  But how can we get from here to there?

One way to look at it:  If we take a look at our modern technologies, we see how humans are really good at putting things together, but we can also realize that we’re really bad at taking things apart.  The technologies of taking things are the missing “separation technologies” that critical to the success of our future.  Creative chemists, biologists and engineers are key to the successful development of new separation technologies. 

“Business has been playing only half of the game: how to put things together. All energy of industrial engineers over the past 50 years was focused on how to extract from the Earth the most efficient way, how to derive materials, how to assemble them and how to bring these to the market … just-in-time. There should be no doubt, there are remarkable breakthroughs achieved by industry. What used to take days now only takes seconds.

“But this is only half of the productivity that we should be searching for. Indeed, we all know that the apple falls down on Earth.  The path of the apple to go from the tree to the ground is mathematically very predictable. But can someone explain how the apple gets up? There is no quick explanation for something as obvious as that. Along the same logic, we all know very well that materials are joined together efficiently with fine precision, but can someone explain how these materials are separated again”

We speak of what we throw away using terms that include the word ‘waste”.  For example, we describe the water left over after a process is completed as “waste water”.  Similarly, we hear of “spent fuel”, “solid municipal waste” or “septage”, “dirty rags”, etc.  What we haven’t learned to do well, that chemists can help us do better, is to describe what those materials ARE.  Septage, for example could be considered “liquid nutrients” that could be further characterized by the various compounds that it does contain.

By re-characterizing, re-naming, our current waste streams, chemists and biologists can help industry to move from simply identifying how to reduce their wastes, but to transform all wastes into materials that can be sold to another industry as raw material.  This “alchemical” process turns all materials into valuable assets, rather than waste that can mean increased risk to the company that is paying to have the materials handled.  How readily those can be separated from each other in ways that make them more readily used again are the exciting questions and puzzles for chemists and biologists to discern.

Our current waste stream system includes costs and risks:  all the way from the cost of dumping, and hazardous waste handling costs, along with the compliance costs of increasing regulatory requirements, to the risk of hazardous waste leaching into the groundwater… with higher insurance costs, potential for lawsuits and public outcry and SuperFund Sites cleanup costs.  So we can understand a ZERI approach as helping businesses not only reduce to zero waste, but also to reducing materials risk to zero.  Said another way, the ZERI approach helps us turn liabilities into assets.  So what is this approach?

The ZERI Approach:

Gunter Pauli, founder of Zero Waste Research and Initiatives or ZERI  elegantly summarizes ways that nature works in a way that we can readily understand and replicate them for our benefit.  It becomes “possible to design clusters of industries and cycles of production and consumption which are tune into each other, through dynamic and open systems which secure that this not only works, it renders the overall economy more efficient and competitive.”  ZERI is a network of scientists and projects sharing scientific insights that respond to meeting human needs through the design of production and consumption systems in a co-evolutionary path with nature.

“Zero Waste” is not to be confused with “reducing waste to zero”! 

While the ZERI approach encourages the initial reduction of waste through efficiencies in the existing system, we acknowledge the reality that there comes a place in the return on investment, when it is no longer cost-effective to reduce waste further from the system.  It is then important to study how we can turn the reduced waste stream into value.  Similarly, as Gunter Pauli says,  “When the management of waste is reduced to material productivity, and recycling, then we lose sight of major opportunities to create new jobs and convert whatever was waste for one into a value adding input for another.”  While we DO support reducing waste to a reasonable efficiency, waste is inevitable.  It is what we do with the waste… how we value it… that is key to the “alchemy” of ZERI.  ZERI helps us consciously summarize an open loop, systems approach to looking at how materials flow through nature… in a way where nothing is every wasted.

The Five Kingdoms of Nature & Four Design Principles:

There are five kingdoms of nature – bacteria, algae, fungi, plants and animals – and for billions of years these five kingdoms have worked together to be a highly productive and adaptive system.  Along with the five kingdoms, there are four key design principles that each kingdom (except man!) generally adheres to:

1.     No one kingdom eats its own waste.

2.     Whatever is a toxin for one kingdom will be neutral or a nutrient for another species in at least one other kingdom.

3.     A system is more efficient the more diverse and local it is operating. 

4.     When all 5 kingdoms cooperate, everything can be integrated and separated at ambient pressure and temperature.  If NOT all kingdoms are actively involved, then integration and separation will require pressure and temperature, thus causing entropy beyond the creation of energy from the sun.

These principles are very obvious as we look at land-based processes and technologies so easily found in traditional cultures:  sheep, wool, pottery, natural dyes, and adobe homes.  But we’re in a modern world where we also have cars and freeways, computers and cell phones.    The value of ZERI becomes even clearer when we think about industries; we can see that the 4 Design Principles also apply. 

Look at Design Principle #1:  If we recycle aluminum cans back to aluminum can factories, it’s expensive (degenerative) because, in order to get the aluminum to its original cleanliness and concentration, we have to clean all the inks and coatings off.  Why not find an industry that needs a slightly lower, but still very high quality of aluminum, where no cleaning or processing is necessary?  The aluminum becomes more valuable (less cost to re-process).

Design Principle #2:  Whatever one industry is throwing away (what is “toxic” to them) could be used by at least one other industry.  And while we are not very good at taking things apart, there will be many successful businesses in the future that are great at better separation technologies. 

Design Principle #3:  Even for industry, the farther away the source of their materials, the more expensive the transportation to get them there, and less helpful to the local economy.

Design Principle #4:  Vacuum, high pressure, very high or low temperature solutions increase the costs of the industrial solutions, and require more fossil fuels to produce the conditions, while often limiting the size of the “container” that the solution must occur within.  (Think of vacuum chambers, autoclaves, etc.)

So, as we look at connecting land-based, culturally traditional solutions, and then connecting eco-industrial solutions, it doesn’t take long to link our entire industrial society in our thinking – land-based and industrial all tie together in a huge, and growing web of value-added steps.  And value-added is another way to describe business and to understand the value of economies.  And imagine communities where business incubators are designed for the diverse needs of linked businesses… that would turn into increasingly complex, valuable eco-industrial parks.

Gunter Pauli describes these systems as having the value of an economy of scope rather than economy of scale. “The key to this success… will solely rely on our acceptance that Earth should not produce more, but we should do much more with what the Earth produces.  And if we understand how the 5 Kingdoms of Nature interact, this will be feasible.” 

And when I hear people talking about eco-industrial parks they are generally referring to a centralized place where industries share materials flow in a way that helps them all.  While ZERI approach can surely be applied to these kind of regional centers, ZERI can also be applied to the smallest scales – even in rural settings. 

“Sewage and Solid Municipal Waste should not be considered as a major problem, but rather as a cheap and rich raw material which could catalyze the development of new industries…. A portfolio of new businesses…”

“This visionary approach will not require anyone to accept compromises which lead to no real buy-in of the solutions proposed.  If on the other hand there is an opportunity to integrate solutions using what nature is already generating then there is a chance to make everyone achieve their dream(s).”  Ultimately then, what drives us toward sustainability is not our consciences or moral necessity, but rather smarter and smarter profit motives!

The ZERI approach looks at improving systems – the processes that move materials around – not just at product replacement – at making a better “widget”.  In that approach, we find benefits such as improving quality and efficiencies as well.

Applying The ZERI Approach:

Thinking Outside the Box – The TetraPak Story:  Gunter Pauli describes the story well;

“The engineers who created Tetra Pak packaging were very creative in how they layered together some cardboard, two (sometimes three) layers of low-density polythene, and aluminum.  They integrated three things very well in different layers, but didn’t consider how they would take them apart.  In Germany, you have to pay a fine to get rid of TetraPak waste. To help with this problem, people collect the packaging and return it to TetraPak where it is then washed and shredded before freezing and centrifuging. All this effort results in only 70% separation of the particles. The 30% that remains is a mix of plastic and aluminum, which is then burnt! 

“To be able to separate 100% of the TetraPak packaging, a young scientist from Bogotá, Colombia developed a new technology. This is a fascinating new venture since neither Tetra Pak, nor its suppliers had come up with a perfect solution that could make money and get the job done. The cost of separating the plastic layer from the aluminum layer is very high.

“The solution involves the use a gel made out of extracts from fungi and algae on the shredded packaging. The process is helped by bacteria, the type usually found in the waste from the residues of fruit juice and milk, and would not be active in landfill sites. The different components can then be separated out by centrifuge because of the different specific gravities.  The paper pulp will float, the plastics and aluminum separate due to their specific weight.

“It is possible to fully separate the layers – and it can be done affordably, without any need for heat or pressure.  Now it’s time to start training all engineers to really be innovative and start to think about how they will take their new products apart as well!” 

This technology allowed the participants to mine for high value aluminum from their waste-streams, with many other benefits as well.

The Future of DVD’s and CD’s: 

Thinking of the obvious toxicities of the IT industry’s waste in our waste stream, and just one obvious example:  there are an increasing number of CD’s and DVD’s going into our landfills. 

“A few shredded CD’s and DVD’s in the incinerator and the air will be filled with metal oxides and dioxins - that was unheard of a few years ago.  Now that Blockbuster has decided that all DVD’s they rent will be non-returnable.  … A DVD is made of polycarbonates, aluminum powder, gold dust, vinyl and chromium inks.  One can hardly imagine a worse combination in the waste dump.”

While too early to discuss in detail, there is a technology that has been patented by the ZERI Foundation and industrial testing has confirmed the viability of a technology that is enabling the disassembly of these CD’s and DVD’s into component materials in a way where the raw materials can easily be remanufactured into various products.  These kinds of technologies are the “gold mines” of the future… particularly for chemists who can work closely with biologists and engineers.

Chemical Energy Efficiency Question: 

“Did you know that the power of your heart, which is the regulator of our life, has the equivalent strength of 0.003 horsepower? This core system that secures our survival requires about 1.5 Watts of energy. This is generated thanks to a chemical reaction of potassium and calcium that we accumulate through an appropriate inflow of nutrients. This muscle has the strength to push 8,000 liters of blood through some 60,000 km of veins and arteries each day. Have we ever simulated energy efficient systems, which can match this performance?”   

What kind of bio-batteries can chemists design that will not use heavy metals and toxins, but instead use potassium and calcium, in a shape and size that will be able to run our flashlights, computers and myriad of other battery-driven gadgets?

Alchemists of the Future:  The chemical industry has an exciting “alchemical” role for redesigning smarter systems.  Instead of just inventing more “green” chemicals, chemists can work with biologists and engineers to design ever smarter and more profitable open-looped materials processes.  And by helping to characterize what is IN our waste streams, chemists are uniquely poised to assist businesses to shift from paying to throw wastes away, to finding the value of their wastes, so the wastes can be (separated and) sold to others!  The future of business is to make the future its business.  Chemists have the opportunity to play an important role as “Alchemists Of The Future.”
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