Over in Green Alliance’s Designing Out Waste theme, we’ve recently launched a new report on the growing challenge of resource security. It focuses on certain raw materials – phosphorus, metals and water – that are inextricably linked to economic growth. These are the materials that help our food grow, enable our smart phones to work and keep our taps running.
We filled our report with pictures of open cast mines scarring the landscape; the intricate wizardry of circuit boards; and tractors spreading muck to fertilise fields. Other than the silhouette of a solitary tractor driver, people did not really feature at all. But we are, of course, both the cause of growing resource insecurity, and the solution.
People are the cause
People are the cause, because it is our insatiable appetite for resources (such as our addiction to more and more screens in our homes) that is taking us to the depths of the oceans and to increasingly remote, fragile and politically unstable parts of the world to access them.
The CEO of Glencore, a mining company that recently floated on the London stock market valued at approximately £37 billion, recently described why the business operates in Zambia and the Congo. “Unfortunately, God put the minerals in different parts of the world. We took the nice, simple, easy stuff first from Australia, we took it from the US, we went to South America… now we have to go to the more remote places”.
Despite the fact we are getting more efficient in our use of resources, thanks to population growth and increasing affluence, we are now consuming more than ever –between 45 and 60 billion tonnes are extracted globally every year. And this is set to rise almost three times by 2050, to 140 million tonnes if we carry on with ‘business as usual’. This comes with huge environmental challenges, not least the energy needed to extract and process these resources, which could require 40 per cent of global energy supply by 2050.
People are the solution
People are also the solution, because addressing resource security in a long term will involve fundamental changes to the way we all use stuff. In our report, we examine three resources, interlinked and crucial to our modern economy – metals, phosphorus and water. We look at what changes are needed to ensure greater ‘circularity’, i.e. using resources multiple times over to avoid ever-more extraction and waste.
Products containing metals are often not recycled
We often fail to recycle products containing metals, for example our old mobile phones end up languishing in drawers. This is partly because the cost of reprocessing often outweighs the cost of digging more metals out of the ground and it is difficult to recycle metals at sufficient purity (from circuit boards for example). This means no-one really encourages us to recycle these products. Even where recycling is both technically and economically viable, often products containing metals end up being shipped overseas, sometimes illegally, and then end up in poor recycling facilities or chucked away when broken.
Our report advocates that consumers get money back for every item containing these metals (either through a deposit scheme or based on the value of the materials) to try and get them into the recycling stream.
Phosphorus from human waste?
Few people have seen or handled phosphorus, the mineral without which the world population could not have reached its present levels, and on which our industrial food system depends (it is a crucial ingredient in fertilisers). Phosphate rock is finite, un-substitutable and controlled by a handful of countries including Morocco and Western Sahara, which controls 77 per cent. But demand is increasing, due to population growth, biofuels and the shift towards more meat and dairy-intensive diets, with huge implications for global food security.
We particularly need to start seeing secondary sources of phosphates, such as animal and human waste, as a valuable nutrient rather than pollutants and waste to be got rid of. Some changes can occur with relatively little impact on the way we behave: government can tweak tax regimes to incentivise better phosphate recovery at sewage treatment works, for example. But somewhere down the line, more noticeable changes may be needed: to what we eat and to what we do with our waste. If you thought the Daily Mail made a fuss about the prospect of separating your food waste from everything else, the likely reaction to the introduction of eco-san toilets in the UK can only be imagined…
Water, water is not everywhere
Water is the final resource that we examine. Unlike metals and phosphorus, we already have a natural water cycle. But we take water for granted, we use it (and waste it) and we move it around the world embedded in food and other products such as textiles. The changing climate means that scarcity problems will arise in the future, including in the UK.
But water is almost unique in that we don’t pay for it according to how much we use, nor does the price we pay reflect how scarce it is, and how valuable it is to the natural environment. Water meters in every home would enable the introduction of smarter tariffs, which could both better reflect the value and scarcity of water. These would give us genuine incentives to reduce our consumption, whilst ensuring that everyone can afford to meet reasonable needs for water.
Solutions closer to home
The term ‘resource security’ can sound very removed from peoples’ everyday lives, but water, metals and phosphorus are essential components of everything from the food on our plates to the appliances in our homes. Securing them for the future should be a priority.