Industrial Ecology: On Reducing Our Future Water and Waste Footprint
Kalyakan @ stock.adobe.com
We now live in the Plastic Age in the Anthropocene era and water is more polluted than ever before. It is estimated that if industrial production and consumer behavior maintain the status quo and continue unchecked and unbalanced, by 2050, our oceans could have more plastic than fish by weight. Unfortunately, plastics are just one part of the problem: 80 percent of the world’s wastewater from farms, towns, and factories is disposed of — mostly untreated — back into the environment, readily dissolving in the water, polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans (UN-Water).
The growing awareness of the deep industrial impact of our 20th-century behavior brought about a jarring, urgent, and more ecological mindset, which has yet to become as widespread as is necessary to incentivize change. Take the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment signed in 2018, for instance; more than 400 organizations pledged to eliminate plastic waste and pollution, which is just a tiny fraction of all the existing organizations worldwide.
Present-day technological advancements are slowly converging with past achievements and developing into innovative ways to remediate the human-industrial damage to the environment; the aim is to avoid producing waste and save water in industrial processes. Regenerative Economy, for example, combines ancient-old practices with emerging technologies such as Machine Learning Data Analytics. Human knowledge and AI can provide live and exact information regarding crops and fields and guide circular agricultural decisions, aiding in the task of reducing the amount of water necessary as well as keeping pesticide use to a bare minimum.
This industrial ecology is aware that industrial production can only continue to operate if the environment is added to the equation. An environmentally conscious industry should not only reduce its burden on the planet but also provide a new scenario where end-user behaviors are drastically changed towards circularity. Businesses and stakeholders should receive a call for commitment, accompanied by long-term perspectives.
There are plenty of obstacles for companies to become greener. If only aligning production with the demand from upper-class level final consumers — with deep pockets to afford the high prices for eco-friendly products, a real change in customer behavior will find deep constraints. Results will only begin to appear if measures are taken with the world as a whole in mind. Archaic taxation systems often do not evolve in response to the actual needs of society; there will certainly be some level of resistance to change, undoubtedly something to overcome. Existing business models should find opportunities in gearing towards circularity; yet, long-term strategies will be challenged in front of current sparse regulations and polarization. The transition will not be smooth, but the atonement will follow — in the form of economic and political power. Biodegradable Electronics, for instance, is already a reality and a future alternative to help avoid the pollution of electronic waste, in addition to being a reliable profit center as companies would not need to hold themselves accountable for the waste, they (or would not) produce. Companies that encourage more mindful and civic behaviors towards waste recycling and litter reduction will confront old paradigms and lead innovation.
This begins to materialize into a new order of socially and environmentally responsible industries, which could, in the future, overcome the extractivist mindset normalized throughout the past industrial century and transform those unsustainable practices into obsolete ideas. Under this dynamic, industries would take charge of their responsibilities to the world, and consumers would follow suit, generating more demand for sustainable practices in a wider variety of industries, with some ontological and cyclical influence. The interconnection between industries and customers can grow through distributed ledger technologies and networking accountability. By adopting Smart Contracts, for example, the industry of the future could promote transparency, traceability, and accountability to improve the decision-making from worldwide corporations down to the individual choices made by ordinary consumers and civilians.
The most significant accomplishment lies in acknowledging that “people (and their technologies) are just as much a part of our 'ecologies' as are nature and the physical features of our planet,” as Michael Schwarz once wrote in A Sustainist Lexicon. Once industries and customers realize their engagement depends on the efforts from both technological advancements and behavioral change, nothing will be left behind in the process of capturing value throughout the entire chain.