From Renewable Energy to Renewable Matter

From the Post-War Era we have inherited a thriving society that is now threatened by pollution and a diminishing social cohesion. These problems cannot be solved by erecting defensive walls to stop innovation but by building bridges towards an engaging future. Renewing energies, materials and relations is the way forward.

From the Renewable Matter magazine launch editorial:

” Today, the march towards renewable energy can only be slowed down, but not reversed. Therefore, time has come to add a second pillar: that of renewable matter. It is a considerable conceptual leap implying an overturn of the current dominant viewpoint. Up until now, the industrial production generated a one-way material flow, turning part of nature into a mine and another into a dump, passing off pollution and environmental degradation as unavoidable collateral damage. On the other hand, the renewable matter approach views the environment as a key resource – the major asset for all possible exploitations and whose yield can be smartly utilised – and considers the materials involved in production as a continuous flow, in which single commodities are just the transitory steps matters goes through.

Such conceptual leap requires a change in language. Terms such as “virgin material”, “raw material”, “secondary raw material”, “waste”, “products and by-products” entail a values scales in which matter is progressively degraded (from virgin to raw material, from raw material to secondary raw material and so on and so forth). The concept of renewable matter ousts this old hierarchy by going beyond the idea of recycling as the only phase of reutilization, almost the exception that confirms the rule of a linear process.

Within the “cradle to cradle” vision, transformation becomes crucial, a model that has passed the test of time with flying colours over three billion years of evolution of life on the planet. After use, matter breaks down into parts that get back into the cycle becoming what they were at the beginning or acting as input for other products and for industrial, energy or craft systems. Such perspective would be worth enhancing by creating “Tables of renewability” (inspired by Mendeleev’s Periodic Table) classifying the ability of each material to regenerate and to be reutilized according to its structure and the technological and environmental abilities available.

Although different, there are three fields sharing this new way of thinking. They are deeply interconnected (commodities, biomaterials, waste) and share one common factor: the environment.

Commodities. Raw materials represent the core of the problem. Their flow influences economic trends and income distribution. Current market globalization and the growing importance of financial activities in economic systems make it all the more complex. It is an ever-changing scenario that can be transformed radically by the recent trend of replacing goods with services (i.e. cars and photocopiers are loaned for use rather than owned).

Biomaterials. They are materials coming from the organic realm (produce and waste from organic production chains) and as such they can be regenerated in a relatively short time so they can be considered renewable. Overall, they represent an inexhaustible mine of environmentally low-impact materials that, thanks to technological innovation, can become sources of supply for many industries, thus creating an alternative to conventional raw materials.

Biofuels, nowadays used even for aircrafts, or bioplastics, whose range of uses spans from packaging to medical surgical technology, are a case in point.
Waste. As it has become clear over recent years, waste is no longer a price to pay for the production system but it rather represents an efficiency deficiency that we are trying to fix. In a period of economic crisis, the fact that waste is just “a misplaced resource” becomes more and more measurable in monetary terms. It is evident how the huge flow of materials transformed into waste cannot be discarded and must be exploited in some way. But how? There are several possible approaches depending on the level of innovation in the making of a product. If the manufacturer, inevitably generating waste, does not take care of the possible uses of that “waste”, then its exploitation and reutilization becomes difficult. On the other hand, if the maker of a product has devised an efficient reutilizing strategy, the quantity of wasted materials becomes minimal, amounting only to the entropy inherent in any transformation process. Nowadays there are already some materials that go through the “waste” stage with minimal loss of value. Thanks to suitable treatment, they can offer the same performance they had at the beginning of the production cycle. But the majority of materials is partially reutilized or dumped into landfills.

The Environment. The environment is involved in all the flows outlined so far. Raw materials, both organic and inorganic, are taken from the soil. Biomaterial and biofuels derive from crops that inevitably prevent other uses of the same land. Waste has an impact on the environment or causes climate-changing emissions that, in turn, affect soil’s quality and yields. In order to harmonize a different industrial strategies, two essential elements are needed. A systemic approach without which there is a risk of becoming inefficient, namely you gain with one hand while losing with the other. And, secondly, the ability to create common interests capable of steering such transformation.”

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