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Will waste reshape the future of manufacturing and design?

By Michelle Gothard - Last updated: Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Waste is an inevitable part of the industrialised world in which we live – but the current scale of waste production should not be such a foregone conclusion.

A case in point is the production of food waste, both nationally and globally. Last year in the UK, leading supermarket chain Tesco publicly reported disposing of 28,000 tonnes of food from stores and distribution centres in the first half of 2013. A frenzy of media reporting and public outrage followed.

However, this did not reference the much larger issue of the food supply chain as a whole. A recent study by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers estimated that around a third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste each year – some 1.3 billion tonnes. Losses occur in agriculture, distribution, and with the retailer and consumer. Much of this waste is dumped – at the expense of industry and the environment.

It could be argued that food is a special case, as it’s produced in large quantities and highly susceptible to degradation. But this is not so. A more wide-reaching but less-publicised story was highlighted by the creation of the Endangered Elements Periodic Table. This version of the periodic table details the elements that are to become economically and industrially unavailable during the next 100 years. They include many of the metals that allow digital and electronic technology to work at a fundamental level, such as gallium, platinum, palladium and iridium. Our insatiable appetite for technology has seen a massive increase in the disposal of electronics – or e-waste. Globally, recycling rates are in the range of 0-40%, resulting in these metals being lost to landfill.

However, waste does have a huge upside. It can allow companies to be both proactive and innovative in terms of products, services, operations and long-term strategic vision. They may profit by finding ways to use waste in their own operations – potentially reducing costs and increasing sustainability – or selling waste on as a feedstock or product.

Biological waste from food, agriculture and sewage can already be processed into a range of products including bioplastics as well as methane, ethanol, fine chemicals and fertiliser. Urban mining has begun in many countries, such as China and Belgium – reclaiming electrical components, metals and some plastics from landfill. Whole new ecosystems are rapidly evolving, complete with new industries, materials and technologies.

The waste economy has grown rapidly over the past decade, fuelled by technical development and legislation. It can be a confusing landscape for those wishing to operate within it, and at Cambridge Consultants we have helped clients navigate in a variety of ways – from visioning future scenarios of required skills, technologies and partners, to the conception and design of products using materials derived from waste streams.

Waste will reshape the future of manufacturing and design – and, in doing so, will forge new and profitable ways of thinking and working. Waste is a challenge but – more importantly – it is also an opportunity.

Read more from Michelle and her colleagues in our Interface magazine.


AuthorMichelle Gothard

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