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Waste

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Weighing the resource implications of modular products

Designer Dave Hakkens made a social media splash last fall with Phonebloks, his concept for a phone with swappable parts. Modular phones would allow users to upgrade, repair, and customize parts of their phones. The overall aim is to reduce electronic waste by getting people to hold onto their phones longer. To bring such an idea into a competitive market, Hakkens needed a sophisticated partner. That's where Google comes in. The company now plans to release its first modular phone, developed under the name Project Ara, in 2015.

phonebloks
phonebloks

At first glance, a modular phone seems like a great option for reducing material use. But in the span of the phone's expected 5-6 year lifespan, it's reasonable to think that advances might emerge in energy harvesting or manufacturing techniques that could render it relatively inefficient. So a question remains whether the phone base will be able to adapt to such changes. Moreover, if one of the goals of the project is to reduce electronic waste, a system will need to be in place to collect and recycle or repurpose modules that are no longer wanted. Given the modules' tiny size, it's possible that the resources they contain won't be perceived as valuable enough to prioritize or make a collection and recycling system viable.

Of course, modularity isn't simply about extending the life of a product. It's also another form of mass customization. People can pick or choose what components they want. In the case of Ara, Google is banking on people's willingness to pay not only for their own preferred mix of apps, but for a customized mix of hardware modules that do everything from take pictures to take your pulse.

Interface's FLOR carpet tile is perhaps the most well known modular product on the market, and is a big part of the company's overall sustainable business strategy. If there's a problem, users can replace tiles individually, rather than replacing an entire floor's worth of carpet. The end result is less waste and an extended life for the overall floor covering. The Guardian recently portrayed a handful of other modular products, from shoes to an indoor aquaponics system, as inherently sustainable. However, it's not clear that modularity is necessarily aligned with sustainability. Manufacturers and entrepreneurs working on modular products intended to be "sustainable" should consider their end goals relative to things like initial resource inputs, waste, lifecycle costs, and recoverability to ensure that modular is indeed doing better with less.

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Managing Waste: Are developing nations leapfrogging with new toilet solutions?

130830 ecosan.eng.alt
130830 ecosan.eng.alt

When it comes to the management of human waste, we tend to break the world into two segments: the developed world, with flush toilets, and the developing world, with little infrastructure or access to sanitation services. Solutions for the developing world are a high priority because the risks of under-performing sanitation systems – disease and death – are extremely high. But the solutions emerging today for the developing world could have important implications for resource use and waste management throughout the developed world as well. We recently had a chance to talk with representatives from two organizations bringing sanitation systems to developing economies, SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) and Loowatt, about their waterless systems that convert wastes into valuable resources—the SOIL EcoSan Toilet and Loowatt, respectively.

Since 2006, SOIL has been developing business opportunities related to providing sanitation services, using their EcoSan toilet models.  Customers rent the toilet unit and pay a collector to remove accumulated wastes for composting at a centralized facility. The composted material is then sold for profit, and used to improve agriculture as well as reforestation. The solution improves health, agriculture, and the environment, while building local economic opportunities. (Learn more here.)

Toilet_White Background
Toilet_White Background

Loowatt similarly offers a self-contained toilet system, but the collected wastes are converted on-site into a biogas that can be used for fuel, and compost that can be used as fertilizer. Loowatt systems have been piloted in communities in Madagascar that lacked centralized collection and management of wastes, but they have been specifically designed to deliver a standard of odorless and hands-off sanitation that meets expectations of residents of Western countries. (For more information, visit Loowatt).

The concept of "leapfrogging" in sustainable development typically refers to developing nations skipping steps in technological development, jumping ahead to advanced technologies. For example, countries adopting cell phones without ever having built infrastructure for landlines. At first glance, it might seem that these toilet solutions are low-tech. But are they the more advanced option? They don't rely on billion dollar, energy-intensive wastewater facilities or similarly expensive infrastructure for transporting water to and from homes for flushing. The systems convert what can be burdensome—and hazardous—waste into resources with monetary value. And they don't require water.

The Bullitt Center in Seattle is a six-story building that uses composting toilets to meet design requirements of the Living Building Challengefor water self-sufficiency. Designers installed 10 aerobic composters in the basement where the waste accumulates and begins to break down. Material that isn't converted into carbon dioxide and water vapor is picked up monthly and taken off-site to a commercial compost facility where it is further broken down for use as fertilizer.

As pressure on water supplies intensifies and energy and fertilizer costs climb, will developed nations seek toilet solutions like those being implemented in the developing world? What infrastructure will support a shift toward waterless solutions and who will build it?

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Detecting & recovering nano-sized resources

While it's clear that nanotechnologies will play a large and essential role in the conversion to a sustainable, dMASS economy, they also pose potential risks.

Risks related to nanoparticles released into our environment are largely unknown. Nanoparticles could pose a threat to human health through water and food supplies as well as dispersal in the atmosphere. Large amounts could reduce the overall diversity or complexity of the biosphere. We do know that pharmaceuticalsplastics, and other substances are turning up in the food chains of humans and many other organisms, but the effects are just beginning to be studied, and the fate of nano-sized particles from emerging technologies is not yet understood.

From the standpoint of mining above grade, dispersed nanoparticles are difficult to detect and recover. This means that what begins as a valuable resource becomes waste. Gold, for example, has been used throughout history in quantities that could be recovered and reused repeatedly. Today it's being used in such tiny amounts in electronics that it's being "consumed" for the first time.

That's why I'm particularly interested in some of the new technologies that address detecting, separating, and recovering nano-sized resources.

A recent dMASS Resource Fix featured a molecular sorting technique that enables materials to be broken down into their constituent elements. Another profiled a new technology for detecting invisible amounts of gold and other metals that in the past would have been discarded.

Now another piece of the puzzle is emerging that could be an important safeguard. It's a sensor system made of "sticky electrodes" that can detect free nano-particles and help mitigate impacts on biological systems.

Innovations in resource detection may help manage risks associated with nanotechnology, as well as enhance resource recovery abilities.

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