1.1 Anthropogenic Systems, GDP Growth, and Material Flow Management
Contrary to the (wise) premise, we, “the wise”—or Homo sapiens, have always taken an anthropocentricFootnote 1 stand toward everything we have done so far. By any reasonable judgement, this will largely stay the norm for the next couple of decades as well. The taming of nature and the extraction/consumption of ever-increasing quantities of resources have been fundamental aspects of all progressive civilisations thus far. It is also fundamental to the current model of economic growth and development that we follow to the hilt. As a consequence, severe environmental degradation and the depletion of resources have occurred in tandem. Adding insult to injury, globalisation and population growth coupled with the fallacious chase for GDP growth have aggravated this situation even further.
However, since the mid-twentieth century, the manmade environmental calamities such as the Great Smog of ’52, the threat of DDT in the ’60s, the ozone depletion of the ’70s, and the largest ever oil spill in human history—the Persian Gulf oil spill in ’91—drew humanity’s attention to the underlying issues, prompting a sluggish, nevertheless noticeable shift in this anthropocentric order of business toward an ecocentric direction.
The extensive consumption of fossil resources along with the application of synthetic chemistry/biology—which are also liberally attributed to the aforesaid calamities—has triggered a frenzy of industrial and economic development (see Fig. 14.1: GDP as a proxy indicator), which as a result has increased humanity’s environmental footprint like never before.
Intensive pollution—land, air and water—was widely recognised as a symptom of the underlying societal metabolic disorder; this gave impetus to the global green movement in the twentieth century. Adding momentum, the contemporary debate on global climate change, which is attributed to anthropogenic global warming, has accelerated the pace of application of green [environmental] solutions globally in recent decades.
To create any significant impact, such solutions need applications on different levels and scales. Clearly, anthropogenic systems are complex and come in all shapes and sizes (e.g. a business, a municipality, a political system, the European Union, etc.). Systems are characterised by a system boundary and the flow/flux of material and energy across and within the system boundary. Inputs such as raw materials and energy, and outputs such as products, services and waste/emissions are inherent to anthropogenic systems. These various inputs and outputs further distinguish various systems. In dealing with complex anthropogenic systems, special attention should also be paid to the output of money as a valuable resource, as many of the problems originate from an incorrect allocation of money and the concurrent loss of economic power and opportunities related to financial waste from systems (see Fig. 14.3).
Despite the lack of consensus on the definition of “small-scale systems”, in this text, we focus on small-scale political and administrative systems such as villages, municipalities and business entities such as farms, factories, SMEs, etc. Small-scale systems play an important role in rural areas of the world, in particular by provisioning ecosystem services, clean water and healthy food. They also help to conserve biodiversity and facilitate multifunctional land use, etc.
1.2 The Throughput Society and the SDGs
Currently, the predominant practice of resource management involves extracting, making, using, and wasting/throwing away. This practice is denoted as the throughput system (also known as the throughput metabolism). Accordingly, we can describe present human society as “the throughput society” and the current global economy as “the linear economy”. Characteristics of these systems include the massive input/use of virgin resources, low levels of resource productivity/product efficiency, and the generation of gargantuan amounts of emissions or unwanted by-products that are usually termed waste. Thanks in large part to this throughput system of resource management, “global primary material use, and thus global primary material extraction, is projected to double in the coming decades… from 79 Gt in 2011 to 167 Gt in 2060” (see Fig. 14.2).Footnote 2 From a land use perspective, this foresees a massive increase in the use of valuable land resources for resource extraction, agriculture and urban development, collectively resulting in permanent degradation of ecosystems due to, among other things, the depositing of waste materials. From an anthropocentric point of view, ecosystems are essential for provisioning (e.g. food and water) and regulatory (e.g. flood control, climate) services. To use them as waste deposits or sinks leads to the loss of (sometimes irreversible) service capacity.
The constant bombardment of news about environmental calamity, resource scarcity, social inequality, economic downturn, etc.—inevitable consequences of the throughput system—remind us that humanity is facing an existential threat, for which achieving sustainability has been projected as the panacea. It was for this reason that UN policymakers set out to achieve environmental, social and economic sustainability (popularly termed “triple-bottom-line sustainability”) as humanity’s goal for the current century, employing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the short term for the endeavour.
The underlying matrix that forms the objectives of the SDGs also includes the following: achieving social and intergenerational equity, extracting and consuming resources in accordance with the planetary boundaries, and, at the same time, achieving economic growth and prosperity while minimising negative environmental consequences.
Though the exact origin of greening for sustainability is somewhat nebulous, its effects have become increasingly common over time, presenting a broad array of solutions for the aforementioned socioeconomic and environmental concerns. These solutions include green products (e.g. green chemicals) and services (e.g. green IT, green design and green certification); green infrastructure (e.g. green buildings); green energy (e.g. carbon–neutral/renewable energy); green processes (e.g. green manufacturing, green chemistry); green policies (e.g. green public procurement), etc. The goal is to establish green jobs and green cities with the ultimate aim of introducing green economies, where sustainability is the fundamental value.
1.3 MFM and Associated Tools
The circular economy, material flow management and zero emissions are different aspects of a new nexus in the world. The circular economy is the new paradigm, material flow management is the management tool for implementation, and zero emissions are the ultimate target. “Nexus” in this context emphasises the new holistic view of managing systems as such, instead of optimising individual components in linear flows. Closed-loop economies need to pay attention to embedded energy, virtual water, carbon footprints, levelised costs of service, etc. This segmented view of our society hinders economic efficiency, resource efficiency and emission reduction. As often observed in such an approach, the suboptimal allocation of financial resources also leads to negative incentives for unsustainable investments.
1.3.1 Material Flow Management
Material flow management (MFM) strives to change the throughput metabolism and helps users to develop technical and economic alternatives designed to improve the system’s conditions and reduce the outgoing material and energy flows—more commonly termed emissions or waste. MFM could be applied to any typical consumption and production system insofar as its primary goal is to optimise material and energy flows according to given objectives. Figure 14.3 illustrates the material and energy flow of a typical throughput system that, by implementing MFM, circulates resource flows while reducing virgin and non-renewable resource inputs, minimising the loss of financial resources and reducing environmental impacts due to emissions. Ideally, the resulting new system could be a zero-emissions (ZE) system, depending on the targeted objectives.
Typically, material flow analysis (MFA) precedes MFM, during which a thorough system analysis is performed to qualify and quantify the resource flows through and within the defined system boundary temporally and spatially.Footnote 3 The MFA not only collects and assesses the pertinent data, but also makes this information visible and transparent. This, in turn, allows policymakers and scientists to simplify and elaborate on the problems and their subsequent management options. Figure 14.4 shows an analysis of biomass potential in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The MFA clearly reveals the enormous potential of biomass, expressed as the availability of oil equivalents per year. In this way, MFA leads to more transparency of systems with regard to their potential. MFA also illustrates the current states of systems (or the status quo), as illustrated in Fig. 14.5.
MFM usually details a comprehensive plan for the specific management and financing of individual projects that optimises specific resource flows; together these projects lead to system change. As mentioned earlier, one ideal system optimisation target could be a ZE system, in which emissions flows are utilised within the system’s boundaries or connected to adjacent subsystems as valuable raw material inputs (such as in the case of industrial symbiosis), creating closed loops of material and energy flows—i.e. a circular system. This ultimate system state is usually referred to as the circular economy (CE) model (as opposed to the “linear” model of the economy mentioned above), which is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. Typically, the holistic sustainability results of such an optimised system can be measured in terms of regional added value (RAV). RAV presents/quantifies both monetary and non-monetary benefits derived from MFM. Non-monetary benefits include, among others, lower pollution levels, increased biodiversity, improved aesthetics, increased innovation, an enhanced public image, etc. Monetary benefits include increased labour and employment opportunities, increased savings, lower costs, increased revenues from new business ventures, new sales options, etc. As can be seen, the key objective of material flow management (MFM) is to optimise systems in order to achieve more systemic added value, while achieving triple bottom line sustainability.
The starting point of current models of targeted sustainable economies—specifically the circular economy (CE), the bio-economy (BE) and the green economy (GE) as depicted in Fig. 14.6–is the use of MFM and ZE technologies and strategies. Despite the size of the anthropogenic system targeted or the sustainable economic model to be followed, these tools are intrinsic; therefore, here we investigate the concept of ZE and its implications on CE.
As remarked on earlier, the throughput society of today extracts ever-increasing amounts of resources from the earth’s ecosystems and turns the bulk of it into different kinds of waste products such as solid waste, wastewater, waste gas, waste heat and greenhouse gases. These create enormous environmental pressures, often with lasting negative impacts. As resources become depleted and sinks become increasingly overloaded, the reduction and/or the avoidance of emissions will be a vital measure to protect resources and sinks, and thus prevent land and ecosystem degradation.
In that context, the approach of zero emissions (ZE) calls for the systemic, overarching optimisation of processes, incorporating elements of sufficiency, efficiency and substitution. Zero emissions do not mean avoiding all emissions as such. Instead, it means avoiding the types of emissions that lead to negative impacts on neighbouring (eco) systems, such as rivers, wetlands, agricultural land, etc. It also stipulates changing system metabolism in such a way that by-products are either upcycled or improved as a result of secondary use options, or drastically reduced in terms of volume. Another key element of the zero emissions strategy is a focus on economics. Avoiding emissions makes economic sense, even without considering externalities. In a world with dwindling resources and shrinking sinks, the efficient use of both could save money and create competitive new business opportunities with better bottom lines. For small-scale, financially strained systems such as rural villages and municipalities, SMEs, etc., a ZE strategy can assist in boosting the local economy and/or cash flow, while reducing the environmental burdens arising from consumption and production systems.
1.3.3 The Circular Economy
The CE is an alternative route to holistic sustainability, though it is still in an early phase of adoption. Developed to emulate the energy and material flow management model in biological systems, its supporters position the CE as an alternative to the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model. CE aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2015).
The value of the CE stems from its explicit focus on the economy. Compared to sustainable development (which is widely seen as an environmental initiative, even though by definition, it is not), the dominance of economic thinking within CE concepts is clearly visible.
As hinted at earlier, according to Elia et al. (2017) and the European Environmental Agency (EEA 2016), the CE is characterised by its ability to reduce the input and use of natural resources; reduce emission levels; reduce valuable material losses; increase the share of renewable and recyclable resources; and increase the durability of products. It is based on three simple principles: design waste and pollution out of the system; keep materials and products in use as long as possible and as economically as possible; and regenerate natural systems.
Despite the CE’s relative novelty, its unambiguous and application-oriented nature is a positive in fostering action toward sustainability at local, national and international levels. The CE is perhaps still a road less travelled. But, analogous to the German Autobahn, the CE is a smooth, straight, obstacle-free, high-speed freeway to sustainability. As exemplified in many domains in the European Union—the predominant promoter of the CE at present—the CE is not just another fancy term for waste management. The CE would help to reduce virgin resource extraction/input for economic processes, while also reducing the associated environmental impacts. As opposed to other economic models, the utility of the CE has been tangibly proven in applications in the EU. Accordingly, one recent estimation has suggested that CE practices such as chemical leasing, nutrient recovery in agriculture, materials substitution in the construction sector, and shared ownership models in transport systems could reduce up to 7.5 billion tonnes of CO2e globally. This would bridge half of the existing emissions gap to reach the 1.5 ℃ target as outlined under the Paris Agreement (Schroeder et al. 2019).
Optimising material flows according to the principles of the CE is important for easing the pressure on land. In addition to this indirect positive effect on land use, the CE enables strategies for new land use systems based on the cascade approach and system thinking. For example, the “More Value from a Hectare” project, conceptualised and applied by the Institute for Applied Material Flow Management (IfaS) at Trier University of Applied Sciences for a new rural bio-economy strategy, is designed to enhance the resilience of agricultural systems, with a special focus on land and soil, while provisioning more services—or value—from each hectare of land utilized (Böhmer et al. 2019).
The CE would also create innovative business models. That means, besides generating profits, the CE would create employment opportunities—in other words, it contributes to social sustainability targets (see Schroeder et al. (2019) for some insights). Concerning economic aspects, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2015), a shift to a CE would reduce net expenditures on resources by €600 billion per year, improve resource productivity by 3%, and generate €1.8 trillion per year of net benefits in the EU by 2030.
In light of its origins and the compatibility of its transformative tools (i.e. MFM, ZE, etc.), the CE model’s applicability seems universal. Clearly, the CE provides a very practical option to treat the societal metabolic disorder modern civilisation suffers from. Its versatility in solving developmental and environmental challenges simultaneously is also worth considering when promoting the CE as an effective tool in achieving the UN’s SDGs.Footnote 4 Given the anticipated severity of impending resource and environmental crises (see Fig. 14.7 for some insights), the CE seems to be one of the best alternative paths to follow.
According to the OECD (2019), the material intensity of economies—in particular in OECD countries—is set to decline (by 2060); furthermore, growth in the recycling sector (i.e. use of secondary materials) will surpass that of the mining sector as recycling becomes more price competitive than mining. This is in part attributed to the strong presence and growth of the CE. However, citing a 2015 report by the European Academies’ Advisory Council, Schroeder et al. (2019) have pointed out that transforming the current linear economic model to a CE model has been stymied by “a skills gap in the workforce and lack of CE programmes at all levels of education.”
Nevertheless, the efforts of Europe’s research and higher education institutions such as the Institute for Applied Material Flow Management (IfaS) of the Trier University of Applied SciencesFootnote 5 in Germany have been highly regarded locally and internationally by representatives of industry, academia and the public sector alike. For nearly two decades, IfaS has deployed its expertise on the CE on practical projects on five continents, offered graduate and postgraduate level education on the CE through dedicated degree programmes,Footnote 6 and continually disseminated applied knowledge regarding the CE through its signature events platform: the International Circular Economy Week and Conference.Footnote 7
The home base and foundation of this innovative education programme is the Environmental Campus Birkenfeld (ECB). ECB itself is a small-scale, decentralised and sustainable system of energy and material management; it has been purposefully designed as an object of study and a living laboratory for the specialised streams of scientific research pertaining to these areas. The following section explores the unique features of ECB in MFM.