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Robots will take over the waste

Date: 10/12/2013 | Author: Paul Sanderson

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Veolia recently looked at what our cities and homes will look like in 2050

Anyone who watched Tomorrow’s World when it used to be a mainstream BBC1 TV programme will know that predicting the future is always difficult.

History has a habit of changing and new developments overcome what at one time seemed like the obvious technology.

But Veolia Environnement has given it a go in its Imagine 2050 report that looks at the innovations we will need in waste, water and energy to ensure a sustainable future in 37 years time.

“By 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities,” says Veolia Environnement executive vice president UK and northern Europe Estelle Brachlianoff. “This has huge implications for the planet and us as a business that is involved with water, energy and waste as resources for materials and energy.

Imagine 2050 looks at the future from the perspective of a city. We have connected with the research and development available at the moment to look at how we will build the sustainable cities of the future.”

Veolia joined forces with the London School of Economics to produce the report to create its own ‘tale of two cities’ look at different possibilities that could be seen in 2050.

Because cities display unique characteristics, they create a favourable environment for sustainable transformation. This is because they have four key urban characteristics. These are:

  • Density - urban areas have higher population and infrastructure densities. The denser a city is, the easier it is to improve the efficiency of the ‘urban metabolism’ - the amount of resources needed per unit of economic output. The environmental footprint per capita tends to be smaller in cities as more efficient systems and denser living spaces lead to less energy, waste and water consumption.
  • Scale - the larger and denser a city, the more it benefits from economies of scale. This means that some services, such as district heating, decentralised energy generation, recycling collection and waste water treatment, are more cost effective to implement in larger cities as installation and maintenance costs are reduced.
  • Innovation - cities are engines of innovation and economic growth. They can tap into their human capital and fast track innovative solutions to the most pressing sustainability challenges. Existing research institutions and infrastructure also mean cities are ideal test beds for new green technologies.
  • Collaboration - dense urban areas enable us to move from individual ownership to a sharing model of consumption, a trend known as the collaborative economy. This is aided by the rise of the internet, enabling people to buy, trade, rent, or share goods and services with like-minded people nearby.


So what will 2050 look like?

Veolia Imagine 2050 bathroom“By 2050, all materials will have first, second, third and fourth lives,” says Estelle Brachlianoff.

“This might sometimes be closed loop or sometimes it might have a different life in a different loop.

“We will have homes where materials are treated by nano robots, that have self-cleaning bathrooms, paint on walls that helps to make the most of natural light.”

The report looks at two scenarios for the city in 2050.

In scenario one, the future of urban lifestyles is based on collaborative consumption. Collectivist values have led to new models of social, political and economic participation and an emphasis on shared ownership.

Mutualism and local self-reliance are the result of a concern for social equity and environmental sustainability. This is supported by the strong local governance and resource prices that drive social and environmental change within the city.

There is a strong emphasis on Veosystem-level planning, optimising land use, buildings and services and infrastructures to reduce demand and improve resource efficiency.

Settlement patterns are quite dense, with a strong emphasis on preserving the ecological integrity of the urban periphery.

Local businesses with cradle-to-cradle production methods are at the centre of economic activity within the post-consumerist city. Productivity and growth have been successfully decoupled from negative environmental impacts.

At the household level, the consumption of resources has been drastically reduced through new technologies and wide-reaching behavioural changes. Closed loop systems are becoming the norm.

Veolia Imagine 2050 kitchenIn scenario two, this city is based on individualised materialism in dispersed space. Cities are highly materialistic and individualistic within a hyper-mobile, globally connected and largely unregulated market economy.

Short-term private consumption and ownership is prioritised over long-term communal thinking.

A preference for detatched, single-family homes creates suburban sprawl and gated communities.

This segregates an increasingly stratified society and private motorised transport still dominates transportation.

Resource efficiency at the household level has improved due to emerging technologies and intelligent control systems. However, the lack of a comprehensive policy, weak institutions and resource prices that do not take all externalities into account, mean that overall consumption of water, waste and energy remains fairly high.

Environmental degradation is primarily addressed through end-of-pipe solutions. Demand is managed through centrally controlled smart networks.

In 2050. depending on how these scenarios develop, we could be living in homes where all of our needs are provided by new sustainable technologies such as homes that sort their own waste.

“We will no longer have bins,” says Veolia environmental analyst Marine Savy. “We will have underground networks - one for organic and food waste that goes to a green calories centre to provide heat and power to houses.

“In the other nanobots will be able to recognise different elements of matter and send materials into different pure streams. Products will also have intelligent packaging that will understand when a product expires.

“We will all have 3D printers in our homes to create new products when we need them.

“From our windows we will see vertical farms for bioplastic manufacture.

“Or plastics may also come from biomass such as plants and sewage sludge and we already have the technology for this, although it is seen as expensive.

“By 2050, CO2 will be seen as a resource rather than a threat and we will use it to feed algae that are then used to provide a fuel to heat and power homes.”

She adds that when we go to the bathroom, taps will be able to sense when we are clean and so will turn themselves off to reduce water wastage.

Indeed, we will get water treated in our homes using plant filtration systems that can then be recycled back into use for the home. We will have ultrasonic baths that will create more bubbles and thus remove dirt more effectively.

For Veolia Environnement, these are logical steps from where we are now already. For example, the nanobots that will sort waste are an extension of current materials recycling facility technology
or Veolia’s new Polymer Recovery Facility  (PRF) in Rainham.

“We are investing in facilities to process different plastics,” says Veolia technical director Richard Kirkman who is responsible for putting new technological developments in place at the company.

“We have nine grades that are streamed into separate polymers and we want to take that further.”

Veolia is also working on technology that will allow it to remove traces of essential metals such as palladium, gold and rhodium from road dust and it sees examples like this as its path towards its 2050 vision of homes and society.

In her introduction to the report, Estelle Brachlianoff sums up Veolia’s new vision.

She writes: “Using our expertise in the fields of water, energy and waste we can help preserve natural resources and manufacture and produce green products and energy sources.

“2050 might seem difficult to imagine right now. But unless we start thinking long-term, sustainable cities will just be a pipe dream for our children’s children.”


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