16 of 17: Two Alternative Perspectives on Waste in Cities

In our 16th article in our series of 17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17, Future Cape Town team member Gareth Pearson explores two avenues of thought when it comes to making more of the waste we produce in cities. The first considers a communal concept for the vehicles, machinery and physical tools which temporarily go to “waste” when we are not using them – which could instead be used by somebody else. The second concept termed industrial symbiosis looks at how by-products for one industry or group can become an input for another, potentially reducing costs and carbon emissions.

Zipcar - there when you need it

When we think of waste, we think of something that is of no use. We usually associate the term with solid waste; the kind we send ‘away’ to one of Cape Town’s growing mountains of unwanted matter. Though if we look beyond solid waste and delve into this definition of waste as something of no use, we find some interesting things.

If something is of no use to someone, it may be of no further use, but possibly only of no use temporarily. This leads us to a new perspective on what we actually classify as waste. A car is of no use to you until you need to drive somewhere, so technically when it is parked it is waste. Furthermore, if something is of no use to someone, it doesn’t mean there is no use for it elsewhere. In fact, it probably has value. When you don’t need a car, chances are someone else does. These insights form the basis of two ideas shaping the way we manage waste in cities today.


The rise of collaborative consumption

People the world over are starting to realise that one does not necessarily need to own something, but rather simply have access to it. This shift to access is known as collaborative consumption – the rise of sharing, trading, and renting. The number of businesses popping up that are built on this model is evidence that collaborative consumption is here to stay. Zipcar is just one business using this opportunity. Members of the car sharing service have access to cars parked in various parts of the city. When they need a car, they find one nearby, reserve it for a particular time, and pay only for when they use it. Cars can be unlocked and one can even honk the hooter, all from a smartphone. There aren’t any signs of such a service in South African cities yet, but we do seem to lag behind the rest of the world.

Similar services provide access to other types of things that are not always of use. Recently launched Spinlister allows people to share and find bicycles that aren’t being used. NeighborGoods allows communities to share all sorts of rarely used things like electric drills and lawnmowers.Airbnb has gained tremendous popularity as a platform for people to rent out rooms that aren’t being used.

For more information on the rise of collaborative consumption, read Rachel Botsman’s book What’s Mine is Yours or watch her TED Talk.

The rise of industrial symbiosis

As opposed to collaborative consumption which deals with things that are temporarily of no use, a growing approach in industry deals with waste that is of no further use to a particular party. This waste may be of no further use to one party, but may have potential to be of value to other parties. This idea is driving the practice of industrial symbioisis, where by-products of one process become the inputs of another. Not only is waste stopped from becoming just that, waste, but the process often reduces costs and prevents unnecessary environmental degradation.

One of South Africa's coal power stations
The concept is built on natural ecosystems, where nothing goes to waste. One growing practice is that of taking exhaust heat from one process, and using it where heat is needed. Heat may be used in another process, or it may simply be used to heat a building. One particular business doing extraordinary things with industrial symbioisis is Calera. They have learned from coral reefs, developing a way to capture CO2 from processes like coal fired power plants, and using it to create cement. As the materials they create can absorb CO2, they have the potential to reduce an emitter’s emissions by more than 100 percent.

The approaches mentioned above may seem new, but they’re essentially built on life’s principle that nothing goes to waste. We have a long way to go, but we are certainly seeing a shift towards urban systems that work more like ecosystems.

Learn more about the City of Cape Town’s Waste Exchange System called IWEX, a free online system that enables waste generators and users to exchange waste materials.

17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17 is a collaboration between This Big City and Future Cape Town running alongside the United Nations Climate Change Conference from November 28th to December 9th.