JACK ZIMBA, Stockholm
THE 1985 sci-fi movie, Back to the Future, predicted what the future would look like 30 years later – with flying cars, video phones, robots, self-lacing shoes and levitating skate boards. Most ideas remain a dream.
The movie is partly set to the date October 21, 2015 which, three decades ago, seemed a really distant future. Yet on this very date, I found myself standing in a small science laboratory at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, listening to a lively young man explaining how his small company called Re:newcell is able to turn old clothes into snow-white fluffy cotton that can then be used to make brand new garments.
The concept seems extremely futuristic and I can imagine what such an innovation could contribute to recycling and the manufacturing sectors.
The company is very secretive about the chemical formula or chemicals used in its processes, but insists it doesn’t use any dangerous chemicals.
Henrik Norlin, who is one of the founders of Re:newcell, says cotton material produced in the laboratory will cost “more or less” the same as the one made from harvested cotton.
The company is currently awaiting more financial investment to take the idea from the laboratory to a factory.
Re:newcell is just one of many companies in Sweden that are trying to promote sustainable living through recycling and re-using of various products and materials.
The Swedes are generally obsessed with the environment and sustainable living, and are investing a lot of research into technologies and concepts that can reduce the carbon footprint, thereby reversing the negative effects of climate change.
The Swedish Institute invited six journalists from Africa, Asia and Europe to look at some of the concepts being developed to encourage sustainable living in this technologically-advanced Nordic country.
One of the concepts being espoused by Swedish companies is circular economy, which entails that a product never really ends up in the trash can as waste, as the case is in a linear economy, where there is an industry on one end and a landfill or refuse dump on the other.
Actually, in a circular economy, garbage does smell like money and all waste that ends in a landfill is considered as lost profit.
Stuart Pledger, who is one of the strongest proponents of circular economy, reckons that there is US$4.4 trillion to be made out of rubbish. Although what he really preaches is re-using material as opposed to recycling them.
According to Mr Pledger, who heads a consultancy firm called Circulareconomy.se, circular economy is modelled on the ecosystem, which he describes as a “super-efficient system” able to rejuvenate itself.
“The circular economy is really interested in a mindset where you borrow materials from the ecosystem, use them and then you return,” he says.
And when it comes to recycling, Sweden is really a shining example. The country recycles 99 percent of its household waste.
In Stockholm, for instance, about 993,000 kilogrammes of food waste is collected every month and is turned into biofuel to power buses and taxis. The city is working to become fossil fuel-free by 2040.
In Back to the Future, Doc Brown powers his time-travel machine with banana peels, leftover beer, and Pepsi scavenged from garbage.
So efficient is Sweden’s waste management that the country now imports huge amounts of garbage from other countries to generate energy for domestic heating.
Some 800,000 tonnes was imported in 2014 from countries including Britain, according to statistics from Avfall Sverige, Sweden’s national waste-management association. And up to 260,000 homes in the Nordic country are powered by trash, making Sweden a world leader in energy generated from garbage.
RE-USING OLD COMPUTERS
Although circular economy is little heard of in Zambia, Erik Pettersson, describes it as a “revolution” and predicts that the concept will gain momentum.
Mr Pettersson runs a company called Inrego, which buys old laptop and desktop computers, wipes the hard drives, restores them to pristine condition, and then sells them to second users.
The idea is to reduce the amount of e-waste, already a huge problem in countries like Nigeria, as well as to cut down on the carbon dioxide that is produced during the manufacturing of new computers.
It is said that every Swede has five kilogrammes of electronic products in their homes that they do not use, but are still useable.
According to Mr Pettersson, about 600,000 laptops are thrown away in Sweden every year and end up at recycling plants where they are shredded before certain metals are extracted.
Inrego buys back about a third of the laptops that would, otherwise, end up at recycling plants. Last year, the company bought 260,000 laptops from companies and individuals. Of those, only eight percent were not reusable and sent to the reprocessing factories.
The company’s warehouse has tens of thousands of laptops that will end up in 70 countries across the globe.
Actually, about 40 percent of the computers find their way back into the Swedish market.
One of the major sources of carbon emissions, especially in densely-populated cities is automobiles, and the lesser vehicles on the road, the better for the environment.
And so Flexidrive, a small company founded in 2011, has a solution: car owners can rent out their vehicles when they are not using them. The concept is called car sharing, and is also meant to promote social interaction among citizens.
Through car sharing, Flexidrive hopes to reduce car emissions by one percent.
“It’s a waste to have a car just sitting the whole day when you are at work,” says Magnus Engervall, who co-owns Flexidrive.
Mr Engervall, himself, does not own a car, but rents one whenever he needs to drive somewhere.
Of course the concept requires a lot of trust, and Swedes are said to be among the most trustworthy people in the world.
Flexidrive now has about 800 car owners registered as members, with a pool of 1,600 vehicles. Last month, the company announced a take-over by one of Europe’s largest car sharing company, SnappCar.
Mr Pledger says: “In a circular economy, leasing is better than buying.”
But the grand project in as far as sustainable living is concerned is a green housing development at the Stockholm Royal Seaport, a large piece of land reclaimed from old industries.
The new urban district, which will have 12,000 flats, is located a few kilometres from the heart of Stockholm, and is set to become one of the greenest residential areas in the world once completed.
Designers of the new complex have completely done away with refuse bins, instead, there is a network of underground vacuum pipes that, by suction, take the garbage to a central place for sorting, before recycling takes place.
Trees are sacred in the new residential and even frogs have a special channel to prevent them from being run over. Now that is eco-conscious.
And there are more slots for bicycles in the new residential development than for cars. Actually there is one car parking slot for every two houses and two bicycle slots per home. The idea is to discourage people from using cars.
And because not everyone is expected to own a car, there are pool cars which residents can use at a fee.
The green plan is to build not only energy efficient houses, but also an energy efficient transportation system, with buses and taxis that will run on biofuel.
In another location, north of Stockholm, called Husby, which is home to poor, mostly migrant communities, the municipality is refurbishing entire blocks of residential flats, and the houses are not just getting a new coat of paint, but are being made energy efficient.
About 10,000 square metres of solar panels have been installed in the refurbished blocks.
This makes Husby one of the most solar dense areas in Sweden.
In Husby, too, there is more emphasis on cycling, with bicycle lanes incorporated into the road network.
The local authority is even offering cycling lessons to residents who do not know how to cycle.
The Stockholm Royal Seaport gives one a glimpse into what future housing developments will look like, and what sustainable living really is.
As we start to consider the effects of climate change and the efficient use of resources and management of waste, Zambia should also begin to seek innovations to help make money from trash and turn old things into new ones.