Antonis Mavropoulos: "The plastics industry will be enormously transformed by the 4th industrial revolution"

23 marzo 2017


Antonis Mavropoulos is the founder and CEO of D-Waste and the president of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) He has been involved in solid waste management projects for 20 years. His recent research work deals with the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Antonis Mavropoulos is the founder and CEO of D-Waste and the president of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) He has been involved in solid waste management projects for 20 years. His recent research work deals with the 4th Industrial Revolution. Chemical News spoke with him at Identiplast, the International Conference on Collection, Sorting and Recycling of Plastics that was held last February in Vienna organized by Plastics Europe.

Could you describe, first, the International Solid Waste Association activities and purpose?

The International Solid Waste Association is a NGO which has 40 national members including all major European countries, China, India, USA, and other countries from Asia and Latin America. It's an organization where waste scientists and professionals meet and its sole purpose is to help governments and private sector from all over the world to move towards a more sustainable waste management. Sustainability is not a fixed condition, it is a movement. We are very often invited by developing countries to offer capacity building in waste management issues. Secondly, we also participate in some projects but not in competition with the market. Sometimes, for instance, the World Bank or the European Commission ask us to review some materials. Thirdly, we fund our own projects with our fund-raising system.

Why do you think that a wasteless future is a realistic scenario?

We are in the transition period from the 3rd to the 4th industrial revolution. Historically, what happens in this kind of transitions is that the very definition of waste changes. One hundred and fifty years ago, the main waste problem was horse manure in the road. Now this is not even an issue. We live a time when technology advances will provide unimaginable tools to solve the old problems and, of course, they will create new ones. For instance, with robots we can get rid of a lot of dirty and unpopular works dealing with waste management (landfill jobs, manual separation).
With social media and apps, we can develop digital communities and coordinate them to specific targets. 3-D printing will allow us to solve plastic recycling problems. Artificial intelligence can help us optimize a lot of our operations. Drones can be useful to monitor illegal and hazardous waste traffic. And don't forget the revolution of sensors that permits to track waste. All of this tells us that we are in a position where we can eliminate waste, as it is the case in aircraft industry. My point is that many parts of the supply chain can become wasteless. I cannot say that there will be no waste at all, but there will be a lot less and it will be better managed. This is a historical opportunity.

So, there is a move towards efficiency…

Yes, this is part one. Part two it's a move towards shifting the properties of waste. The idea is that we don't need to speak about plastic waste anymore if we find the way to produce only plastic suitable for 3-D printers, because then it could be recycled again and again.

You have described some of the more relevant driving forces towards this paradigm shift. What are the barriers?

The biggest barrier is that our economy is still not ready to use all the opportunities of the 4th industrial revolution. I'll give an example. When you use skype you increase a lot your convenience and it's for free but that is not accounted as an activity by the economic system. Skype is not in the GDP. By contrast you do increase the GDP of your country with conventional phone calls. The system is not able to absorb the new economy that is emerging. I'll give another example. We could trace all hazardous materials with sensors but this will be costly for the owners and the producers of these materials. How can we make a global consensus about it? So, this is not a rose garden, there will be a fight during this transition period I mentioned, and at the end new business models will be established.

We still don't seem to be able to decouple economic growht from the fact of consuming more resources and manufacturing more materials. Is this the most serious drawback for reducing waste?

My point is that there is a need for a double decoupling. The first is decoupling consumption from waste and the second is GDP growth from environmental impact. The 4th industrial revolution gives us the opportunity to produce more with less. The question are we going to use this opportunity to control consumption or the fact that we can produce more with less will skyrocket consumption and the ecological footprint worldwide. I think this is the new thing we must take into consideration. In previous industrial revolutions, our world was not close to its limits now we are closer to what we can call planetary limits. We should respect them. Consumption must be balanced. See climate change, if it goes faster, sooner or later there will be a lot of problems that will make very difficult to sustain our current way of life.

You have written that a serious waste crisis seems to be closer than ever? What kind of crisis are you talking about? Is it avoidable?

This crisis comes from a combination of three factors: urbanisation that continues to rise; the emergence of the middle class in the developing world; the rising number of people without basic services. Our way to delivering new infrastructures, helping poor countries to manage waste is very slow. So, on one hand we could move towards an almost wasteless world and, on the other hand, we are facing the real possibility that there is a big waste crisis in the next five years in the developing world specially in the megacities. We, as an NGO, are trying to push into this the right direction.
We have already started a campaign to close the 50 biggest dumpsites of the world. To give you an idea these dumpsites serve a population of 65 million people. This is the size of France. If we have to close these dumpsites will we have what it takes in terms of coordination and resources management or in terms of creating new social paradigms? Speaking frankly, see how slow the cooperation on climate change goes. I don't believe waste management cooperation can go faster. Still, we need to fight for that.

How relevant do you think that the plastics industry is to achieve a significant waste reduction in a circular economy framework?

That is a difficult question because the plastic industry, as far as I know, is planning its future based on the assumption that there will be a continuous growht for the next 50 years. For me this is not possible. I think that this sector will be enormously transformed by the 4th industrial revolution and I hope that a part of this transformation will be towards a circular economy. Now we lack the tools for that and the science behind it, but that the hopeful thing is that at least we have understood the necessity. This is a good starting point. Besides, the plastic industry is very strong so, if they got the necessity, maybe they will move faster.

Credit: Albert Punsola

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