Collaborative Consumption and Industrial Symbiosis – Two New Approaches to Waste in Cities


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As we continue to consume at unsustainable rates, dealing with waste is an epic task for many cities. In this post, Gareth Pearson of Future Cape Town reinterprets ‘waste’, looking at two new systems that could change the way our cities function.

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 our many growing mountains of unwanted matter. Though if we look beyond solid waste and start questioning whether waste really is something of no use, we find some interesting things.

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 of collaborative consumption’s current popularity. Zipcar is just one business using this opportunity. Members of the car sharing service have access to cars parked in various parts of a 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.

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

Whilst collaborative consumption 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 byproducts of one process become the inputs of another. Not only is waste stopped from becoming just that, but the process often reduces costs and prevents unnecessary environmental degradation.

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.

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.

Images courtesy of United Nations Photo, akseabird and JayCMiller on flickr 

    Gareth, thanks for the great post and highlighting the opportunities that collaborative consumption provide for all of our to reduce waste.

    We are proud to be part of the collaborative consumption movement and have been providing people the opportunity to find people to carpool with for the last 10 years.

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  • Zach Friedman

    Great article. I think you should also think about how Collaborative Consumption can change the design criteria for products, making planned obsolesce obsolete and cradle to cradle design a potential reality. If I as a company no longer make more money by selling more products, but instead make more money by giving users access to my product, than I am no longer have an incentive to design products that break so that my customers can buy a new product. Furthermore, I am no longer punished for creating a product that can be used indefinitely, so I can make a product that performs well and creates long term value for me and my customers. I also will always have ownership of my product, therefore I can create a product which I can recycle 100% at the end of life, because I know that I will recuperate all the value of the recycled parts. 

    Collaborative Consumption not only harnesses the value of idling capacity, but changes the incentive structure of companies toward more long term, sustainable production of goods. Win win for everything.

  • Tiff Wong

    My undergraduate third year arch project is exactly on designing a hybrid building. Where there is heavy emphasis on symbiosis and programme, and an effort to try create a closed loop system that “nothing goes to waste”. Indeed there’s still a long way to go, but I have hope this could happen one day. Very interesting article.