ISWA President: IND 4.0 Key to Delivering a Circular Economy

The following is an taken from Antonis Mavropoulos' lecture on Monday 7th October 2019 at the opening of the 2019 ISWA World Congress in Bilbao, Spain.

15 Oct 2019 -

We are living the end of business as usual in waste management. The China Ban was the emblematic turning point that signaled the end of business as usual in recycling. The recent decisions of Basel Convention on restrictions for plastic trade and the global ban on hazardous waste export are creating a new business and geopolitical landscape. India’s blockage of 700 million dollars of imports in response to the violation of EPR obligations, for two of the biggest multinationals of the world, sets an unprecedented milestone and demonstrates that governments have more weapons than we use to think.  The end of business as usual for the waste industry is both due to the new geopolitical order of our world, but also due to four trends that redefine what we call waste management, namely global warming, marine litter, circular economy and the rise of IND 4.0. 


Discussions around Circular economy are pushing waste management closer to the resource management concepts and makes it an integral part of the global resource markets. The rise of IND 4.0 redefines our economies through the advances of robotics, Internet of Things, driverless cars and all the miracles of sensors and Artificial Intelligence. IND 4.0 is at the heart of the transformation of waste management and it’s closely related with the perspectives of circular economy and the future of the planet. So, this is the trillion dollars question: will IND 4.0 meet Circular Economy and deliver a wasteless and better future? Or they will be two parallel processes resulting in more environmental degradation and more inequality?


Waste Management never stops. Not only because waste management is a 24/7/365 service. But mainly because every time we think we found the solution, a new waste stream appears, and we have to start from the beginning. Waste Management is a never-ending story – the same is true for circular economy. The waste we produce changes continuously in accordance with the production means, the technical innovation, the level of income, the new needs we are trying to cover and the social – political status. If there will be a day in which waste will remain the same for 20 years, then this is going to be a dead society. So, what are the waste streams of the future?

Let’s see some numbers, so we will have an idea:

  • More and more e-waste: around 100 million tones by 2030
  • End of Life Photovoltaics: min 80 million tons of waste by 2050
  • 100 million tons of apparel and footwear by 2030
  • 182 million units of wearables per year in 2025
  • 3.5 million commercial drones worldwide by 2020
  • 1 million desktop 3D printers will become obsolete by 2025


Obviously, literally speaking, we do not have a viable, commercial and tested solution for none of these streams. Hopefully, IND 4.0 will deliver innovations that will be helpful to address the challenges of those new waste streams. The Internet of Things can stimulate Circular Economy and advance longer product cycles and preventive maintenance of equipment like e-waste, refrigerators, laundry machines, TV sets etc. In addition, the Internet of Things can be the basis for global Extended Producer Responsibility schemes that will continuously monitor hazardous substances and materials and provide the best available pathway for their management, wherever they are. Take the example of e-waste as a representative one of both the hopes and the challenges.


E-waste is the stream where Circular Economy meets IND 4.0. We are losing something like 62 billion dollars per year in useful materials because 75% of the e-waste generated is dumped. The fourth industrial revolution brings a new solution: robots capable to dismantle equipment, with high efficiency, accuracy and high recovery rates. These robots are developed because they can provide a viable way for companies to save money, control their supply chains and reduce their dependence on virgin materials. So, someone can say that there is a real opportunity to close the loop and minimize or eliminate e-waste. Well, this is not exactly the case.


Recycling is not enough to resolve the problem, because companies combine their efforts to continuously reduce the lifespan of mobile phones, with many different techniques. So, the benefits of recycling are surpassed by the environmental impacts of the continuous growth of sales and consumption. This is the famous rebound effect that characterizes all the industrial revolutions till now. In each one of them we had the opportunity to produce more with less, and we did it. We became much more productive, we used less labor, energy and materials per unit we produced. However, the exponential increase of consumption went far beyond the productivity gains and finally, it resulted to more environmental degradation and pollution. We can’t repeat this pattern for IND 4.0, because the planet is already very close to serious irreversible damages that create existential threats for human beings.


The challenges relevant to e-waste and IND 4.0 outline the next problem: the five 5 systemic barriers to circular economy that we need to address. My view is that if we won’t be able to do it, circular economy will remain either a buzzword of political correctness or a wishful thinking that misleads policy makers from the real problems.


Problem #1: We do not have a clear and concrete definition on Circular Economy. Instead, we have 114 different ones, with huge differences between them. Some of them completely ignore the waste hierarchy, others identify circular economy with business as usual recycling and other ones are applicable only a local scale ignoring that a real circular economy either it will be global, or it will not exist. I believe that we need a definition that will involve three things: the waste hierarchy, the different geographical and operational levels required, and finally the linkages to economic prosperity and social equity for all.


Problem #2: The focus on Municipal Solid Waste and recycling is really misleading and problematic.  Circular Economy concerns first and above all supply chains, manufacturing, extracting and using raw materials. However, in practice, almost all the tangible measures taken, and quantified targets set concern municipal waste management and recycling. Maybe this is because it’s much easier to enforce policies in municipalities and local authorities than to stimulate a serious change in the industry. But this is completely misleading because first, municipal waste is a rather small part of the whole waste generated, between 5-10% depending on the country, and second, no matter what are the advances in waste management the big barriers are related to what type of products are produced, from which materials and with which design – if you can’t change that, then you should not expect serious progress just from advances in waste management and recycling. It’s just like you are expecting from a goalkeeper to change the game of the rest 10 players in the field, without leaving his goalpost not even for a second. In addition, the current dominant approach of Circular Economy ignores the fact that the majority of the materials in use are stocked in infrastructure and the equipment we use. Take the example of Austria where for every resident we have 500 kg of municipal waste per year, 5 tons of waste in total (including all types) and 10 tons of anthropogenic stocks. Where should we put our emphasis for the long term? Where are the future waste arisings? Where are the valuable materials? All the answers suggest that they are at the anthropogenic stocks that are still ignored from the dominant circular economy approach.


Problem #3: The business profits are still linear. No matter what is advertised, the truth is that the biggest companies of the world still continue to make money from the existing linear model and the continuous growth of consumption. There is a famous company that spends 5 million dollars per year to promote recycling and 800 million dollars to sell more plastic bottles (both of them in USA)– who is going to win? In this case, how seriously can we take the commitments to recycling and circular economy comparing to reality?


Problem #4: The GDP orthodoxy and the religion of continuous growth. The development of circular economy is against the dominant tool we use to measure growth: the GDP. Reuse is a central component of Circular Economy it’s not measured on GDP. Life-time extension of product is a central component of GDP it’s against the religion of the continuous GDP Growth. This is not only for circular economy; it also involves many other innovations of IND 4.0. As an example, Skype is for free and improves our lives this improvement is not counted in GDP measures, while continuing phone calls in the old way would increase the GDP. This represents a more general problem: the belief that we can have a continuous infinite economic growth in planet with finite resources. This economic orthodoxy is at the core of many of the problems we face today and it’s not compatible with a real Circular Economy concept. I can only characterize such a belief a religion, since it goes against all the major findings of science.  


Problem #5: Circular economy with more prosperity or with modern slavery?  We tend to ignore the social footprint of circular economy and just focus on its technological aspects, business models and material flows. Researching in history, you can easily find out that one of the most resource efficient systems was the material management that was set in Nazi concentration camps. From the way they spent gases to kill people up to the systematic collection of valuables and the reuse of teeth, bones, hair, clothes and shoes, everything was perfectly designed to provide resource efficiency. And since resource efficiency is a central component to circular economy, I grab the opportunity to say openly: we can have circular economy with prosperity and social positive footprint, but we can also have a circular economy with slaves and worst life for the majority of them population. Circular Economy is not a neutral concept and we can’t ignore how it will be implemented, who is going to benefit from it and that it will create winners and losers. Next time we talk about Circular Economy, we better mean a system that will improve the lives for everyone rather than a system that will concentrate the control of materials to few.


It seems that we are at a very important crossroad in human history. As Carl Sagan has said “Never before has there been a moment so simultaneously perilous and promising. We are the first species to have taken evolution into our own hands”. In this crossroad, we all have to contribute towards a better future, in which IND 4.0 and Circular Economy will be combined to deliver more prosperity, less inequality and a more sustainable planet.


ISWA is already contributing in this direction, not only by opening the discussion on the hopes and challenges of IND 4.0 and Circular Economy, but also delivering continuously new content for the developed and developing world. Our plastic pollution calculator is already recognized as a very successful tool that provides guidance for reducing plastic leakages. Our recent reports on the climate benefits of #closedumpsites, the global benefits from managing the organic fraction of municipal waste, the on-going projects on Extended Producer Responsibility and the Bankability of waste management projects are highlighting the wealth of our activities and our presence in the most demanding fronts of the struggle towards a wasteless world. By advancing our emblematic initiative for mayors and municipal officers, stimulating the growth of Women on Waste group and supporting the further expansion of the Young Professionals Group, we will be able to create new ways to deliver our content worldwide, in new and different audiences, and to attract new human resources that will further advance our contribution. Because, finally, we are all scientists that are passionate and knowledgeable to deliver solutions that will protect human health and environment, deliver better life quality and improve the sustainability of urban areas.


We all know that our work is about people – not waste.

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