A NEW AGRARIAN REVOLUTION?

The development of a sustainable food-production and -distribution system will be central to many of the world’s pressing challenges, including food poverty and hunger, climate change and pollution associated with agricultural practices. Even though substantial progress has been made in reducing the number of people dying from famine during the last century, in 2017, the UN officially declared that the spectre of famine had returned to Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic has further aggravated the situation as global supply chains became strained due to draconic lockdown measures and growing political tensions in certain countries. According to estimates from the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019), about 8.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the agricultural sector, with a further 14.5% resulting from land use change, i.e., primarily deforestation. The two biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector are: (a) nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils; and (b) methane emissions from livestock and manures. In case you were wondering energy use accounts for less than 1.5% of total emissions of the agricultural sector.

Current practices in the livestock sector might also harbour a further health crisis. The World Resource institute estimates that it requires about nine kilojoules of animal feed to produce one kilojoule of poultry meat. The production of one kilojoule of protein from poultry, the most ‘climate-friendly’ type of animal agriculture, is responsible for 40 times as many GHG emissions as one kilojoule of protein from legumes. Moreover, approximately 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are currently used for the mass-production of animal products. This widespread (mis-)use significantly increases the risk of more strains of bacteria developing antibiotics resistance. The possible ensuing public health issues are frightening; it could deprive us of one of medicine’s most powerful tools, leading to huge social and economic costs. The costs of antibiotic resistant infections to the U.S. health care system alone sum up to tens of billions of US-dollars annually.

Could cultured meat be a potential solution to some of the aforementioned problems? Cultured meat is produced by in vitro cell cultures, using tissue engineering techniques similar to those used in regenerative medicine, rather than from slaughtered animals. Developments in this sector are still in their infancy, but progress has been rapid. This could cause an enormous disruption in the agricultural sector through a resource-efficient production of protein that could deliver many benefits including the eradication of famine. At least that is the general account provided by promoters of cultured meat. Currently many ambitious claims are being made around the potential benefits of the new technology, e.g. that cultured meat could significantly lower environmental impacts compared to conventional meat production, or that the use of cultured meat could help protect and restore biodiversity and halt the slaughtering of animals. It’s also been claimed that a large-scale adoption of cultured meat would not only significantly reduce the use of antibiotics in the meat production process, but that it could also significantly decrease the risk of the emergence and spread of animal-borne diseases like bird- and swine-flu. Further, the exposure to harmful substances such as pesticides and fungicides would be greatly reduced. But then again, what goes into the cultivated meat production process? What types of chemicals, and what’s the water and energy requirements to culture adequate amounts of cultured meat to cater for the growing demand for protein? Would it be ‘healthier’ than conventional meat, and, most importantly, would it be more sustainable?

For the time being, several of these points are largely speculative in nature and insufficient to draw any firm conclusions from; a systems approach could be the only way forward to determine the true benefits and to uncover potential hidden trade-offs that have to be taken into account by industry and policy makers alike.

Written by Dr. Norman Ebner, CRES strategic advisor

The impact of COVID-19 on the plastic recycling industry

set of medical protective face masks
facial mask discarded on ground
Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com

Plastics are made from oil.

The global economic slowdown following the draconic COVID-19 lockdown restrictions led to a plunge in oil prices, adding to the surplus of cheap input material available for the production of plastic resin. Unsurprisingly, plastic resin prices plummeted.

With a glut of cheap virgin plastic flooding the market, the use of secondary, i.e. ‘recycled’, plastic material turned into an economically unattractive option. Lower demand for its output has put the recycling sector into a dire financial situation, threatening the economic viability of the industry and putting many jobs in peril. 

For the plastic system to be sustainable, the reliance on virgin material needs to be minimized and the management of plastics waste optimized. This can only be achieved, however, once the intrinsic complexities of the system and the respective dynamics between production, consumption and governance parts are properly understood. What can be done to ensure that the sustainability of the plastic system does not end up as yet another victim of COVID-19?

 To find out more, read the article Why the pandemic could slash the amount of plastic waste we recycle” featuring in The Conversation, written by Norman Ebner and Eleni Iacovidou.

Is Malaysia ready to embark on a “Zero Waste” Journey?

Is Malaysia ready to embark on a “Zero Waste” Journey?

“Malaysia is on track to miss its 2020 targets to divert 40% of waste from landfill and increase recycling rates to 22%. According to the most recent stats available, almost 90% of waste was reportedly disposed to sanitary landfills, while only 10.5% was recycled.”

Dr Kok Siew Ng (Oxford) and Dr Eleni Iacovidou (Brunel University London) spent two weeks in Malaysia meeting with key stakeholders from government, academia, industry and NGOs to gain a better understanding of the country’s waste management system and propose recommendations for addressing the multiple issues faced by the waste management sector.

The article “Malaysia versus Waste”, featured in the The Chemical Engineer (July/August 2020, Volume 949/50), reports waste management situation in Malaysia and discusses Malaysia’s struggles to meet the waste management targets and what needs to be done to catalyse green progress.

“Only by simultaneously raising awareness, stricter enforcement and monitoring, and enhancing strategic planning on infrastructure will Malaysia achieve more sustainable waste management”, says Dr Kok Siew Ng and Dr Eleni Iacovidou.

Links to Publication

The full article can be accessed via: 
https://www.thechemicalengineer.com/features/malaysia-versus-waste/ (subscription required)
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342987835_Malaysia_vs_Waste_Featured (free access)

Acknowledgement

This work was part of the SYNERGORS initiatives and was written based on the outcomes of a series of interviews with the government agencies and local authorities in Malaysia. This work was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council through the UKRI/NERC Industrial Innovation Fellowship Programme (NE/R012938/1).

The authors also gratefully acknowledge:

  • Prof. Denny KS Ng (Heriot-Watt University Malaysia) and Dr. Wan Azlina Wan Ab Karim Ghani (Universiti Putra Malaysia) for their kind hospitality and arrangement with stakeholders;
  • Ir. Abdul Nasir bin Abdul Aziz (JPSPN) for his sharing his knowledge in solid waste management in Malaysia;
  • Dr. Mohd Pauze bin Mohamad Taha, Ir. Zulkifli bin Tamby Chik and Mohd Zaki Harry Susanto (SWCorp), for an insightful discussion;
  • Puan Norhaizey Binti Hj. Issia (Petaling Jaya City Council, MBPJ) for showing us around the SS2 anaerobic digestion facility.

Further information

Please contact Dr Kok Siew Ng (kok.ng@eng.ox.ac.uk) if you are interested in learning more about the project.

SYNERGORS – A multidisciplinary research consortium for organic waste management and valorisation using a systems thinking approach

Most of the resources embedded in waste are currently under-utilised and are mostly sent to landfill. This can pose serious environmental hazards and pollution, affecting human health and ecosystems. If these wastes can be better managed and resources can be recovered into useful products such as chemicals, fuels and energy, this would meet the soaring industrial and consumers’ demand in the future. Enhancing resource utilisation through efficient organic resource recovery and valorisation promotes the transition from a linear “take-make-dispose” model towards a circular and sustainable bioeconomy.

The SYNERGORS project (“A systems approach to synergistic utilisation of secondary organic streams”), funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and led by Dr Kok Siew Ng (Engineering Science, Oxford), aims to develop new systems approaches and strategies for promoting resource recovery from secondary organic waste streams (e.g. food waste, residual biomass). The project addresses various socio-environmental challenges faced by human and living communities, the rising global demands in energy and commodities, and lessening burdens on the landfill, water and atmosphere. The objectives of the project are well aligned with the UK Industrial Strategy in enhancing resource efficiency while achieving a sustainable industrial growth and a more resilient economy. The project has received support from more than 10 UK and international organisations, providing multidisciplinary expertise to address the global challenges in waste management.

SYNERGORS consortium is a founding partner of CRES.

Further information

Please contact Dr Kok Siew Ng (kok.ng@eng.ox.ac.uk) if you are interested in learning more about the project.