As the world’s population grows rapidly and millions of aspirants strive to attain the vaunted “Western” way of life, environmental despoliation and the alteration of natural landscapes are becoming increasingly widespread. The statistics on the state of global ecosystems speak for themselves. For instance, given our current demand trajectory, international water requirements are likely to grow from approximately 4,200 cubic kilometres per year to 6,800 by 2030. Methane, a potent climate-altering greenhouse gas, seeps from countless open landfills. Huge amounts of plastic are thrown away every year, ending up in enormous gyres in the middle of the ocean.
How can we begin to deal with these issues? Humankind has evolved to possess an incredible capability for identifying inefficiencies and correcting suboptimal configurations. Be it financial or technological, medical or marital, we have an uncanny ability to exploit our findings for personal or societal gain. Unfortunately, this useful knack has not always been applied to the energy/utilities and materials sectors – to the detriment of our collective future. On September 26, distinguished Stanford environmental engineering & science professor Craig Criddle presented a partial antidote to this myopia in a recent talk at the University of Toronto . His hour-long elucidation of his cutting-edge research, entitled “Harnessing microorganisms for sustainable energy recovery: Waterwater, energy, materials,” looked at the myriad of possibilities for holistic integration of the various systems that effectively sustain our communities. A devoted proponent of enhancing public science literary, Criddle’s expertise in environmental biotechnology was on full display as he used his expertise in environmental biotechnology to navigated through possible ways for engineering prowess to solving emerging problems.
Criddle is interested in assessing how we might approach systems more wholly. For example, can we more effectively unleash the untapped chemical energy in wastewater? Can current energy-intensive patterns of transporting water supplies from remote to urban settings be done better? Can waste-to-energy be combined with waste-to-materials? Soon, the answer to all these questions may be yes.
Of course, the challenges are significant. To borrow one example, although there are lots of potential options for renewable materials that close loops and minimize environmental externalities, significant deployment has not occurred to date. According to Criddle, smaller-scale technologies face an inertial infrastructure that favours the status quo. Social and institutional barriers also exist; it will surprise no one that many are critical of attempts to recycle feces-laden waste water, even if no appreciable health impacts are likely.
Criddle’s work, situated at the forefront of some of the most exciting niches within sustainable development scholarship, holds many important lessons for how we might approach issues like environmental remediation. Rather than seeing problems as issues to be solved, Criddle encouraged the audience to “take things that are problems and make them useful.”
He cited Buckminster Fuller, who argued that “if waste is utilized, it is no longer pollution.” Going forward, it would be helpful for policymakers, governments, and corporations to adopt a wider lens and begin to recognize the value of innovative approaches to various “problems”. Facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue will be crucial; according to Criddle, we need to encourage an inclusive approach that brings an interdisciplinary mix of individuals into the debates.