Returns a hidden resource - Prof. dr ir H.R. Krikke - Q4 2011
Resource scarcity is becoming a serious issue in today’s economy. Although there is much uncertainty or even a total lack of data on some resources, it is clear inventories of materials, energy and water are quickly depleting. Mining companies have little choice but to invest in increasingly remote and politically risky regions or deep sea mining to reap the rewards from ever scarcer reserves. As a result, supply chains may be disrupted more frequently than ever. A large French car manufacturer was alarmed by its sustainability officer because most of their factories are located in dry regions hence high water bills could make their cars unaffordable. Scarcity of resources can have long-lasting negative economical effects - compared to which a crash of our financial system is a relatively minor problem.
Europe, the problem child of the global economy, again appears vulnerable as it owns the lowest amounts of virgin materials of all continents. Or do we? We are still an immensely rich part of the world and just because of our high consumption rate we are sitting on a huge inventory of resources: returns. People in the refurbishing and recycling business have pointed out over and over again that - in order to become less dependent of raw materials import - we should reuse more. And we can do it. In particular for the Netherlands it goes that this threat can be turned into an opportunity. Our recovery technology is top-notch, our engineers still belong to the best in the world (although their number has declined) and our business companies are known everywhere. Yet, reuse and recycling is not even listed amongst the 'topsectors' and hence it is not seen a contributor to economic growth.
I can even make a stronger case for reuse. The close relation between war and natural resources is of long standing. What else was colonial conquest by the Dutch East India Company all about? Africa bleeds despite its abundant resources. Charles Taylor privatized the resources of Liberia by selling rights to resources to foreign companies and pocketing the money. Now that this dictator is in Scheveningen jail, the country struggles to come to terms with the situation. China supports Iran politically merely to satisfy their hunger for oil. Water wars have existed for centuries in the Middle East e.g. the Jordan River conflict among Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestine territories, in Africa (Nile River-related conflicts) as well as in Central Asia (the Aral Sea conflict).
Recent research conducted by Open Universiteit has shown that - as a worldwide average - about 58% of durable goods are returned from the market through proper channels for the purpose of reuse or recycling (about half of this flow) and in many cases still landfill. The rest is dumped, often through illegal channels. Effectively about a quarter of all disposed products is being reused or recycled which means a huge spill of materials. Other research has proved beyond doubt that reuse and recycling also reduces the energy and water footprints. Returns are indispensible for our future prosperity!
Prof. dr ir H.R. Krikke - Open Universiteit Netherlands