Sustainability

Future could see waste-sorting ‘nanobots’

 

The 'ultimate stress-free kitchen of the future' designed by Veolia will be bin-less with nanoscopic robots sorting waste and an underground vacuum network that removes the materials for reuse.

If the UK were to move to a circular economy, UK households could have no need for bins, utilise waste-sorting ‘nanoscopic robots’, and generate power through organic waste by 2050.

The scenario has been envisaged in a new report by waste management company Veolia Environnement and the London School of Economics as one of two contrasting visions of urban living in 2050. 

‘Imagine 2050’ was developed by the two organisations to ‘think ahead and imagine the future landscape of a sustainable city [and] anchor those ideas to what we’re already doing now’.

In her introduction to the project’s brochure, Estelle Brachlianoff, Executive Vice-President of Veolia Environnement for the UK and Northern Europe, notes that by 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities.

She continues: ‘Considering the short term challenges we have in energy, materials and water security, economic and social prosperity, migration and global conflict management, every decision we take today will write the history of tomorrow and shape our society…. 2050 might seem difficult to imagine right now. But unless we start thinking long-term, sustainable cities will just be a pipe dream for our children’s children.’

The house of the future

Under both scenarios, environmental technology will transform the home of the future: one in the context of a circular economy, the other in the context of a linear economy.

The research describes one future city in which ‘system-level planning’ has created a ‘dense, resource-efficient society characterised by collaborative consumption, shared ownership and local self-reliance’. 

Alongside this, it models a scenario in which disparate and unregulated development has led to a ‘resource-hungry urban sprawl where private consumption and ownership is prioritised over long-term communal thinking’.

It outlines that in the more efficient city, emissions would be reduced by 80 per cent (since 1990), compared to 40 per cent in the contrasting scenario. Water consumption would also be about a third less – 100 litres per person per day instead of 130 litres.

This would be delivered through an array of systems, those regarding waste include:

  • ‘nanoscopic robots’ to sort waste into size, shape, colour, physical, and chemical properties;
  • food packaging that degrades after its contents expire;
  • drains that lead to a waste treatment facility where solid and liquid waste is dissolved and ‘broken down to its chemical building blocks, which can be sent for sorting/reprocessing’; and
  • underground collection networks to ‘reduce the presence of vehicles in the city and contribute to less greenhouse gas emissions’.

Degrading food packaging

In relation to cutting down packaging waste, the report outlines that manufacturers will use ‘intelligent packaging’. This would contain:

  • ‘substances that mop up any oxygen that leaks into the container’;
  • ‘additives that modify the behaviour of plastic film making it oxo-biodegradable’ (breaking down to ‘harmless substances’ any time from a few weeks to two years depending on the use of the packaging);
  • stickers that change colour when affected by storage temperature (showing that products can be kept longer when refrigerated, thus reducing the need to throw food away ‘prematurely’),

Nanobots

According to the study, in the future, mixtures of materials will be shredded into microscopic particles and nanoscopic robots will be used to ‘recognise different types of material and collect them in a pure form so they can be reused by industry’. This, the authors say, will help to reduce the amount of waste that cannot be used and has to be thrown away to ‘almost zero’.

Underground collection network

The cities of the future will also utilise ‘underground collection networks’ whereby all municipal waste will be collected via a ‘pod’ in each household and transferred via a ‘pneumatic network to treatment facilities’. This will negate the need for bins.

The researchers outline that these will ‘reduce the presence of vehicles in the city and contribute to less greenhouse gas emissions, sound and visual nuisances, which result from the collection of waste, and will be a 24/7 service’.

Energy from waste

The use of energy-from-waste facilities will also be crucial to future cities, according to the research, as all organic waste generated by householders will be collected via a vacuum and delivered to an energy-from-waste centre to be converted into energy. This will then be redistributed via a district heating network to heat homes, and provide electricity for the National Grid.

Other features

Meanwhile the bathrooms would feature ultrasonic baths, self-cleaning surfaces and water purification ‘based on systems found in plants and bacteria’.

Material would also be designed from 100 per cent renewable sources to ‘avoid resource depletion such as crude oil exploitation’.

For example, the authors highlight that plastic could be derived from plant material, while ‘Colletes bees [could be used] to synthesise natural polyester [that] is very close to cling film in its physical characteristics.

Vision needs a ‘comprehensive policy framework’

Brachlianoff concluded: “We already have much of the technology we need to recycle, recover and reuse precious resources, but we also need a shift in public attitudes and greater engagement from government and business.

“A comprehensive policy framework would help to drive a joined-up approach to resource management from the public and private sectors. The UK’s Resource Security Action Plan is a step in the right direction, but it must be supported by legislation and meaningful incentives and penalties. Only then will we see real progress towards the kind of cities we want our children to live in.”

Dr Savvas Verdis, Senior Research Fellow for LSE Cities at the London School of Economics, added: “We know from studying cities across Europe that the best-performing cities use a combination of infrastructure investment and innovative policies to encourage sustainable lifestyles. A circular economy cannot be built piecemeal; a systems-wide approach is essential.”

Read the ‘Imagine 2050’ research.