I want to share a story with you that emanates from what’s brewing in my cup on this cold, rainy October evening in London: a warm, comforting tea. Tea is the second most consumed drink in the world, after water. In India alone, the annual production of tea is approximately 857,000 tons, generating 190,000 tons of tea factory waste before the tea has even been packaged. As I discreetly place my tea down on its coaster, I feel a sense of anxiety coming over me, knowing that 90% of what is left behind is waste. With the world’s estimated daily consumption at a colossal 18 to 20 billion cups, the wider question begs. How do we tackle the challenge of post-consumption waste? Is there a way of capitalising on this resource?
Anthropogenic activities such as conventional farming, non-renewable energy production, mining, factory run-offs and the construction industry, adversely affects wildlife and negatively impacts human health. The speed of technological development coupled with humans’ insatiable demand for consumer goods, places a mounting pressure on our natural resources and the environment.
Take the example of metal pollutants; when heavy metal-contaminated soils and water bodies enter into our food production and human life support systems, they pose a serious human health risk.
While some metals such as cobalt, copper, iron, molybdenum, manganese and zinc, classified as essential micronutrients, are critical for plant growth. Other metals, commonly found in soil and water, like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, nickel, lead, selenium, uranium, vanadium and wolfram are contaminants, and non-essential for plants. These metals, even at low concentrations get absorbed into plants and cascade up through our food chain. Through a process known as biomagnification, toxins are amplified as they move up the trophic levels towards our mouths.
Adsorption of heavy metals by upcycling a material like waste tea
Existing physio-chemical methods of heavy metal extraction are often expensive and complicated, demanding high-tech solutions. Yet, the world community is in great need of low-tech, easily applicable and affordable solutions to mitigate the growing problems with pollution. With increasing research into alternative, cost-effective adsorption materials, we see a plethora of options available to us. Take peanut hulls, neem leaf powder, straw, peat, pomegranate peel, and now, finally, tea waste.
The impactful urban potential of waste management
The extraordinary and rather unexplored potential for extracting waste materials, leads us to the next part in the chain. How can we integrate waste management solutions in urban environments in an interactive way, closing the loop between production, consumption, and the waste we produce? A step further, how can we harness this methodology to create a new architectural style? One that does not shield the “ugly” backside of our societies, but instead engages our citizens through active experiences moving towards a more circular economy and healthier lifestyle?
Waste, energy & recreation
Having studied in Copenhagen, close to the industrial waterfront, I had a rather peculiar view from my bedroom window: a powerplant that creates clean energy from 440,000 tons of annual waste. It is the cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in the world, raising the bar for resource optimisation with an energy efficiency of 107%. The incineration process recycles material through a recovery of resources that would otherwise not feasibly be recycled. With the help of very efficient modern techniques, the segregation process from bottom ash reaches more than 90% of the potential for most ferrous and non-ferrous metals. The bottom ash, a by-product of the energy production, following strict procedures, is then used for road construction and similar construction purposes, replacing natural resources such as sand and gravel.
Sounds good? There is more to come. The mountain-shaped waste management plant has a tree-lined hiking trail and ski slope on the roof, as well the tallest artificial climbing wall in the world. At its peak, your welcomed by an après ski cafe with a 360 view of Copenhagen. This new model of architecture and waste management offers the city a whole new level of urban fabric that contributes positively to public health, wellbeing and people’s economy, through reduced energy bills. Following this model of success, the Chinese metropolis, Shenzhen are building the world’s biggest waste-to-energy plant set to open later this year.
Upcycling of waste materials in architectural design
A good way of avoiding contaminants entering the food chain is by creating less waste in the first place - failing that, we need to find purpose for otherwise wasted materials. The recent innovation, by the sustainable Danish architectural firm GXN designed and built a competitive “OSB” building board by upcycling tomato plant waste. Their visionary product not only demonstrates a circular economy, but also outperforms conventional materials on durability. Who knew that agricultural waste could replace the current single-use construction philosophy in architecture?
With COVID-19 delaying, pausing and even cancelling many big construction projects worldwide, the time to analyse, improve and rethink our industry’s model of operation has never been more pressing. While buildings are historically long-lived, our cities are perennial: citizens are counting on their survival to enable future generations to thrive. Our current ‘short-term win’ economic model manifests itself in new buildings prioritising profit. The way we build today is damaging the environment rather than healing it. Discouragingly, the construction industry is responsible for 50% of landfill waste and 40% of drinking water pollution worldwide. It is now common practice for big building projects to clear vegetation and excavate, destroying biodiversity and reducing, if not eliminating the potential of much needed CO2-storage in our trees and soil.
Previously, the role of an architect was a ‘Chief Builder’, having the sufficient expertise on design and construction to oversee a project from inception all the way to completion. With the innovation of design and technology, architectural projects have become increasingly complex. Presently an architect is an irresolute role that varies remarkably from country to country, blurring the lines between what our responsibilities are and what they should be. With fast growing challenges arising from man-made climate change, we will have to start looking at ways of reclaiming our lost responsibilities, exploring new alternative services, and promoting a higher level of collaboration within the build team. Consequently, we ask ourselves whether 2020 could be the year where we change the rudiments of architecture?
The cataclysmic pandemic has changed the world in profound ways. Businesses are re-inventing themselves, integrating new ambitious sustainability strategies. Countries are stepping up to the Net Zero 2030 and 2050 challenge. As architects, we are the first frontier of the build environment, we serve as gatekeepers and should hold our industry accountable for its emissions and detrimental impact on our natural world. We know the solutions exist and although we have only touched on a few of them here, their potential is unlimited. Today, we see beautiful examples of economically viable, sustainable buildings and green urban planning strategies, so I pose the question: what is holding us back? As a young architect, I’m excited by what the next 10 years hold and encourage an organised, sustainable industry approach.
Emilie Jaspers, Sustainability Advisor (Keystone Legacy)