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Andrew Dent: To eliminate waste, we need to rediscover thrift

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There's no such thing as throwing something away, says Andrew Dent -- when you toss a used food container, broken toy or old pair of socks into the trash, those things inevitably end up in ever-growing landfills. But we can get smarter about the way we make, and remake, our products. Dent shares exciting examples of thrift -- the idea of using and reusing what you need so you don't have to purchase anything new -- as well as advances in material science, like electronics made of nanocellulose and enzymes that can help make plastic infinitely recyclable.

- Material innovator
A leading expert on sustainable materials, Andrew Dent has played an important part in creating a new generation of more sustainable products. Full bio

Let's talk about thrift.
00:12
Thrift is a concept where you
reduce, reuse and recycle,
00:15
but yet with an economic aspect
I think has a real potential for change.
00:19
My grandmother, she knew about thrift.
00:25
This is her string jar.
00:27
She never bought any string.
00:29
Basically, she would collect string.
00:30
It would come from the butcher's,
it would come from presents.
00:32
She would put it in the jar
and then use it when it was needed.
00:35
When it was finished,
whether it was tying up the roses
00:38
or a part of my bike,
00:40
once finished with that,
it'd go back into the jar.
00:41
This is a perfect idea of thrift;
you use what you need,
00:44
you don't actually purchase anything,
so you save money.
00:47
Kids also inherently know this idea.
00:50
When you want to throw out
a cardboard box,
00:52
the average kid will say, "Don't!
I want to use it for a robot head
00:54
or for a canoe to paddle down a river."
00:57
They understand the value
of the second life of products.
01:00
So, I think thrift is
a perfect counterpoint
01:04
to the current age which we live in.
01:07
All of our current products
are replaceable.
01:09
When we get that bright, new, shiny toy,
01:12
it's because, basically,
we got rid of the old one.
01:14
The idea of that is, of course,
it's great in the moment,
01:17
but the challenge is,
as we keep doing this,
01:21
we're going to cause a problem.
01:24
That problem is that
there is really no way.
01:26
When you throw something away,
it typically goes into a landfill.
01:29
Now, a landfill is basically something
which is not going to go away,
01:33
and it's increasing.
01:37
At the moment, we have about
1.3 billion tons of material every year
01:38
going into landfills.
01:43
By 2100, it's going to be
about four billion tons.
01:44
See, instead, I'd prefer
if we started thrifting.
01:48
What that means is, we consider materials
when they go into products
01:51
and also when they get used,
01:56
and, at the end of their life:
When can they be used again?
01:57
It's the idea of completely changing
the way we think about waste,
02:00
so waste is no longer a dirty word --
02:03
we almost remove
the word "waste" completely.
02:05
All we're looking to is resources.
02:07
Resource goes into a product
02:09
and then can basically go
into another product.
02:10
We used to be good at thrifting.
02:15
My grandmother, again,
used to use old seed packets
02:17
to paper the bathroom walls.
02:19
I think, though, there are companies
out there who understand this value
02:21
and are promoting it.
02:24
And a lot of the technologies
that have been developed for the smart age
02:26
can also be adapted to reduce,
reuse and also thrift more proficiently.
02:29
And as a materials scientist,
02:34
what I've been tracking
over the last couple of decades
02:36
is how companies
are getting smart at thrifting,
02:38
how they're able
to understand this concept
02:41
and profit from it.
02:43
I'm going to give you two examples.
02:45
The first one, a good one;
the second one, not so good.
02:47
The first is the automotive industry.
02:49
Not always known as the most
innovative or creative of industries,
02:51
but it turns out, they're really,
really good at recycling their products.
02:54
Ninety-five percent of every single car
that goes on the road
02:58
gets recycled here.
03:01
And of that car, about
75 percent of the entire car
03:03
actually gets used again.
03:06
That includes, of course,
the old steel and aluminum
03:08
but then also the plastics
from the fender and the interiors,
03:11
glass from the windows and the windshield
03:15
and also the tires.
03:17
There's a mature and successful industry
that deals with these old cars
03:18
and basically recycles them
and puts them back into use
03:22
as new cars or other new products.
03:25
Even as we move towards
battery-powered cars,
03:28
there are companies that claim
they can recycle up to 90 percent
03:31
of the 11 million tons of batteries
that are going to be with us in 2020.
03:34
That, I think, is not perfect,
03:39
but it's certainly good,
and it's getting better.
03:40
The industry that's not doing so well
is the architecture industry.
03:43
One of the challenges
with architecture has always been
03:48
when we build up, we don't think
about taking down.
03:50
We don't dismantle,
we don't disassemble, we demolish.
03:53
That's a challenge,
03:56
because it ends up that about a third
of all landfill waste in the US
03:57
is architecture.
04:00
We need to think differently about this.
04:02
There are programs that can actually
reduce some of this material.
04:04
A good example is this.
04:08
These are actually bricks that are made
from old demolition waste,
04:09
which includes the glass,
the rubble, the concrete.
04:12
You put up a grinder,
put it all together, heat it up
04:16
and make these bricks we can
basically build more buildings from.
04:18
But it's only a fraction of what we need.
04:21
My hope is that with big data
and geotagging,
04:23
we can actually change that,
04:28
and be more thrifty
when it comes to buildings.
04:29
If there's a building down the block
which is being demolished,
04:32
are there materials there
04:35
that the new building
being built here can use?
04:36
Can we use that, the ability to understand
04:39
that all the materials available
in that building are still usable?
04:42
Can we then basically put them
into a new building,
04:45
without actually losing
any value in the process?
04:48
So now let's think about other industries.
04:53
What are other industries doing
to create thrift?
04:55
Well, it turns out
that there are plenty of industries
04:57
that are also thinking
about their own waste
05:00
and what we can do with it.
05:02
A simple example is the waste
that they basically belch out
05:03
as part of industrial processes.
05:06
Most metal smelters give off
an awful lot of carbon dioxide.
05:08
Turns out, there's a company
called Land Detector
05:11
that's actually working in China
and also soon in South Africa,
05:14
that's able to take that waste gas --
05:17
about 700,000 tons per smelter --
05:20
and then turn it into
about 400,000 tons of ethanol,
05:24
which is equivalent to basically powering
250,000, or quarter of a million, cars
05:27
for a year.
05:31
That's a very effective use of waste.
05:32
How about products more close to home?
05:36
This is a simple solution.
05:38
And it, again, takes the idea
of reducing, reusing,
05:40
but then also with economic advantage.
05:43
So it's a simple process
of changing from a cut and sew,
05:45
where typically between
20 and 30 materials are used
05:48
which are cut from a large cloth and then
sewn together or even sometimes glued,
05:51
they changed it and said
that they just knitted the shoe.
05:55
The advantage with this is not just
a simplification of the process,
05:58
it's also, "I've got one material.
I have zero waste,"
06:01
and then also, "I'm able to potentially
recycle that at the end of its life."
06:04
Digital manufacturing is also allowing us
to do this more effectively.
06:10
In this case, it's actually creating
the theoretical limit of strength
06:13
for a material:
06:16
you cannot get any stronger
for the amount of material
06:18
than this shape.
06:20
So it's a basic simple block,
06:22
but the idea is, I can extrapolate this,
I can make it into large formats,
06:24
I can make it into buildings, bridges,
06:27
but also airplane wings and shoes.
06:29
The idea here is, I'm minimizing
the amount of material.
06:32
Here's a good example from architecture.
06:36
Typically, these sorts of metal nodes
are used to hold up large tent structures.
06:38
In this case, it in was in the Hague,
along a shopping center.
06:43
They used 1600
of the materials on the left.
06:46
The difference is, by using
the solution on the right,
06:48
they cut down the number of steps
from seven to one,
06:51
because the one on the left
is currently welded,
06:54
the one on the right
is simply just printed.
06:56
And it was able to reduce waste to zero,
06:58
cost less money
07:00
and also, because it's made out of steel,
07:02
can be eventually recycled
at the end of its life.
07:04
Nature also is very effective at thrift.
07:09
Think about it: nature has zero waste.
07:12
Everything is useful for another process.
07:14
So, in this case, nanocellulose,
07:17
which is basically one of the very fine
building blocks of cellulose,
07:19
which is one of the materials
that makes trees strong,
07:22
you can isolate it, and it works
very much like carbon fiber.
07:27
So, take that from a tree,
form it into fibers,
07:30
and then those fibers
can strengthen things,
07:33
such as airplanes, buildings, cars.
07:35
The advantage of this, though,
is it's not just bioderived,
07:38
comes from a renewable resource,
07:41
but also that it is transparent,
07:42
so it can be used in consumer electronics,
as well as food packaging.
07:44
Not bad for something that basically
comes from the backyard.
07:48
Another one from the biosource
is synthetic spider silk.
07:51
Now, it's very hard to actually
create spider silk naturally.
07:54
You can basically get it from spiders,
07:58
but in large numbers, they tend
to kill each other, eat each other,
08:00
so you've got a problem with creating it,
08:03
in the same way you do with regular silk.
08:05
So what you can do is instead
take the DNA from the spider,
08:07
and put it into various different things.
08:10
You can put it into bacteria,
you can put it into yeast,
08:12
you can put it into milk.
08:15
And what you can do then is,
08:16
the milk or the bacteria produce
in much larger volumes
08:18
and then from that, spin a yarn
and then create a fabric or a rope.
08:21
Again, bioderived, has incredible
strength -- about the same as Kevlar --
08:25
so they're using it in things like
bulletproof vests and helmets
08:29
and outdoor jackets.
08:32
It has a great performance.
08:33
But again, it's bioderived,
and at the end of its life,
08:34
it potentially can go back
into the soil and get composted
08:37
to again be potentially used
as a new material.
08:40
I'd like to leave you with one
last form which is biobased,
08:44
but this, I think,
is like the ultimate thrift.
08:47
Think about the poster child
for conspicuous consumption.
08:49
It's the water bottle.
08:51
We have too many of them,
they're basically going everywhere,
08:53
they're a problem in the ocean.
08:56
What do we do with them?
08:58
This process is able
not just to recycle them,
09:00
but to recycle them infinitely.
09:02
Why is that interesting?
09:04
Because when we think
about reusing and recycling,
09:05
metals, glass, things like that,
can be recycled as many times as you like.
09:08
There's metal in your car
09:13
that may well have come
from a 1950s Oldsmobile,
09:15
because you can recycle it infinitely
with no loss of performance.
09:18
Plastics offer about
once or twice of recycling,
09:21
whether it's a bottle,
whether it's a chair --
09:24
whatever it is, if it's carpet --
09:26
after two times of recycling, whether
it goes back into another chair, etc,
09:27
it tends to lose strength,
it's no longer of any use.
09:31
This, though, just using a few enzymes,
is able to recycle it infinitely.
09:33
I take a bottle or a chair
or some other plastic product,
09:37
I basically put it in with a few enzymes,
they break it apart,
09:40
they basically put it back
into its original molecules.
09:44
And then from those molecules,
09:46
you can build another chair
or carpet or bottle.
09:48
So, the cycle is infinite.
09:51
The advantage with that, of course,
09:53
is that you have potentially
zero loss of material resources.
09:55
Again, the perfect idea of thrift.
09:58
So in conclusion, I just want to have
you think about -- if you make anything,
10:02
if you're any part of a design firm,
10:06
if you basically
are refurbishing your house --
10:08
any aspect where you make something,
10:11
think about how that product
could potentially be used
10:13
as a second life, or third life
or fourth life.
10:16
Design in the ability for it
to be taken apart.
10:19
That, to me, is the ultimate thrift,
10:23
and I think that's basically
what my grandmother would love.
10:25
(Applause)
10:28

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About the speaker:

Andrew Dent - Material innovator
A leading expert on sustainable materials, Andrew Dent has played an important part in creating a new generation of more sustainable products.

Why you should listen

Dr. Andrew Dent plays a key role in the expansion of Material ConneXion’s technical knowledge base. His research directs the implementation of consulting projects and the selection of innovative, sustainable and advanced materials to Material ConneXion’s library. As the Executive Vice President of Research at Material ConneXion and Chief Material Scientist at SANDOW, Dent has helped hundreds of clients -- from Whirlpool and Adidas to BMW and Procter & Gamble -- develop or improve their products through the use of innovative materials. 

Prior to joining Material ConneXion, Dent held a number of research positions both in industry and academia. At Rolls Royce PLC, he specialized in turbine blades for the present generation of jet engines. He has completed postdoctoral research at Cambridge University and at the Center for Thermal Spray Research, SUNY, Stony Brook, NY. Other research projects during this period, included work for the US Navy, DARPA, NASA and the British Ministry of Defense. He received his PhD in materials science from the University of Cambridge.

Dent is a frequent speaker on sustainable and innovative material strategies, having given talks at TEDxGrandRapids and TEDNYC, and he is the co-author of the Material Innovation book series, which includes Packaging DesignProduct Design and Architecture. Dent has also contributed to numerous publications on the subject of material science including Fast CompanyThe Economist and the Financial Times.

More profile about the speaker
Andrew Dent | Speaker | TED.com