How can we make better use of natural resources?
Mining for natural resources harms the environment. But we desperately need them, for both the development of countries and the transition to a sustainable energy system. Professor of Sustainable Resource Use Ester van der Voet researches how we can reduce the environmental impact of natural resources yet continue to use them. She will give her inaugural lecture on 2 May.
One of the solutions to making more sustainable use of natural resources is to use materials for longer. ‘Use a computer for seven years instead of three, for example,’ says Van der Voet. ‘We should all do this.’ Another option is smarter product design to make products that use fewer natural resources and are easier to repair and disassemble for recycling.
Recycling itself is also one of the solutions, of course, and in the coming years, Van der Voet and others will be researching this for the Dutch government. They will paint a picture of the urban mine in the Netherlands. These are all the natural resources that are in use in society, for example, copper, aluminium, plastics, textiles, wood and rare metals in houses, vehicles, electronics and all sorts of consumer products. Van der Voet: ‘There are huge quantities of natural resources in circulation. If you can reuse them, you don’t have to get them from a mine far away but can get them here in the Netherlands instead.’
‘There are huge quantities of natural resources in circulation. If you can reuse them, you don’t have to get them from a mine far away.’
Several companies are already working on this on a small scale, but before the urban mine can be tapped into on a large scale, questions need to be answered, such as: How big is the urban mine? What natural resources does it contain and in which products and applications are they found? When do these resources become available and how are they collected?
In addition to investigating these issues, Van der Voet will also be making forecasts for the future. She will develop scenarios about how many natural resources will be needed in the future and how the demand for them can be met. Van der Voet: ‘What does it mean for the use of natural resources if we start using biobased building materials, for example? We will also link our scenarios to the IRP’s natural resource scenarios [International Resource Panel, ed.] and the IPCC’s climate and energy scenarios [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed.]. Then you can say what a new energy system will mean for the demand for resources.’
According to Van der Voet, we are now reaching the limits of growth in natural resource use. ‘We need to reinvent ourselves, as we did before with the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution and now the energy transition. It’s really important to be doing this.’
Text: Dagmar Aarts