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The Power of Collective Action – Redefining Community Sustainability

Embracing the complexity of complex systems

Humans are attracted to simplicity. Simple explanations allow us to focus on simple solutions, even when a problem is complex. In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling calls this the “Single Perspective Instinct.” He argues that we find simple ideas alluring because they help us feel like we really understand something. We want to believe that a single solution is all it takes to address big problems. But it’s easy to see how this instinct leads us to misunderstand the complexity of the world around us. We can end up focusing our attention and resources on one thing and then missing the big picture.

 

The need to embrace complexity on a global scale can be illustrated by the complex work being done at the community level to deal with something that’s been around since the dawn of civilization—trash.

 

A clean sweep for community action

Trash seemed fairly simple a few decades ago. In the mid-50s, when parks, highways, and sidewalks were becoming unsightly with thoughtlessly discarded litter, the National Advisory Council came up with a simple solution: the Keep America Beautiful campaign. Public service announcements and road signs gave everyone permission to look down on “litterbugs” and reminded good citizens to put trash where it belongs. This national effort has now been replicated at the State level too, pulling on local pride to generate community action. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) established their long running campaign: Don’t Mess with Texas in 1985 combining strong support from local schools and communities for regular litter picks. Their community strategy has grown in sophistication incorporating annual school competitions, virtual reality gamification, and their annual, much loved advertising campaigns featuring Texan mega stars ranging from Willie Nelson to Matthew McConaughey. TxDOT began consistently measuring the initiative's success in 2013 and by 2023, the level of roadside litter across the state had decreased by 63%. 

 

Keeping up with consumerism

While the simple message of stop making a mess undoubtedly worked, Increased consumerism led to rapidly growing landfills and a more nuanced message: reduce, reuse, recycle. Still, the answer was pretty simple. Individuals could solve the problem of garbage if they only made the right choices.

Now communities know that they have to address waste as a complex system. Starting with all the packaging. There’s far too much of it, and it’s often made from materials that are hard to recycle. But packaging has its benefits, so it’s not going to disappear as long as people need things. Packaging extends the life of perishables, gets products to their destinations undamaged, and helps deter retail theft and tampering. Some brands tout attractive, eco-conscious packaging. But some people would say those brands are doing their job too well, enticing consumers to buy more things than they need.

Then we really should back up a few steps and examine our disposable culture. Before things even become waste, manufacturers want people to want them, buy them, and then replace them with newer models. Simple messages about throwing away trash in the right place can’t battle planned obsolescence, fast fashion, and keeping up with the Joneses. Manufacturers will argue that they’re just responding to consumer demand. Then why not change consumer demand? Concerned consumers are being told to choose products with a lot of buzzwords, including compact, local, long-lasting, previously owned, recycled, recyclable, compostable, and zero impact. It’s all so confusing.

 

Take a breath here, then read on

The upstream part of the waste equation can arguably be summarized as “reduce,” even though the onus is still largely placed on consumers to change their ways. Meanwhile, garbage continues to pile up. Plastic is one of the biggest culprits, and the problem is increasing rather than decreasing. The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, with the bulk of it going to landfills, being incinerated, or leaking into the environment. Only 9% of plastic waste is successfully recycled, according to a 2022 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report. The truth is that while paper, aluminum, and glass are recycling success stories, only 15% of plastic waste is collected for recycling, and 40% of that is dumped after taking the most expensive route to the landfill—through the recycling center. Landfills also need to try to divert dangerous materials like batteries, paint, and tires, but this requires facilities, legislation, and community cooperation. Also, according to the EPA, municipal landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and 28 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Transportation is another big part of the solid waste equation. Energy goes into moving products and materials globally, delivering them locally, and picking up whatever’s left to haul them away. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that transportation still relies on oil products for 91% of its energy, and unfortunately, CO2 emissions have bounced back to nearly pre-pandemic levels. The pandemic also accelerated consumers’ addiction to online shopping and home delivery, increasing transportation-related emissions for delivery as well as returns, and flooding the world with even more packing materials.

Just like the Onward community solving sustainable energy problems through collaboration and collective intelligence, sustainable local communities are choosing to embrace the complexity of waste management.Solutions lie in a multitude of efforts at every point in the process, from technology and investment to human engineering and legislation. 

 

Real solutions come from embracing complexity

Waste that’s unsightly for most people is a challenge for those who want to be part of the solution. Innovative packaging options that require less energy to make, ship, and discard are under development. On the regulatory side, the U.S. states of Maine and Oregon are joining Europe, Brazil, Australia, Japan, Korea, and Canada to hold manufacturers accountable with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws. These laws assess fees based on the amount and recyclability of the waste they produce.

Waste management companies are facing higher fees at municipal landfills, so they are providing consumers with apps to help with recycling decisions. And retailers are making it easier to take back paint, printer cartridges, and electronics for special handling. A mattress take-back law in Connecticut increased recycling of bulky mattresses from 8.7% to 63.5%.

Many communities have become enthusiastic composters, knowing that they’re not just creating new soil but also reducing the bacteria that produces methane in landfills. At the same time, landfills are adding technology to capture gas so it can become a renewable energy source.

 

One landfill in Belgrade, Serbia, was considered an environmental catastrophe before being transformed into a modern waste-to-energy facility through €260 million of public-private financing and guarantees from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA). 

 

 

The new Vinča facility now has the capacity to convert up to 340,000 tons of waste into renewable heat and electricity, which can be up to 30 megawatts of electricity—enough to power approximately 30,000 Belgrade households—and up to 56 megawatts of thermal energy, which can provide 60,000 households with their winter heat. The project also includes a recycling plant that converts about 200,000 tons of construction and demolition waste into recycled construction materials. These projects are expected to reduce Belgrade’s greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 210,000 tons of CO2 per year.

 

Collective intelligence drives collective change.

From picking up litter to changing how products are made, packaged, and shipped to finding sustainable solutions for dealing with what’s left behind, it's all about embracing the complexity of a complex system. 

Whether it is bringing together private-public financing, engaging the world leading academics or igniting the passions of local communities, change comes when we all act together, playing to our strengths, sharing our knowledge and setting goals that will benefit us all.

Onward’s goal is to change energy systems forever. We solve problems of all sizes by working together. Our teams of geoscientists and data scientists working on the Onward Platform are continually looking for new ways to understand the world. Our Innovation Lab is on a mission to drive a safe and ethical energy transition through big bets on new ways to collectively solve for our biggest energy challenges like reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Ocean modeling to understand and address our changing climate together with improving energy storage and revolutionizing water management. 

 

Together, we know that change happens.  

 

Are you someone who cares a lot?

In 1971, Dr. Seuss wrote The Lorax, a children’s book that showed a remarkable understanding of the complexity of environmental issues. Dr. Seuss wove together messages on consumerism, unchecked growth, waste, and environmental neglect in his attempt to inspire young people to action. The story ends with the rapacious Once-ler finally deciphering the single word left behind by the Lorax: “unless.” The Once-ler says, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

In that spirit, Onward is looking for someone like you who cares a whole awful lot to embrace the complexity of the global energy challenge.

 

Learn more and join our community of passionate changemakers today.

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ThinkOnward  |  ThinkOnward Team

ThinkOnward is a nexus of innovation, collaboration, and energy entrepreneurialism focused on energy resilience and pursuing a net-zero future. We’re creating a hub for the “thinkers”, the “change makers” who want to foster new ideas, leverage and use powerful data and tools, and collaborate with the best scientific minds, together with investors and entrepreneurs committed to accelerating the commercial success of innovative energy and climate solutions. 

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