Resource Recovery, a Revolution for a Sustainable Future

The power plant at Denmark’s Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Park uses surplus heat, in the form of steam, to heat 3.500 households; it has its own fish farm, from which sludge is reused and sold as a fertiliser. The power plant fulfils the energy requirements of neighbouring industries, reducing thermal pollution discharged to a nearby fjord. The energy and financial savings of this collaborative mindset are now being reallocated to transition to renewable energy sources [1].

This “industrial symbiosis”, which transforms the waste from one industry into a resource for another, while significantly reducing the use of natural resources and environmental impact, is not unique to Kalundborg. Permaculture design or industrial ecology have long existed as alternatives to resource-intensive models of production; however, alarm over scarcity of natural resources has elevated the ecological principles in which these are nested as an increasingly desirable economic alternative that is restorative and regenerative.

A growing world population, estimated to be over 9 billion people by 2030 including 3 billion new middle-class citizens, and rapid urbanisation are radically changing consumption patterns. It is estimated that demand for food will increase by 70% and that for energy by 40% by 2030. Yet, our current extractive resource model is ill-suited to respond to future demands. Nowhere is this more obvious than water. Energy and agriculture are big water users, and their water demands will be growing at a time when water scarcity is increasing in most regions of the world. The linear model of “take, make, use, and dispose” has to be replaced by the cyclical economy of “reduce, reuse and replenish”.

This new economic paradigm is what Silicon Valley-based innovation adviser, Navi Radjou, refers to as “frugal innovation”: extracting more value with fewer resources [2]. The circular economy is attentive to the whole supply chain: from manufacturing products with fewer resources, that are designed to expand their longevity as well as easily disassembled to facilitate recycling, to recover and reuse them at the end of their life cycle.

The transition to a circular economy is becoming more and more financially attractive. The Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates it could yield over one trillion billion US dollars annually for the global economy. Business leaders are starting to embrace this paradigm as a strategic business imperative. Industries are increasingly prioritising sustainable water management, while water utilities see resource recovery opportunities: not only of water, but clean energy, organic products, phosphates, nitrogen, biogas, fertilizer, paper, cellulose, rare earths and other resources.

Urban water and wastewater utilities are joining the circular economy revolution. In 2015, the IWA’s Resource Recovery Best Practice Award went to three companies for their work on recycling calcium carbonate from wastewater for use in three industrial processes. Scalable applications like this are growing in the water sector – they reveal both the opportunities ahead and the profound socio-economic transformations needed to harness their potential. One thing is clear, with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the international community, it is an issue rising rapidly up political agendas in both industrial and emerging economies. China, for example, has committed $60 billion over five years for urban wastewater treatment and reuse.

While business looks to implement these innovations on an industrial scale, an example from the Peruvian capital, Lima, highlights that initiatives at the grass roots level exist as well. An engineering school has installed an advertising board, whose surface absorbs the humidity of the air and condenses it to produce more than 90 litres of water per day.


Belgian theorist Michel Bauwens sums up our current situation as, “We manage scarce resources as if they were abundant, and we put artificial scarcity on what actually is abundant: knowledge, creativity and innovation” [3]. Future sustainability will depend on a system of resource governance that decouples economic progress from environmental and social degradation, incentivising the reuse of resources and practices that mitigate the effects of climate change.

If the Resource Revolution is to succeed, there is little scope for ‘business as usual’. We need a fundamental rethink of our approach, to embrace innovation in technology and practice, we also need innovation in financing and policy, but mostly we need innovation in the way we see our world and interact with it. The IWA’s Cluster on Resource Recovery will help shape the contours of this new resource era. What better way to honour Earth Day than by ushering in a revolution whose core spirit is to imitate the laws of nature?

[1] A Business Partnership Driving Sustainability: How to save energy and increase profit while investing in renewable energy, Monday Morning:

[2] Radjou, N. & Prabhu, J. (2014) Frugal Innovation: How to do more with less. New York: The Economist.

[3] Michel Bauwens, as quoted by Diana Filippova, OuiShare Connector, at the Resource Revolution Tour.