Five surprising ways to increase living standards sustainably

From making plastics from plants, to cleaning up deliveries - Suzanne Ellis explains how we can make the industries associated with our modern living standards more sustainable.

Suzanne Ellis

Innovation & Strategic Foresights Director, Catalyst Technologies

To keep global warming below 1.5℃, we need to find new ways to produce everyday goods, many of which have been built on the back of fossil fuels.

Over the past quarter of a century, advances in technology and living standards have enabled more than a billion people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Many more are expected to experience improved lifestyles in the coming decades as emerging economies grow and the global population increases to nearly 10 billion by 2050.

While economic growth reduces poverty, it also increases the consumption of everyday items ranging from toothbrushes to building materials.

To keep global warming below 1.5℃, we need to find new ways to produce these goods, many of which have been built on the back of fossil fuels.

Here are five surprising ways to increase living standards sustainably:



1. Making plastics from plants

While irresponsible disposal of single-use items has rightly come under scrutiny, plastics remain fundamental to modern life. Inexpensive plastics have been key to raising living standards, making many products available cheaply to more people, from lateral flow tests for COVID-19 to cars.

Since its invention, plastic production has used fossil fuels as feedstocks and this will need to shift to more sustainable alternatives. Bio-based monomers can be used as the feedstocks to make plastics and polyesters.

Both polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable polyester that can be used in food packaging, textiles and in engineering, and polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a plastic often used in packaging such as bottles or films, can be made using bio-based feedstocks such as sugar cane or corn starch. In another example, Johnson Matthey and Virent have partnered to develop a bio-forming process to produce bio-paraxylene and bio-benzene – key building blocks for many types of plastic.

However, bio-based and sustainable plastics are currently expensive compared to those derived from fossil fuels. The market for these needs to be developed, alongside a sustainable recycling solution for end-of-life plastic products, to accelerate the transition toward a truly circular plastics economy.


2. Greening steel and concrete

Concrete and steel may seem mundane, but these materials are building blocks for a better quality of life – homes, roads, schools and hospitals.

The steel and cement industries are also among the heaviest emitters of CO2. Both burn fossil fuels for energy, and steel making relies on fossil fuels as a reducing agent while cement production involves chemical processes that generate CO2.

What’s more, they cannot easily be electrified – but remain essential for raising living standards and are also key enablers of the energy transition. Steel, for example, is used in everything from wind turbines to electric cars.

Hydrogen as a replacement for fossil fuels is expected to be the game-changer for such hard-to-abate sectors since it can be burned without emitting CO2. Clean hydrogen can be produced in two ways: splitting water using renewable electricity through electrolysis, or by reforming natural gas and capturing the CO2 generated. Building a market for clean hydrogen is critical to reaching net zero, and many governments globally are making this central to their decarbonization plans.



3. Recycling EV batteries

After experiencing a fall during the pandemic  lockdowns, car ownership is back. And while growth will vary significantly across the globe, the one pervasive dynamic is the shift to electric vehicles (EVs). After years of China dominating EV car sales, it was overtaken by Europe as the world’s largest EV market in 2020.

Sustainability and circularity are key to making EVs not only carbon-free to use – given that over two-thirds of global electricity is still generated from fossil fuels − but also limiting the carbon impact throughout their lifecycle.

For example, the active components within batteries can be shredded to a powder known as “black mass”. This is processed further to filter out critical materials, including cobalt, nickel and lithium, ready to be used again.


4. Making jet fuel from rubbish

Air  travel was one of the worst-affected sectors during the pandemic. The aviation industry body, the IATA, predicts that while full recovery is unlikely this side of 2030, markets will pick up as travel barriers are removed and people start to travel further afield again.

While pre-pandemic aviation contributed only 2-3% of human-induced carbon dioxide, emissions from aviation have been increasing at a faster rate than for any other transport mode, according to the International Energy Agency.

Along with shipping, it is also considered one of the most challenging to decarbonize. A lot of work is going into developing electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, but the technologies are not yet advanced enough to take over, especially for long-haul flights.

Jet fuels can be made more sustainably. Johnson Matthey and bp have developed an award-winning process (using the Fischer Tropsch, or FT, reaction) that converts syngas (a mixture of hydrogen and carbon dioxide) produced from the gasification of household waste into “synthetic crude”, which in turn is used for making sustainable, low-carbon aviation fuel.



5. Cleaning up deliveries

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, brick-and-mortar stores shut down, and even the most technology-averse people switched to online deliveries. This trend has not slowed since.

E-commerce has been shown to increase with rising incomes, providing greater convenience and choice. So as living standards improve, online shopping follows the trend.

In the medium to long term, we will see delivery services switch to fuel-cell or electric-powered vans. However, these vehicles are unlikely to be available straight away at the levels necessary to meet growth in demand in emerging markets.

One way to reduce the CO2 emissions of delivery vehicles that are powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) is to blend in bio-based fuels, like the recent switch to E10 petrol. Going forward, more sustainable liquid fuels can be produced from captured CO2 and household waste (along with clean hydrogen) – similar to the aviation sector’s low-carbon fuels.

ICE-powered vehicles continue to be made cleaner using the latest emission control technology to minimise the levels of nitrogen oxides and particulates released by such vehicles. Replacing older vehicles with more modern vans and trucks that meet tightening emission regulations, using catalysts developed and manufactured by Johnson Matthey and others, is another effective way to clean up the logistics sector and the air we breathe.


This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum, 27th October 2021/