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Wednesday, 27 February 2013 12:40

Urban Μetabolism and Waste Management: An exclusive interview with Paul H. Brunner

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Urban Metabolism and Waste Management: An exclusive interview with Paul H. Brunner

Written by Antonis Mavropoulos

brunnel2 We are happy to post our new interview with professor Paul H. Brunner, Chair for Waste Management at Vienna University of Technology and head of the Institute for Water Quality, Resources and Waste Management. Professor Brunner, besides being one of the most thoughtful and inspiring lecturers in waste and resource management issues, is an expert in methods to analyze, evaluate, control and design flows and stocks of materials and energy in the so called "anthroposphere".

Recently, he has been awarded by ISWA with the Publication Award for 2012 for his book "Metabolism of the Anthroposphere – Analysis, Evaluation, Design". The book is available at

According to Juha Kaila, Professor of Waste Management, School of Engineering, Aalto University "...Metabolism of the Anthroposphere is essential reading for any expert working in the field of resources and waste management."

According to my view, the book creates a whole new landscape and drives all of us to rethink waste and resource management. I hope that reading this interview you will appreciate the same.

Your recent book regarding urban metabolism was awarded by the International Solid Waste Association. Please explain the linkages between urban metabolism and waste management and more specifically the added value that urban metabolism brings to the way we understand waste management. 

brunner book Urban Metabolism is a metaphor for the total manmade turnover of materials and energy within a city. Understanding flows and stocks of goods and substances within urban boundaries is important for providing sufficient resources in the future. Because at one near or distant point in time, all inputs into a city will become export products, wastes or emissions, understanding urban metabolism is also a prerequisite for decisions regarding waste management and environmental protection. Due to the very large and growing per capita turnover of today, the amounts of obsolete materials increase, too. Linking metabolism and waste management is important for effective decision making: Problems arising from the use of materials, e.g. growing amounts of new, complex ma terials, or large amounts of valuable and hazardous materials in long living stocks entering waste management in the future, can be recognized early, and waste management can be developed accordingly. Without knowledge of the urban metabolism, amounts and kinds of inputs into waste management will come as a surprise.

It is frequently said that urban metabolism, as well as full life-cycle analysis, is pretty difficult because it requires a rather wide data set that usually is not available. Is it true? How can someone overcome such a barrier?

First systematic investigations into the urban metabolism are costly, time consuming, and may be difficult. However, if data collection is organized in a harmonized way, subsequent data collection requires much less resources and can be done on a routine base. It is true that several new scientific disciplines have to be developed: An example is the exploration of “anthropogenic resources”. This field focuses on the analysis of secondary resources in a similar way like geologists explore raw materials in the earth crust. Other examples are: The art of analysis, evaluation and design of the whole anthroposphere. This requires a new set of methodologies, such as the static and dynamic analysis of flows and stocks of goods and substances, new evaluation methods for resources and waste management processes, and new design processes for goal oriented waste management.

How STAN software can be utilized for the benefit of a better waste management planning?

STAN is a freeware that allows modeling inputs, stocks and outputs of any metabolic system (city, waste management system, waste treatment process, landfill etc.). There are two main advantages of STAN: 1. It is a rigid, reproducible, transparent and easy to understand software. The results can be displayed in a manner that everybody comprehends the basic message. Because the mass balance principle must be fulfilled in STAN, no materials can disappear, and there is guarantee that inputs match outputs and changes in stock. 2. If many members of the waste management community use STAN for their work, there will accumulate a wealth of information in a standard format that can be exchanged easily and applied for problem solving everywhere.

What is your opinion regarding the global metabolism and waste management? How global metabolism is related with the global GDP and waste generation rates?

Waste Management with the goals “resource conservation” and “environmental protection” is the key “filter” for material flows between the anthroposphere and the environment. For cost effective and goal oriented waste management decisions, it is indispensable that a sufficient knowledge about the global metabolism exists. Because waste management is in the first place an economic activity, sound embedding of waste management in the general economy is crucial. While it is well known that for affluent countries waste generation rates are higher than for emerging economies, it is less taken into account that the fractions of GDP that the different economies are spending for waste management are rather similar (0.2 to 0.4 %). Thus, a significant step forward in waste management of emerging economies depends highly on GDP growth.

Regarding globalization, there is an ongoing debate about its influence in waste management. Please comment us about it

Waste management responsibilities are local, waste management markets are global. Valuable substances such as gold in a waste mobile phone are of no value for the local consumer. When accumulated in large amounts and shipped to the global “Hinterland”, great values can be extracted. Future waste management reaches from local to global, and mirrors the main economy where most products contain materials from every part of the globe. It remains to be seen if the present strive towards regionalization of “secondary resources” will become economically competitive on a global commodity market.

Read 7764 times Last modified on Wednesday, 27 February 2013 18:10

1 comment

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