19 September 2011  – In Charles Dickens’ final novel, Our Mutual Friend, dust is literally transformed into gold by an entrepreneurial dustman who understands the value of waste.

In Victorian London, where the average household burned 11 tonnes of coal a year, coal dust was a precious commodity.  On the outskirts of the city, sifters worked in dust up to their waists, separating the fine dust which, mixed with street-sweepings, was sold as fertiliser.  The coarser dust, mixed with clay, was sold to make bricks.  In the last years of the 19th Century approximately 10 barges per day, each carrying around 70 tonnes of dust, travelled to brickworks from the dustyard at the City of London alone.

Nothing was wasted.  Bones were sold to the soap boilers and the glue makers, kitchen scraps went to the farmers for manure and animal feed, broken pots and pans to builders for sinking foundations and road making and rags were used in paper production.  Even the cobblers added a thin layer of dust between the outer and inner sole of shoes for extra comfort.

Great public building projects were repositories of recycled materials.  The railway bridge that spans the River Tweed in North East England, for instance, owes its existence to stone from nearby Berwick Castle.  The chains which support the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol once did the same job at Hungerford Bridge across the Thames.

These examples serve as a reminder that resource efficiency is not a recent phenomenon.  In fact, we are only just recapturing a previous attitude to “waste not, want not” that had been the dominant paradigm for centuries.

The case for moving away from our current consumption-based economy towards a new, green economy has never been stronger.  Rapid fluctuations in fossil fuel prices, changing climate and environmental pressures, markets still constrained by the global financial crisis and increasing demand for scarce resources are forcing us to look closely at the way we do things.

We are moving beyond peak oil and into “peak everything”.  A group of scientists known as the Global Footprint Network, for instance, have measured how much land and water are currently needed by the global economy.  They conclude that we are consuming the earth’s resources at about 150 per cent of the sustainable capacity – so we need 1.5 planets to maintain our current economy.

If our plan to expand our global economy at least threefold by 2050 is realised using current practices, this will require the economy to operate at 300 to 400 per cent of the planet’s capacity.  If we pursue this path, we’re heading for a nasty crash.

A green economy is about doing more with less.  It’s about finding better ways of meeting our needs.  Just as Charles Dickens’ scavengers, mudlarks and dustmen understood that waste brings opportunities, entrepreneurs that find innovative ways of reducing or reusing waste will thrive in the new green economy.

While around 40 per cent of our waste to landfill comes from the construction industry, innovative Green Star projects are often delivering recycling rates of around 80 per cent, and sometimes as high as 98 and 99 per cent, for construction and demolition waste.  At a six Star Green Star-rated office in Canberra, Trevor Pearcey House, recycled materials were such a feature of the project that even floor tiles from the old computer room were refashioned into a new wall decoration.

In the new green economy, building products manufacturers will start to embrace “cradle-to-cradle” thinking, wh

Tony Arnel

ere materials circulate in a “closed loop”, providing nutrients for nature or resources for industry.  Products such as the 111 Navy Chair which recycles 111 plastic coke bottles, and InterfaceFlor’s ReEntry carpet which makes new carpet out of old, are two very good examples of companies making the most of waste.

As the imperative to cut greenhouse emissions increases inexorably, we can expect to see more recycled content incorporated into the manufacturing processes for greenhouse gas intensive materials such as aluminium, concrete and steel.

We are already seeing a shift to retrofitting as building owners recognise that upgrading their aging infrastructure delivers dividends – both environmental and economic.

At the same time, the new green economy will mean that our renewable resources are mapped, measured and valued like never before.  Solar hot water, photovoltaics, wind turbines and district energy systems will promote more efficient energy access for everyone.

Ultimately, this new green economy will encourage us to look at our built environment with fresh eyes.  As we upgrade old buildings or construct new ones, we’ll start with the question: “what can this building do to contribute to a healthy, harmonious environment?”  And in doing so, we’ll uncover previously overlooked opportunities to make gold from dust.

Tony Arnel is the Chairman of the World Green Building Council and the Green Building Council of Australia.  From 19-23 September, around 90 countries and 35,000 organisations are expected to contribute to green building events around the world.  Details www.worldgbc.org.