Rapporteur: Liz Couture
Industrial companies around the world are not using the most efficient product design procedures, nor the most eco-friendly materials, nor the best “cradle to cradle” recycling opportunities possible and available. Every bit of wasted material translates to excess energy that was used to produce it, which in turn translates to excess carbon emissions if the energy source did not come from renewables.
The solutions to carbon emissions reductions in producing a product should be applied at any point in the life cycle of the product. Organizations such as Rocky Mountain Institute(1) and books like Natural Capitalism(2) have been working on them for decades. In the book DRAWDOWN: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming(3) the most promising solutions are researched and documented. Each solution states how many tons of carbon dioxide emissions will be avoided cumulatively until the year 2050, how much the implementation of the solution would cost, and how much the net savings or benefit would be to the world. Then, all the solutions are ranked considering several criteria, including the ease with which the solution can be implemented, the lesser of the estimated costs to scale it up, or perhaps the greater the savings and benefits achieved—but always with the most important consideration, which is the amount of carbon emissions reduced if the solution is implemented.
The Materials section describes seven categories of solutions:
As the summary of the Materials section of Drawdown eloquently puts it: “society is at the very beginning of redesigning and re-imagining the materials used in products and structures, as well as the means by which they can be reduced, reused, and recycled.” And, “Industry has come a long way….with responsible companies now paying close attention to where they source their materials and what happens to them after the useful life of their products.” And Drawdown notes that the number one ranked solution involves the coolants used in refrigeration.
In Drawdown, the experts have set realistic goals that are measurable and monetarily quantifiable. For example, if half of the recycled materials come from households and if the average worldwide recycling rate were to increase to 65 percent of total recyclable waste, then 2.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions could be avoided by 2050 just with household recycling alone. Although the next cost given is $366.9 billion, the net savings would be $71.1 billion, a long-term win-win solution.
In order to recycle household materials, the norms and procedures adopted by the state would vary by country, by culture, and certainly by educational level and economic considerations. The early mantra of Canadian environmental group “Pollution Probe”, was “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”— the “3 R’s.”
One example of reduce is the engineering design of a product that is able to use less of the material in the first place. If less mining and transport are required to produce the same product, then reductions in energy and hence carbon emissions will be realized. The education of engineers that produce these cost-saving, eco-friendly products needs to emphasize principles of durability long before they reach the drawing table. Furthermore, if companies were to take back their products and use them as new feedstock for future products, then less material would need to be consumed and further production costs would be realized.
For households and businesses to practice reusing products, there must be a collective consciousness change away from consumerism. People have been always encouraged to buy in order to support the economy, so this a difficult societal change to make, because behavioral changes meet resistance. Local governments, regional governments, and national governments all need to enact strict legislation that penalize unnecessary waste and incentivize companies to enact take-back programs. It is challenging for any government to enforce legislation that covers so many areas of industry.
However, if the culture of the corporations can embrace the 3R’s, then it may be more successful. For example, Interface Carpets decided to ask: “How could making carpets address inequality in the world?” This changed the culture of the company. Interface worked with coastal communities in the developing world and recovered 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing gear, including fishing nets. They converted the nylon nets from waste into recycled carpet yarn; today communities in developing nations have income from their carpet tile making labor.
Culture will transition from non-sustainable methods to “closed loop cycle” methods eventually, but government laws can certainly make it happen more quickly.
Recycling comes in many forms in communities and corporations. From blue boxes and special “environmental centres” to landfills and incineration plants, there are efforts to deal with humanity’s global waste. If efforts to reduce materials reach their limits when much of the product has been recovered and reused (or repaired or repurposed), then the last resort for all the metal, glass, paper, and plastic left over would be recycling.
In developed countries, the recycling may be through the use of blue boxes, and in less developed countries, the recycling may be accomplished through the use of manual pickers who sort through the discards. Whatever the methods, a well-connected network that identifies “who has what / who needs what” would be an excellent source of efficiency. Every local government needs to pass legislation that addresses the problem of local sustainable management of materials. Failing that, because some municipal councils may need nudging, then the next highest government above the local jurisdiction is responsible for enacting the enforceable legislation.
Again, the transition must involve public education, if it is to be supported by the people as the “right thing to do.” Fortunately, the myriad of books, blogs, and trail-blazing ideas already in existence makes such education readily available.
Drawdown states that given that about “50 percent of recyclable materials come from industrial and commercial sectors. At a 65 percent recycling rate, the commercial and industrial sectors can avoid 2.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050.” The net operational savings would be $142 billion over thirty years, so not only are emissions reduced, but financial advantages are realized as well.
Although every person and every company can realize energy, materials, and emissions savings by small and larger solutions, there are some solutions that, because of the intensity of energy required in their production — for example, the cement industry — would benefit greatly with production changes. The facts about this highly energy intensive industry are well documented.
Footnotes for this article can be seen at the Footnotes 2 page on this website (link will open in a new page).
We produce several one-hour-long Zoom conversations each week about various aspects of six issues we address. You can watch them live and send a question to the speakers or watch the edited version later here or on our Youtube channel.