Monday, March 05, 2012

What a waste the car is.

Isn't it absurd that the average car in the UK weighs 1.3 tonnes, is used for 4% of the year, and when in use carries an average of only 1.6 occupants?

It means that most of the time most cars have excess capacity and/or underused and heavier than their cargo. What a waste of fuel and resources!

We are running out of raw stuff. To be more specific: global resources of minerals are becoming increasingly scarce.

This is not news; some farsighted policymakers and visionaries have been attempting to draw attention to the value of resource efficiency for at least 20 years.

Over this time the evidence of the cost of mineral extraction and the processing of raw materials has grown into a substantial body of well-documented data.

Amongst other things, we now know a lot more about the wasteful use of water and the high energy and climate-damaging affects of the dash for growth happening in many parts of the world.

For example, we know that five key materials: steel, cement, plastics, paper and aluminium, dominate emissions from industry and producing them accounts for 20% of all global emissions from energy use and industrial processes.

And this is before these materials are actually processed into their final form.

The situation is worse in China because of its dependence on coal and its inefficient energy system. There, construction and manufacturing adds a further 2% of global energy and process emissions.

If, therefore, we could concentrate on tackling the efficiency of use of these 5 materials we would be going a long way towards reducing pollution, emissions and water use globally.

This depends in turn on the ability of these five sectors to cooperate.

You might think that because of the trends of globalisation and consolidation in these industries, this would not be too difficult.

In fact they are still surprisingly fragmented.

The top 10 global companies produce less than a quarter of all steel, and the largest of these, ArcelorMittal, accounts for only 6% of the total.

The effect of this is that there is much competition for inputs, especially iron ore and coke, which, contradicting the ideology of free market thinkers, does not result in increased efficiencies.

A group of researchers from Cambridge University led by Julian Allwood and Jonathan Cullen have been exploring solutions to this issue.

I've been reading their book, ‘Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open’, and it is full of brilliant ideas.

It also illustrates how tough the mountain of resource efficiency is to climb; harder than climbing a mountain of slag wearing roller-blades.

One of their solutions is that if goods were designed to use less metal, global metal production could be reduced by a staggering 30% without any loss of final service.

Another solution is to change the practice of construction and deconstruction so that buildings are designed to be reused.

To achieve this, they say, we need some pioneers who, they suggest, might be retailers seeking brand advantage, or the government through its procurement policies, to stimulate demand.

The supply of re-used steel will follow the demand for it, and could be increased with changes to demolition practice, perhaps as an extension of the requirements of Considerate Construction guidelines.

The voluntary eco-standard BREEAM gives accreditation for the sustainability features of buildings. However, it does not set minimum targets for reducing the embodied life-cycle impact of buildings.

The authors note that it is surprising that only approximately 5% of total credits are allocated in BREEAM to reducing a building's footprint.

In contrast, the Australian Green Star rating system, revised in February 2010 to drive best practice in steel production, has much more rigourous standards.

Of course, we can make products which last longer, and which can be repaired and renovated more easily. Prime candidates for this are vehicles and household appliances.

But as long as companies obtain financial benefit from the early obsolescence of their products, this is not going to happen. It is therefore up to national and regional governments to create and impose standards, just as they are doing, for example, with the End of Life Vehicle Directive.

Alternately, we can rent the service of transport, clean clothes, or whatever, instead of owning a machine which provides this. It is then in the interests of the service provider to maintain in an efficient way the product that is on loan to us.

I am sure that in the future people will look back on our time and marvel at how wasteful we were.

There are many barriers to material efficiency strategies, but they boil down to two things: firstly, material efficiency requires a greater level of cooperation between the many companies involved in producing a product with metal components; secondly most changes the authors propose require a radical change in company strategy.

One of the biggest of these changes is that companies within sectors and even across sectors need to cooperate more instead of competing.

This is a strategy that has been followed, but not nearly widely enough, by the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme, which takes as its starting point the idea that one company's waste might be another company's raw material.

NISP, which receives some funding from Defra, but not nearly enough, is a free business opportunity programme that delivers bottom line, environmental and social benefits, and deserves credit for being the first industrial symbiosis initiative in the world to be launched on a national scale.

In an age of austerity, resource efficiency and industrial symbiosis makes sense. Costs can be saved and raw material usage and emissions reduced.

But it does require vision and almost unprecedented degrees of cooperation between companies. Farseeing firms are doing it already and reaping the benefit.
I don't know what the car of the future will look like. But I do know it must leave a far smaller scar on the planet.

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