Earth Policy Institute

Raising energy efficiency in a new materials economy - Part I

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Courtesy of Earth Policy Institute

The production, processing, and disposal of material in our modern throwaway economy wastes not only material but energy as well, thus producing unnecessary, climate-disrupting carbon dioxide emissions. In nature, one-way linear flows do not survive long. Nor, by extension, can they survive long in the expanding global economy. The throwaway economy that has been evolving over the last half-century is an aberration, now itself headed for the junk heap of history. The potential for sharply reducing materials use was pioneered in Germany, initially by Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek in the early 1990s and then by Ernst von Weizsäcker, an environmental leader in the German Bundestag. They argued that modern industrial economies could function very effectively using only one fourth the virgin raw material prevailing at the time.

A few years later, Schmidt-Bleek, who founded the Factor Ten Institute in France, showed that raising resource productivity even more—by a factor of 10—was well within the reach of existing technology and management, given the right policy incentives.

In 2002, American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. They concluded that waste and pollution are to be avoided entirely. “Pollution,” said McDonough, “is a symbol of design failure.”

Industry, including the production of plastics, fertilizers, steel, cement, and paper, accounts for more than 30 percent of world energy consumption. The petrochemical industry, which produces plastics, fertilizers, and detergents, is the biggest consumer of energy in the manufacturing sector, accounting for about a third of worldwide industrial energy use. Since a large part of industry fossil fuel use is for feedstock to manufacture plastics and other materials, increased recycling can reduce feedstock needs. Worldwide, increasing recycling rates and moving to the most efficient manufacturing systems in use today could reduce energy use in the petrochemical industry by 32 percent.

The global steel industry, producing over 1.2 billion tons in 2006, is the second largest consumer of energy in the manufacturing sector, accounting for 19 percent of industrial energy use. Energy efficiency measures, such as adopting the most efficient blast furnace systems in use today and the complete recovery of used steel, could reduce energy use in the steel industry by 23 percent. Reducing materials use means recycling steel, the use of which dwarfs that of all other metals combined. Steel use is dominated by three industries—automobile, household appliances, and construction. In the United States, virtually all cars are recycled. They are simply too valuable to be left to rust in out-of-the-way junkyards. The U.S. recycling rate for household appliances is estimated at 90 percent. For steel cans it is 60 percent, and for construction steel it is 97 percent for steel beams and girders, but only 65 percent for reinforcement steel. Still, the steel discarded each year is enough to meet the needs of the U.S. automobile industry.

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