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.
Steel recycling started climbing more than a generation ago with the advent of the electric arc furnace, a technology that produces steel from scrap using only one fourth the energy it would take to produce it from virgin ore. Electric arc furnaces using scrap now account for half or more of steel production in more than 20 countries. A few countries, including Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, use electric arc furnaces for all of their steel production. While the present shortage of scrap limits the ability to switch entirely to electric arc furnaces, more scrap will be available in 2020 when developing economies begin retiring aging infrastructure. If three fourths of steel production were to switch to electric arc furnaces using scrap, energy use in the steel industry could be cut by almost 40 percent.
The cement industry, turning out 2.3 billion tons in 2006, accounts for 7 percent of industrial energy use. China, at close to half of world production, manufactures more cement than the next top 20 countries combined, yet it does so with extraordinary inefficiency. If China used the same technologies as Japan, it could reduce its energy consumption for cement production by 45 percent. Worldwide, if all cement producers used the most efficient dry kiln process in use today, energy use in the cement industry could drop 42 percent.
Restructuring the transportation system also has a huge potential for reducing materials use. For example, improving urban transit means that one 12-ton bus can replace 60 cars weighing 1.5 tons each, or a total of 90 tons, reducing material use by 87 percent. Every time someone decides to replace a car with a bike, material use is reduced by 99 percent.
The big challenge in cities everywhere is to recycle the many components of garbage, since recycling uses only a fraction of the energy of producing the same items from virgin raw materials. Virtually all paper products can now be recycled. So too can glass, most plastics, aluminum, and other materials from buildings being torn down. Advanced industrial economies with stable populations, such as those in Europe and Japan, can rely primarily on the stock of materials already in the economy rather than using virgin raw materials. Metals such as steel and aluminum can be used and reused indefinitely.
One of the most effective ways to encourage recycling is to adopt a landfill tax. For a recent example, the state of New Hampshire adopted a “pay-as-you-throw” program that encourages municipalities to charge residents for each bag of garbage. In the town of Lyme, with nearly 2,000 people, adoption of a landfill tax raised the share of garbage recycled from 13 percent in 2005 to 52 percent in 2006. The quantity of recycled material in Lyme, which jumped from 89 tons in 2005 to 334 tons in 2006, included corrugated cardboard, which sells for $90 a ton; mixed paper, $45 a ton; and aluminum, $1,500 per ton. This program simultaneously reduces the town’s landfill fees while generating a cash flow from the sale of recycled material.
San José, California, already diverting 62 percent of its municipal waste from landfills for reuse and recycling, is now focusing on the large flow of trash from construction and demolition sites. This material is trucked to one of two dozen specialist recycling firms in the city. For example, at Premier Recycle up to 300 tons of building debris is delivered each day. It is then skillfully separated into recyclable piles of concrete, scrap metal, wood, and plastics. Some materials the company sells, some it gives away, and some it pays someone to take.
Before the program began, only about 100,000 tons per year of the city’s mixed construction and demolition materials were reused or recycled. Now it is nearly 500,000 tons. The scrap metal that is salvaged goes to recycling plants, the wood can be converted into mulch or wood chips for fueling power plants, and the concrete can be recycled to build road banks. By deconstructing a building instead of simply demolishing it, most of the material in it can be reused or recycled, thus dramatically reducing energy use and carbon emissions. San José is becoming a model for cities everywhere.
* Continue reading for more ways in which companies, communities, and individuals can reduce materials use and increase energy efficiency in Earth Policy Institute’s next Plan B Book Byte.
Adapted from Chapter 11, “Raising Energy Efficiency,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb3.