EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Designing a New Materials Economy: Redesigning the Materials Economy

In nature, one-way linear flows do not long survive. Nor, by extension, can they long survive in the human economy that is a part of the earth's ecosystem. The challenge is to redesign the materials economy so that it is compatible with the ecosystem. This initiative has several components. It includes designing products so that they can be easily disassembled and recycled, redesigning industrial processes to eliminate waste generation, banning the use of throwaway beverage containers, using government purchases to expand the market for recycled materials, developing and using technologies that require less material, banning gold mining or at least its use of cyanide solution and mercury, adopting a landfill tax, and eliminating subsidies for environmentally destructive activities.

Some countries are adopting these measures. Germany and recently Japan have begun to require that products such as automobiles, household appliances, and office equipment be designed so that they can be easily disassembled and recycled. In May of 2001, the Japanese Diet enacted a tough appliance recycling law, one that prohibits discarding household appliances, such as washing machines, televisions, or air conditioners. With consumers bearing the cost of disassembling appliances in the form of a disposal fee to recycling firms, which can come to $60 for a refrigerator or $35 for a washing machine, the pressure to design appliances so they can be more easily and cheaply disassembled is strong.54

With computers becoming obsolete often within a couple of years as technology advances, the need to be able to quickly disassemble and recycle computers is a paramount challenge in building an eco-economy.

Another policy initiative that can greatly reduce materials use is the banning of one-way beverage containers, something that Denmark and Finland have both done. Denmark, for example, banned one-way soft drink containers in 1977 and beer containers in 1981. Canada's Prince Edward Island has adopted a similar ban on one-way containers. The result in all three cases has been dramatically reduced flows of garbage to landfills.55

The environmental costs of beverage containers vary widely. A refillable glass bottle requires less than one fifth as much energy as a recycled aluminum beverage container, assuming the bottle is refilled 15 times, which may be a conservative estimate.56

There are also large transport savings, since the containers are simply back-hauled to the original soft drink bottling plants or breweries. If nonrefillable containers are used, whether glass or aluminum, and they are recycled, then they must be transported to a factory where they can be melted down and refashioned into containers and transported back to the bottling plant or brewery.

Another area of potential reduction in materials use is the transportation sector. As cities redesign urban transport systems to better achieve social goals of increased individual mobility, clean air, less traffic congestion and frustration, and more opportunities for exercise, the use of cars will decline accordingly. (See Chapter 9.)

Even more fundamental than the design of products is the redesign of manufacturing processes to eliminate the discharge of pollutants entirely. Many of today's manufacturing processes evolved at a time when the economy was much smaller and when the volume of pollutants did not threaten to overwhelm the ecosystem. More and more companies are now realizing that this cannot continue and some, such as Dupont, have adopted zero emissions as a goal.57

Another way to reduce waste is to systematically cluster factories so that the waste from one process can be used as the raw material for another. NEC, the large Japanese electronics firm, is one of the first multinationals to adopt this approach for its various production facilities. In effect, industrial parks are being designed by corporations and by governments specifically to combine factories that have usable waste products. Now in industry, as in nature, one firm's waste becomes another's sustenance.58

Market incentives to recycle can be generated by government procurement policies. For example, when the Clinton administration issued an Executive Order in 1993 requiring that all paper purchased for government agencies contain 20 percent or more post-consumer waste by 1995 (increasing to 25 percent by 2000), it created a strong incentive for paper manufacturers to incorporate wastepaper in their manufacturing process. Since the U.S. government is the world's largest paper buyer, this provided a burgeoning market for recycled paper.59

A number of state governments achieved a similar goal by setting minimum recycled content standards for newsprint, reports John Young. He notes that the number of newsprint recycling plants in North America increased from 9 in 1988 to 29 in 1994. This created a market for recycled newspapers, converting them from an economic liability into an asset, something that could be sold.60

Dematerialization of the economy is facilitated by new technologies that are less material-dependent. Cellular phones, which rely on widely dispersed towers or on satellites for signal transmission, account for most of the growth in telephone use in developing countries. These nations will not need to invest in millions of miles of copper wires, as the industrial countries did. As recently as 1990, cellular phones were rare. But in 1996, cellular phone sales of 51 million overtook the 47 million new phones linked by wire. By 1999, cellular phone sales at 172 million nearly tripled the 63 million sales of fixed-line phones. There were 491 million cell phones in use by then, compared with 907 million traditional ones. By 2005, the number of cellular phones in use will probably exceed the number of telephones linked by wire.61

The new technology has arrived on the scene just in time for developing countries, such as China and India, which have few of the traditional linked telephones. Within just a few years, China has overtaken Japan in the number of cellular phone subscribers, trailing only the United States. We can now look forward to a world population linked by a phone network that does not require millions of tons of copper wire.62

Efforts to reduce materials use to date have been rather modest, consisting largely of recycling programs. In 1992, a group called the Factor 10 Institute was organized in France under the leadership of Friedrich Schmidt-Bleeck. Its goal is to increase resource productivity by a factor of 10, which they believe is well within the reach of existing technology and management, given the appropriate policy incentives. They recognize that increasing resource productivity by 10-foldthat is, reducing materials use by 90 percentwould "constitute a radical change from the traditional assumption that a healthy economy is one that uses increasing amounts of energy, materials, and resources to produce more goods, more jobs, and more income." Some reductions could be even greater; for example, replacing automobiles with bicycles to increase mobility in congested cities could lower materials use by more than 90 percent.63

Although relatively little attention is paid to the building construction industry, it is a leading user of material, including steel and cement. Simple measures like increasing the longevity of buildings can greatly reduce the use of these materials and of the energy used in their manufacture.

The brief review of gold mining in this chapter raises questions about whether the social benefits of gold mining exceed the ecological costs. Some 85 percent of all the gold mined each year is used to produce jewelry that is worn as a status symbol, often a way of displaying wealth by a tiny minority of the world's people.

Turkish environmentalist Birsel Lempke, a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award (often called the alternative Nobel), also questions the future of gold mining. As analyses provide more information on the ecological costs of goal mining, they raise serious doubts as to whether it is worth turning large areas into what Lempke calls "a lunar landscape." She indicates she is not against gold per se, but against the deadly chemicals, such as cyanide and mercury, that are released into the earth's ecosystem in processing the gold ore.64

If the costs to society of gold mining outweigh the benefits, then the question is how best to phase out gold mining. One way would be to put a tax on gold that would reflect the environmental costs to society, including the landscape disruption of processing over 700 million tons of ore annually, plus the cost to society of mercury and cyanide pollution. Such a tax would likely raise the price of gold several times. Another approach would be to simply negotiate an international ban on the use of cyanide and mercury in gold mining, much as the international community has recently banned use of a dozen toxic chemicals. Either policy approach could be used. Regardless of which one prevails, both current and future generations would be the beneficiaries.65

Another industry whose value to society is being questioned by the environmental community is the bottled water industry. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an organization with 5.2 million members, released a study in April 2001 urging consumers to forgo bottled water, observing that it was no safer or healthier than tap water, even though it can cost 1,000 times as much.66

WWF notes that in the United States and Europe there are more standards regulating tap water quality than that of bottled water. Although clever marketing in industrial countries has convinced many consumers that bottled water is healthier, the WWF study could not find any support for this claim. For those living where water is unsafe, as in some Third World cities, it is far cheaper to boil or filter water than to buy it in bottles.67

Phasing out the use of bottled water would eliminate the need for the fleets of trucks that haul the water and distribute it. This in turn would reduce the materials needed to manufacture the trucks as well as the traffic congestion, air pollution, and rising carbon dioxide levels associated with their operation.68

One of the most environmentally productive policy initiatives would be to eliminate subsidies that encourage the use of raw materials. Nowhere are these greater than in the electricity sector. In France, for example, the state-owned aluminum company gets electricity at the heavily subsidized rate of 1.5¢ per kilowatt-hour, while other industries pay 6¢ and residential users pay close to 12¢. In Canada, the government of Quebec also offers the aluminum industry electricity at 1.5¢ per kilowatt-hour. Without this huge subsidy, the industry probably could not profitably manufacture nonrefillable beverage containers. This subsidy to aluminum indirectly subsidizes transportation, including both airlines and automobiles, thus encouraging travel, an energy-intensive activity.69

The most pervasive policy initiative to dematerialize the economy is the proposed tax on the burning of fossil fuels, a tax that would reflect the full cost to society of mining coal and pumping oil, of the air pollution associated with their use, and of climate disruption. A carbon emissions tax will lead to a more realistic price for energy, one that will permeate the energy-intensive materials economy and reduce materials use.

The challenge in building an eco-economy materials sector is to ensure that the market is sending honest signals. In the words of Ernst von Weizsäcker, an environmentalist and leader in the German Bundestag, "The challenge is to get the market to tell the ecological truth." To help the market to tell the truth, for example, we need not only a carbon tax, but also a landfill tax so that those generating the garbage pay the full cost of getting rid of it and of managing the landfill and its potentially toxic waste flows in perpetuity.70

 Previous Table of Contents Next

54. Tim Burt, "VW is Set for $500m Recycling Provision," Financial Times, 12 February 2001; Mark Magnier, "Disassembly Lines Hum in Japan's New Industry," Los Angeles Times, 13 May 2001.

55. Platt and Seldman, op. cit. note 45.

56. Based on John E. Young, "Refillable Bottles: Return of a Good Thing," World Watch, March/April 1991, p. 35.

57. Dupont will cut all material waste and emission of toxic substances to the environment, according to its "Safety, Health, and Environmental Commitment," as reported 15 April 1998 by University of California at Berkeley "People Product Strategy" program, at best.me.berkeley.edu/~pps/pps/dupont_dfe.html.

58. NEC Corporation, Annual Environmental Report 2000: Ecology and Technology (Tokyo: July 2000), pp. 24-27.

59. John E. Young, "The Sudden New Strength of Recycling," World Watch, July/August 1995, p. 24.

60. John Young, "The New Materialism: A Matter of Policy," World Watch, September/October 1994, p. 37.

61. Molly O. Sheehan, "Telephone Network Diversifies," in Brown et al., op. cit. note 24, p. 93; 1999 data from International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication Indicators 2000/2001 (Geneva, Switzerland: March 2001), pp. 11, 35.

62. "China is No. 1 in Asian Cell Phone Market," International Herald Tribune, 17 August 2000.

63. Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek et al., Factor 10: Making Sustainability Accountable, Putting Resource Productivity into Praxis (Carnoules, France: Factor 10 Club, 1998), p. 5.

64. Share of gold to jewelry and Lempke from "Don't Mine Gold...," op. cit. note 24.

65. Young, op. cit. note 4.

66. Catherine Ferrier, Bottled Water: Understanding a Social Phenomenon (Surrey, U.K.: World Wide Fund for Nature, April 2001).

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid.

69. Young, "Aluminum's Real Tab," op. cit. note 18, pp. 26-33.

70. Weizsäcker quoted in Young, op. cit. note 60, p. 34.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute