Raising Energy Efficiency in a New Materials Economy

Earth Policy Institute
Plan B 3.0 Book Byte
For Immediate Release
August 5, 2008



Lester R. Brown

There is a vast worldwide potential for cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by reducing the use of materials. This begins with the major metals–steel, aluminum, and copper–where recycling requires only a fraction of the energy needed to produce these metals from virgin ore, and with the recycling and composting of most household garbage. It continues with designing cars, appliances, and other products so they are easily disassembled into their component parts for reuse or recycling.

Germany and, more recently, Japan are requiring that products such as automobiles, household appliances, and office equipment be designed for easy disassembly and recycling. In May 1998, the Japanese Diet enacted a tough appliance recycling law, one that prohibits discarding household appliances, such as washing machines, TV sets, 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.

Closely related to this concept is that of remanufacturing. Within the heavy industry sector, Caterpillar has emerged as a leader. At a plant in Corinth, Mississippi, it recycles some 17 truckloads of diesel engines a day. These engines, retrieved from Caterpillar’s clients, are disassembled by hand by workers who do not throw away a single component, not even a bolt or screw. Once the engine is disassembled, it is then reassembled with all worn parts repaired. The resulting engine is as good as new. Caterpillar’s remanufacturing division is racking up $1 billion a year in sales and growing at 15 percent annually, contributing impressively to the company’s bottom line.

Another emerging industry is airliner recycling. Boeing and Airbus, which have been building jetliners in competition for nearly 40 years, are now vying to see who can dismantle them most efficiently. The first step is to strip the plane of its marketable components, such as engines, landing gear, galley ovens, and hundreds of other items. For a jumbo jet, these key components can collectively sell for up to $4 million. Then comes the final dismantling and recycling of aluminum, copper, plastic, and other materials. The next time around the aluminum may show up in cars, bicycles, or another jetliner. The goal is to recycle 90 percent of the plane, and perhaps one day 95 percent or more. With more than 3,000 airliners already put out to pasture and many more to come, this retired fleet has become the equivalent of an aluminum mine.

With computers becoming obsolete every few years as technology advances, the need to be able to quickly disassemble and recycle them is a paramount challenge in building an eco-economy. In Europe, information technology (IT) firms are going into the reuse of computer components big-time. Because European law requires that manufacturers pay for the collection, disassembly and recycling of toxic materials in IT equipment, manufacturers have begun to focus on how to disassemble everything from computers to cell phones. Nokia, for example, has designed a cell phone that will virtually disassemble itself.

Patagonia, an outdoor gear retailer, has launched a clothing recycling program beginning with its polyester fiber garments. Patagonia is now recycling not only the polyester garments it sells but also those sold by its competitors. Patagonia estimates that a garment made from recycled polyester, which is indistinguishable from the initial polyester made from petroleum, uses less than one fourth as much energy. With this success behind it, Patagonia is beginning to work on nylon garments and plans also to recycle cotton and wool clothing.

In addition to measures that encourage the recycling of materials, there are those that encourage the reuse of products such as beverage containers. Finland, for example, has banned the use of one-way soft drink containers. Canada’s Prince Edward Island has adopted a similar ban on all nonrefillable beverage containers. The result in both cases is a sharply reduced flow of garbage to landfills.

A refillable glass bottle used over and over requires about 10 percent as much energy per use as an aluminum can that is recycled. Cleaning, sterilizing, and re-labeling a used bottle requires little energy compared with recycling cans made from aluminum, which has a melting point of 660 degrees Celsius (1,220 degrees Fahrenheit). Banning nonrefillables is a quintuple win option–cutting material use, carbon emissions, air pollution, water pollution, and garbage flow to landfills. There are also substantial transport fuel savings, since the refillable containers are simply back-hauled by delivery trucks to the original bottling plants or breweries for refilling.

Another increasingly attractive option for cutting CO2 emissions is to discourage energy-intensive but, to use a World War II term, nonessential industries. The gold and bottled water industries are prime examples. The annual global production of 2,500 tons of gold requires the processing of 500 million tons of ore, more than one third the amount of virgin ore used to produce steel each year. One ton of steel requires the processing of two tons of ore. For one ton of gold, in stark contrast, the figure is 200,000 tons of ore. Processing 500 million tons of ore consumes a huge amount of energy–and emits as much CO2 as 5.5 million cars.

From a climate point of view, it is very difficult to justify bottling water, often tap water to begin with, hauling it long distance and selling it for outlandish prices. Clever marketing, designed to undermine public confidence in the safety and quality of municipal water supplies, has convinced many consumers that bottled water is safer and healthier than what they can get from their faucets. However, in the United States and Europe there are more standards regulating the quality of tap water than of bottled water. For people in developing countries where water is unsafe, it is far cheaper to boil or filter water than to buy it in bottles.

Manufacturing the nearly 28 billion plastic bottles used to package water in the United States alone requires 17 million barrels of oil. Including the energy for hauling 1 billion bottles of water every two weeks from bottling plants to supermarkets or convenience stores for sale, sometimes covering hundreds of kilometers, and the energy needed for refrigeration, the U.S. bottled water industry consumes roughly 50 million barrels of oil per year.

The good news is that people are beginning to see how climate-disruptive this industry is. Mayors of U.S. cities are realizing that they are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to buy bottled water for their employees–water that costs 1,000 times as much as the readily available tap water. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom has banned the use of city funds to purchase bottled water in city buildings, on city property, and at any events sponsored by the city. Cities following a similar strategy include Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and St. Louis. (See additional examples at http://www.earthpolicy.org/Updates/2007/Update68_data.htm.)

Raising energy efficiency to offset projected growth in energy demand is an essential component of the Plan B blueprint to cut net CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2020, thus halting the rise in atmospheric CO2 and helping keep future temperature rise to a minimum.

(See blueprint at http://www.earthpolicy.org/Books/PB3/80by2020.htm.) Reducing materials use through the measures outlined here will help us attain this goal, moving the world closer to temperature stability.

* Go to http://www.earthpolicy.org/Books/Seg/PB3ch11_ss6a.htm to read Part I of Raising Energy Efficiency in a New Materials Economy.

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