Circular economy, sustainable products, ecological and social responsibility – we need concrete solutions for everything we make, use and discard. Ideas must become practical, functional, affordable reality. The throughput of materials in society is a key feature here. There are many links in the chain, they are all necessary, and they are all connected. But each of us normally works within, and understands, and has skills for, one area only. We need to visualise and comprehend the whole circle and our part in it.
By Chris Butters
4 November 2022
The following diagram has proved very useful and is explained in this article.
This life cycle diagram helps us to understand where we are in the chain, what we can do to help close the circle, and, not least, to discern which areas or actions are important. The social sciences make the important distinction between intention and impact. Good intentions may lead to much effort being expended for little result. Many ecological or sustainable products have little real effect. Some solutions are both simple and quite easy to introduce, whereas others will face major obstacles – financial, institutional, cultural – in order to become widespread. What, in any given context, are the really important areas to work with and improve? Context is everything; the importance of sustainable solutions varies in any given sector of activity as well as in any given place or time.
Food, household goods, machinery, buildings, schools, roads … all the products that we use or consume, both as individuals and in the form of public goods and facilities, have their cycle of design, production and use: followed by eventual after-use, whether just through disposal or, as should be the case, maximum recycling to enter a new cycle as new products. For consumers, that last step is often out of sight: and we often know very little about the early steps of materials extraction, manufacture and design. Where in this process do the major environmental or indeed social impacts occur?
The whole circle and some of the questions that arise
The following provides a brief look at the whole circle and some of the questions that arise. Placed in the centre are the framework conditions around all production and consumption. These include the laws, regulations and standards for products. They apply to every step in the chain. In addition come the many informal yet compelling conventions and expectations as to what a product should be. These framework conditions are where many of the major obstacles to sustainability lie. What is most lacking, in many countries, is environmental requirements and standards: in other countries these have progressed considerably in recent decades. Consumer expectations and habits may equally pose a major barrier to the introduction of new sustainable solutions and behaviours. For example: recycling of bottles and cans is now a requirement in some countries, and the systems are in place to receive and recycle those bottles, conveniently nearby the consumers; with the incentive that they are worth money when returned. And this has simply become normal behaviour. In other countries there is still no such system and there is still the perception that “people will never bother”. We know that these habits can indeed change, but good framework conditions must be in place. And they will vary within different cultures.
It is worth noting here that all the institutions and activities required for the framework conditions to function – government and management in the broadest sense – demand a large part of our total resource consumption. Typically around one quarter of our ecological footprint lies not in our personal consumption but in our public services and amenities.
Extraction of raw materials
The first step in the chain is the extraction of raw materials: trees, minerals, harvests both animal and vegetal, as well as basic natural resources such as water. Like every step, this requires inputs of labour and energy and has environmental impacts. Impacts are not only environmental, but also social: taking trees from forest dwellers, using child labour in mines, depleting water sources used by poor farmers. And each step in the chain has its own actors, whose interests may compete with those of actors in other sectors.
In quantitative terms, what the world uses most of are materials such as stone and sand. Next on the list come the huge global quantities of coal and oil. Substances like iron, phosphates and timber follow. Whereas extraction of stone and sand has limited impacts, extraction of oil and iron ore have major impacts. But some substances we use small quantities of – such as copper and gold – entail huge impacts (1)
Processing and refining into useful products
The second step in the production cycle is the processing and refining of those basic resources into useful products in smelting factories, timber yards, machine workshops, food processing plants. This in general terms is the industrial sector, where vast amounts of energy and labour are often required. Decisions about what to manufacture are influenced by technology change, by consumers, and to some extent “created” as new demands through advertising.
As throughout the chain, the framework conditions determine what is allowable, what restrictions are posed and what procedures have to be followed, not least to limit environmental impacts, as well as social requirements such as labour conditions. Most of the above processes can be made far more efficient through technological improvements. Steel for example is produced today using five times less energy than a century ago. Intelligent structural engineering designs buildings that need far less material than the massive beams and columns of a few decades ago.
The design stage is of vital importance
The next step as illustrated above, the design stage, is often overlooked but is of vital importance. For this is the step where the choices are made: both by consumers and by all those who design or procure products – whether a candy bar, a photocopier, a bridge, a schoolbook or an office block.
To be precise, design also touches the circle elsewhere. Changing product demand feeds back to choices as to materials extraction – we might in future need fewer copper mines or less timber; and it impacts the manufacturing – we might want fewer copper pipes but more copper roofing sheets. To underline the interconnectedness of the circle’s parts, we must also note that subsequent stages such as the post-use phase will also influence both design and manufacture – we return to this below.
Distributing the products to the market
The following step is making available and distributing the products to the markets. This involves many facets, including transport, advertising, packaging and commerce. Here again large efficiency improvements are possible, as well as environmental ones such as avoiding plastics and reducing packaging. On the other hand, the current neoliberal economic system with enormous volumes of trade around the globe, as opposed to local production, entails huge transport energy and other impacts.
Choices are then put into practice by what we buy, or order, such as the specification documents for a building. The products are then prepared and delivered, entailing more impacts like transport, packaging, refrigeration, the energy used on a building site, and all the resources involved in running shops and other outlets.
Impacts during the use stage itself are what we as consumers are most aware about: how much petrol we use, what our heating bill is, the impacts of eating imported beef rather than local chicken, of taking a bath rather than a shower, of buying second hand furniture and clothes rather than new. In contrast to consumables such as food and energy, most products have a lifetime: buildings, furniture, computers, roads, clothes … In all cases, the use phase also involves repairs, upgrading, modifications, which necessitate more money, energy, and environmental impacts.
Buildings are a typical example. The environmental impacts of a building accumulate through its long lifetime: repairs, alterations, necessary renewal of parts that wear out such as the finishes, roof tiles, interior fittings, and technical systems for ventilation, IT etc. Cumulatively these impacts and the associated emissions may be more than those that were needed to build the building initially. The classic diagram below shows how this applies to lifetime costs; the same diagram holds true for a building’s lifetime energy use and climate emissions.
The post use stage
Finally, the post use stage may involve large amounts of energy and emissions, as well as health and environmental impacts. The illustration below shows demolition of reinforced concrete – a very demanding operation partly due to use of a “composite” material – the steel is embedded in the concrete. Demolishing and recycling this is extremely onerous. Here too, intelligent ecodesign offers the answer: design a product such as a building so that it is easy to disassemble.
It should be noted that apparently eco-friendly or recyclable materials such as timber or steel, are far from “innocent” if they are treated with chemicals or covered with synthetic varnishes, paints and fire retardants. They are then hazardous waste!
Here again the framework conditions play a huge role. If manufacturers are obliged by law to recycle their own products, as is now the case with kitchen goods such as fridges, then they will think carefully about how their products are put together and also avoid using hazardous components which will cost them a lot to handle. Companies such as Olivetti started thinking about lifecycle design and Van Lansinks Waste Hierchry Ladder (2) several decades ago .
The key lies in design
The key again lies in design: eco-friendly, easy to disassemble, low maintenance, low embodied carbon, no toxic substances. Avoid materials that have the largest negative impacts. Which food products have the least packaging? Which clothing is made locally and with natural fibres? Which kitchen cupboards contain a minimum of formaldehyde type glues? Do I need cement? Which roofing material has the best environmental profile: ceramic tiles, aluminium, zinc sheeting? In many cases there are alternatives that are not significantly more expensive. In some cases of course there will be little alternative, at least at present. An example is many plastics applications, where bioplastics, made from plants, will increasingly be taking over from the synthetic polymers derived from fossil fuels. Bamboo straws are probably a poor example, but new bioplastic materials are already being used in textiles, crockery, furniture, building insulation and for many car parts.
It is important to see at what stages of the life cycle circle the major environmental impacts occur. The illustration below applies to construction materials but the same is the case for other products. In some cases the main problems occur at the stage of resource extraction – such as a copper mine or logging of rainforest timber. In many cases the main impacts are during the manufacturing stage – such as in aluminium smelting or plastics processing. In others it is during the use phase. In yet others the biggest issue comes when the product has to be disposed of – hazardous components such as leftover enamel paints and PCBs arecostly to dispose of safely.
To take examples: the major impacts of using rainforest timber come in the initial stage of harvesting it – causing loss of forest cover as well as harm to indigenous peoples. Once one has this timber, it is simply beautiful and causes no further harm – but the harm has been done. Far from where we see it. The major impacts of cement production come in the second stage, processing. The calcination of the limestone causes the (unavoidable) release of around three quarters of a ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of cement. In addition comes much energy used in the process. Few people are aware that this one material, cement, causes around 5% of total global anthropogenic climate emissions.
The production of plastics (synthetic polymers) from fossil fuels has high impacts. Again, there may be little impact for the consumers during the use stage, though many plastics can emit toxic gases, such as from synthetic glues or softeners (phthalates). But materials such as PVC are extremely toxic if they burn, and become hazardous waste in the post use phase. A particular case involving the construction stage is that of solvents in paints, which have been responsible for brain damage to workers.
By contrast, construction materials such as unfired brick cause very little damage or health hazard at any stage in the cycle, apart from the limited landscape impacts of clay quarries. A full life cycle analysis (LCA) of materials is needed to provide the information we need in this respect.
Consumer information and labelling is often missing, misleading or confusing. In many countries it is still non-existent. In the EU progress is being made: instruments such as the Ecodesign Directives and Products legislation gradually move manufacture towards products that have fewer impacts and avoid toxic ingredients.
A prevalent myth, promoted by conservative industries and often echoed by the politicians they “advise”, is that we must wait for technological breakthroughs in order to solve the world’s energy and climate problems. This is rubbish: solutions have existed for many years. The first fully recyclable ecodesign products were on the market several decades ago. The first near zero energy buildings were built in the freezing climate of Saskatchewan, Canada (and visited by this author) in 1980.
The more insidious barrier is this very belief in technology as the saviour. It is increasingly understood today that the major barriers lie not in technology, but in consumption, lifestyles and ingrained cultural practices. These manifest at every stage in the life cycle circle, from the frameworks to the industrial and commercial practices to the consumer. For sustainable products, the materials exist and so does the knowledge. But the solutions must be designed, so as to adapt to, and in turn influence, consumer perceptions and practices, which differ very widely in different cultural contexts.
A useful guidebook is The Ecology of Building Materials by my GAIA colleague Bjorn Berge – frequently cited internationally. The full circle of production provides a key to understanding our place within it, determining which areas are most problematic, and prioritising actions that will have most effect. From political leaders to industrialists, designers and consumers – and not least, journalists – all of us bear influence on that circle.
Sources and biblio
1 Man and Materials Flows – Towards sustainable materials management 1997 – Sten Karlsson et.al. Institute of Physical Resource Theory
Chalmers University of Technology and Göteborg University
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