Redesigning the Materials Economy

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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.

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. 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. 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. […]

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. 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.5

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. 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. […]

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 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.

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Redesigning the materials economy Lester R. BROWN

Chapter 6. Designing a New Materials Economy Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth (W.W. Norton & Co., NY: 2001). 2001

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