The nature of sustainability

Materials World magazine
3 Nov 2015

Rhiannon Garth Jones talks with leading figures in key industries about the nature of sustainability and how we can meet the challenges that lie ahead. 

How do you define ‘sustainability’? 

Alan Maries

Sustainability means being aware of the interdependence between economic activities, social values, and the planet's capacities. It is concerned with finding ways to meet our needs in one area without diminishing or damaging another, today and for future generations.

Sustainability can be summarised in the concept of the ‘triple bottom line’, covering three component areas:

environmental issues, such as resource consumption, emissions and waste 

economic returns from wealth and value creation, as well as the need for investment 

social development at personal, societal and global scales.

For the construction industry, the sheer scale of issues in a global sense cannot be over-emphasised, though there are positive as well as negative aspects. On the one hand, a huge amount of materials are extracted (often in sensitive, densely populated areas), processed and used. But on the other, the industry can be a major player in providing the means to adapt to urgent environmental pressures, such as climate change. 

The longevity of the consequences of construction (both good and bad) is a particular feature of this industry, over timescales spanning decades, centuries or even millennia.

David Shaw 

‘Sustainability’ means different things to different people. For the business community, it means ensuring that the business and/or business model can continue to operate profitably into the future and identifying and managing any risks that may threaten that future.

Among political activists, the emphasis is on protecting the environment, reducing de-forestation, minimising the use of fossil resources and developing circular economies.

Often, the business community is accused – with some justification — of putting profit before environment. However, the mantra of the environmentalist movement – reduce, re-use, recycle – is entirely compatible with the business objectives of cost-down. 

Jim Coulson

It is a fact of 21st Century life that we should all try to be, wherever possible, more sustainable in the uses of building products. The concept of sustainability is not an easy one to define – the Oxford Dictionary says it is ‘conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources’. That is not a bad start, but it misses out some other important issues, such as avoiding any environmental harm, or reducing pollution during the manufacture of any product – including pollution that is necessarily caused by the generation of the energy used in manufacture. So the whole idea of sustainability is also very much about minimising the impacts on our planet as we manufacture.

Keith Barnes

Sustainability has no agreed definition. It has a different interpretation depending on who one talks to in the supply chain and within any industry.

In the world of packaging I prefer to use the words ‘resource efficiency’, often referred to as cost reduction. One must always be aware of the raw materials used at the start of any process and the feasible alternatives.

Louis Brimacombe

Of course, sustainability can mean different things to different stakeholders, but the general overview is that sustainability is about developments that can add value to society but can also demonstrate lower environmental impacts across the whole life cycle, and are economically viable, or affordable, to implement. It can be a challenge to address all these issues in a full sustainability assessment but, by using life cycle assessment and whole-life costing, we can at least attempt to estimate the potential benefits (and the viability) of a new development or product. 

Inevitably, with the potential complexity of this kind of analysis, it is difficult to achieve ‘absolute’ sustainability – it is usually about understanding all the potential pros and cons of a development and then using the assessment to make an informed decision around the ‘triple bottom line’ (environmental, social and financial performance). 

One aspect of product viability that should never be ignored is the social value contribution of a product (for example, effective functionality, safety and convenience), since these aspects will influence product selection and adoption by consumers. If a product does not add value to society, it is unlikely to succeed in the long term and could be discarded before the product’s expected lifetime, often wastefully. There is a need for political drivers and frameworks that encourage a smooth transition to a more sustainable society, but first we need to educate the politicians around life cycle thinking in order to set the right frameworks. 

Stuart Patrick

Historically, the European PVC sector embraced the classic Bruntland definition whereby individuals and industries are aware of the need to act responsibly in protecting the world by applying the principles of sustainable development. That meant acting in a way that did not limit the range of economic, social and environmental options available for future generations. However, such a definition had its limitations and that is why through our VinylPlus Voluntary Initiative we have adopted the Natural Step Framework, which defines sustainability in unambiguous terms through four key sustainability principles:

1. No extraction from the earth at a rate faster than it naturally returns and replenishes

2. No manufacture of chemicals at a rate faster than it takes nature to break it down

3. We cannot cause destruction to the planet at a rate faster than it takes to regrow

4. We cannot do things that cause others to not be able to fulfil their basic needs.

Allan Matthews

Sustainability can be considered in several different ways. For example, we can view it in an economic and societal sense – how do we sustain the global economic viability and sustainability of the planet's (rising) population? Or, we can consider its meaning in terms of sustaining the supply of scarce material resources that are vital for the functioning of devices and equipment that we feel are needed for our daily well-being. 

In any case, we cannot separate the needs of a sustainable economy and infrastructure from the imperative to maximise efficiency and productivity in our economy. Sustainability is delivered by gaining the optimum use of materials, using best design practices together with advanced technologies and engineering capabilities to build and create products and services that deliver the greatest benefit from the least amount of input possible and that all the externalities (including environmental impacts) are accounted for as inputs. 

What is the most important aspect of sustainability affecting your sector? 

Alan Maries

The construction industry’s impacts are now too great to assume that nature can simply absorb them as it could a century ago – it must take responsibility for its actions and all their implications. The scale of large infrastructure works means big impacts – often negative, but also potentially positive – that need careful balance and reconciliation.

Although a material such as concrete is not particularly carbon intensive, it contributes as much as 7% of global CO2 emissions simply because it is the most widely used material in the development of buildings and infrastructure, for which there is no current alternative.

Perhaps the most pressing need for sustainability in construction is to ensure that natural material resources are used responsibly, from extraction to end-of-use, through greater adoption of reduced material use, of remanufacturing and of recycling, in order to avoid the unwelcome consequences of materials shortages, excessive landfill and pollution. 

David Shaw 

Sustainability has jumped up the agenda throughout the rubber business in recent years. Around 75% of all rubber finds its way into automotive goods and the automotive manufacturers are driving their supply chains to consider the environmental impact of their activities.

Furthermore, around 40% of all rubber comes from a tree species known as Hevea brasiliensis. The rubber is exuded from cuts made into the bark of the tree. Millions of workers in the developing world are employed to tap the trees to produce the rubber used in products such as tyres, earthquake bearings and medical gloves. 

In humanitarian terms, the biggest issue is the fact that the global price of rubber is below the cost of production. This means millions of small farmers in the developing world are subsidising the world’s big-name tyre makers. Personally, I do not think that is sustainable. 

Jim Coulson

Wood, as it happens, is an extremely environmentally-friendly material for us to use. Not only does it naturally trap harmful CO2 emissions in its cells as it grows (and it does that by harnessing it with water, to make cellulose – which is the main ingredient of wood), but it also takes relatively little energy to process, compared with many other construction materials. Some materials require huge amounts of energy input (in the form of heat which has to be generated by burning mostly fossil fuels) in order to make them, and then to manufacture things out of them (such as steel girders, concrete floors or plastics). And, unlike almost all other building materials, the natural resource of wood can be grown forever, in managed forests and plantations, rather than having to be extracted from the ground in finite quantities.

Keith Barnes

The main packaging materials are paper, board, glass, metals and plastics. In principle, paper and board are totally sustainable through careful forestry management. Additionally, there are ongoing areas of research for alternative sources, such as sugar beet waste, that are worth following. Likewise, glass has always been sustainable.
End-of-life glass can always be melted down and is used in the making process as a cost reduction feature. The two most widely used metals in packaging are aluminium and tinplate, both of which are recyclable. 

Last, and the most debated, is plastics. There is a recycling route for many types, but due to the diverse properties of plastics many are combined to create containers that limit the problem of food waste, which is more serious than the packaging area. When no recycling route is suitable, incineration is an alternative, providing energy from waste (EfW).

Louis Brimacombe

In the automotive sector, around 70% of the overall environmental impacts of a steel product will be in the use phase of the vehicle. In other words, the impacts of driving a steel car around for 10 years will be significantly greater than the environmental impacts of producing the car in the first place. Therefore, the most important challenge for the steel industry is to develop products that are lighter in weight but still perform in the key areas of safety, durability and recyclability. Good progress has been made in this respect through the development of advanced high strength steels, which have helped to improve vehicle energy consumption without excessive cost or loss of performance. Similarly, the use of steel in construction is being improved with new products that result in more energy efficient buildings but look good and are durable, affordable and fully recyclable. 

Stuart Patrick

In the past, criticism of PVC had come in three basic areas:

•    Hazards involved in the production of the polymer

•    The additives used in giving PVC its many different properties – stabilisers that are used to help process PVC into products and give those products added longevity and plasticisers that are used to make flexible articles from a     material that is rigid in its natural state

•    Hazards associated with the disposal of PVC products at their end of life

Consequently, the industry in Europe in 1999 committed, at some considerable cost, to a groundbreaking 10-year voluntary commitment, Vinyl 2010, to enhance the sustainable production and use of PVC. Vinyl 2010 is now widely regarded as a leading example of industry self-regulation that has worked in practice and delivered concrete results. Among its most significant achievements was the establishment of an infrastructure for the annual collection and recycling of over 250,000 tonnes of discarded PVC that, prior to 2000, had been dismissed by many as an unrecyclable material destined for landfill.

What do you think is the single best step your industry could take to make a measurable impact? 

Alan Maries

We require a completely new way to consider how we design, build and run our communities. This involves coping with the inexorable move (globally, though not necessarily locally) to urban living, which needs massive infrastructure development, coupled with integrated transport and land use planning strategies.

There is also an imperative to integrate the whole life cycle of construction more effectively – from extraction and processing of raw materials, through design and manufacture, to in-service use and eventually end-of-life solutions. In the UK, there is an acute shortage of skills across the construction sector, but integrating the supply chain through education and skill-building will result in more efficient and effective material use. However, dealing with the inevitable waste arising will always remain a problem because of the scale of construction operations.

David Shaw

The rubber industry has been proactive in this area. The International Rubber Study Group has launched an initiative called Sustainable Natural Rubber (SNR-i) that seeks to remove barriers to completing the documentation. Furthermore, some of the biggest suppliers to our industry have joined the Together for Sustainability (TfS) initiative, under which companies work with their supply chains to generate accredited documentation to demonstrate compliance with CSR standards.

Within the tyre industry the key insight is that a tire in use consumes around 80% of the total energy footprint. The other 20% comes from raw materials, production, logistics and other minor factors. So extending the life of a tire
and reducing the energy consumption in use is fundamental to reducing overall vehicle emissions.

Keith Barnes

There is a limit to how much we can lightweight containers or reduce packaging. Academic research is exposing new possibilities in nanotechnology and chemistry in this area. However, while sustainability is an important part of packaging, we must never forget that the main purpose is to protect and contain a product from manufacture to the consumer. 

Louis Brimacombe

Steel is fully recyclable and can be used repeatedly. Nevertheless, further improvements in material efficiency across the manufacturing supply chain are possible. For example, vehicle production lines generate scrap as the steel is cut and pressed to meet the vehicle design requirements. Can the steel industry work more effectively with downstream supply chains to help eliminate unnecessary scrap generation and to improve product yields? There is also scope to improve the actual reuse of steel products with minimal reprocessing requirements. 

Some excellent work has been done at the University of Cambridge to identify new process technologies and new product designs and specifications that may help in this respect. However, behavioural and market barriers, as well as the adoption of new business models, will need to be addressed to make this viable in the future. 

Stuart Patrick

VinylPlus is the follow-on voluntary sustainable development programme of the European PVC industry with even more ambitious targets and scope than Vinyl 2010. It aims to create a long-term sustainability framework for the entire PVC value chain. The regional scope of our 10-year programme is the EU-28, plus Norway and Switzerland.

Concrete targets in the VinylPlus commitment include the recycling of 800,000 tonnes of PVC per year by 2020, of which 100,000 tonnes should be treated by innovative technologies to tackle applications that have posed a challenge for recycling up to now. Progress has been impressive, with nearly half a million tonnes of PVC recycled in 2014 – more than half way towards our target. The industry has also launched a new VinylPlus certification and labelling scheme designed to help users identify and prioritise sustainably produced PVC, while also creating value for VinylPlus participants. 

PVC has a lot to offer from a sustainability perspective – more than half of it is derived from salt – an abundant natural resource. Most PVC applications perform extremely well from a life cycle perspective and its relatively low carbon footprint compared with competing products makes it an excellent choice for a vast range of applications especially for use in long term construction products and delivered with some serious cost advantages – a key component in terms of economic aspects of sustainability. 

Allan Matthews

Whatever definition we adopt for sustainability, we can say that coatings and surface treatments have a key role to play. They can save scarce elements by avoiding the need for a bulk material to contain those elements when (as often happens) they are needed only at the surface. Coatings can also help us conserve materials by protecting against wear and corrosion. They can be used to reduce friction and therefore improve the efficiency of machines and engines, thereby enhancing energy efficiency and reducing fuel usage and CO2 emissions. Coatings are also key to many devices that enhance our ability to generate, harvest and store energy, such as catalysts, photovoltaic devices and fuel cells