Materials deficiency - the state of world material usage

Materials World magazine
3 Mar 2012
pile of discarded white goods in landfill

‘Sobering’ was the buzzword at the Royal Society’s materials efficiency event, held in London, UK, on 31 January. The conference took stock of world material usage and highlighted the lack of cohesive progress made towards true sustainability. Michael Bennett reports

A collection of experts gathered at the Royal Society to paint a rather uninspiring picture of the world’s ‘energy mix’. Renewable energy technologies that once seemed set to flourish now look hopelessly hindered, and the world is still chronically reliant on fossil fuels. The development of necessary infrastructure and uptake has not occurred for a variety of reasons, primarily economic ones. Other experts highlighted the irony in this, noting that by its very nature materials efficiency equates to optimum economic savings.

Professor Tim Gutowski of MIT highlighted how hard it is to attain the holy grail of materials efficiency, the ‘closed loop’. ‘There is a delay in the recycling process,’ he says. ‘What comes out [at the end of the chain] is a lot less than what goes in. This is a problem.’ However, he added that materials efficiency is not just about what a product is made from. Gutowski went on to explain the difference between energy-active products (such as buildings with heatings, vehicles, electronic appliances) and energy-passive products such as infrastructure, bridges, highways and car parks. ‘The enormous energy required in the use phase of something like a refrigerator dwarfs the cost of the materials processing and manufacturing,’ he says.

He added that there are no sweeping solutions – a multifarious approach is needed. Savings can be made by recycling and remanufacturing some items such as furniture, motors and tires – but for products such as computers and dishwashers, replacement rather than repair can be the answer. Gutowski added that refrigerators are long-life items, and the older they are the more energy they devour, ‘You don’t want to be extending the life of an inefficient product.’ The example of the refrigerator hammers home the complexity of the issue – technological innovation means that we want our devices to do more (hello, ice dispenser) and to be bigger – which of course increases the energy use of the product.

Likewise, Gutowski criticised a worrying trend towards electrification of previously passive objects, such as toothbrushes and razors. ‘There is not a product today that isn’t designed to be powered up.’

Reid Lifset from Yale University, based in the USA, agreed with the sentiment, and wondered whether ‘people give too much credit to new tech without realising how efficient existing technology is.’

Recovery position

Another topic that came up was how little progress has been made towards effective recovery of rare earth materials from electronic devices. Robert Ayres from French company Insead discussed the idea of having regulations that make electronic companies responsible for the disposal of any devices they sold, which could encourage them to design for re-use. Whether it is technologically possible to get the materials out, Ayres is unsure: ‘Impossible is relative – we just haven’t found a good way of doing it.’ He noted that making materials easy to retrieve should be an intrinsic aspect of the design process, not something that is figured out at the end of a product’s life.

Ernst Worrell from Utrecht University in the Netherlands warned that constantly changing policies do not bode well for implementation. Giving the example of the packaging industry, he said ‘clearly from a prevention point of view, policy has failed. We are using much more packaging than we should.’ Professor Jacqueline Cramer, also from Utrecht (and who has worked as a government environmental minister), agreed. ‘People get confused because we are not clear about changing policies, then they start to doubt our scientific work.’

The fact that we need to consider takeback directives is proof that the economics have gone wrong,’ said Ayres. ‘How expensive will rare earth metals become before companies see that closed loop makes economic sense? Will it take the equivalent of an OPEC [oil crisis] for rare earth metals?

Money talks

‘Nobody makes decisions based on energy, everybody makes it on cost, and the two are fundamentally misaligned’ said Keith James from the UKbased Waste & Resources Action Programme. Echoing James, Petri Vasara from Finland Pöyry Mangement Consultancy said that innovative technology has to make economic sense before it stands any real chance of adoption. He gave the example of bioethanol harvesting techniques. ‘The more I look at it, the less promising it looks. The yield is staggeringly low and the economics just don’t work. Maybe cellulose isn’t the best material to make biofuel out of.’

In terms of solutions, Cameron Hepburn from the London School of Economics, UK, said the most direct route to materials efficiency was to use more labour and less materials. Using economic models to explain his point, he said that, ‘if you substitute materials for people and intelligence, you get more productivity.’ This may seem counterintuitive – usually companies cut costs by getting rid of people. Instead, Hepburn said that governments should reduce resource subsidies and shift the tax base from labour to materials. ‘We’re subsidising the thing that leads to low productivity, and taxing the thing that leads to high productivity.’ This could, he hopes, lead to a ‘stationery state of materials throughput, where without a decrease in the state of living, we grow without destroying ourselves.’