The answer to climate change? Resource effiency

Graham Hillier

By Graham Hillier

02 Sep 2019

Many things on our planet are on the rise – the global population is inexorably growing towards 9.8 billion, with atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) also increasing. What’s more, this increasing carbon dioxide is positively correlated with the growing economic wealth of our planet. An individual living in a more economically developed country emits a whopping double the CO2 per person than those living in less economically developed regions. So, as wealth and population climb higher and higher, CO2 emissions will also unceasingly rise – alongside potentially devastating global warming. 

A further burden is the multitude of finite resources on this planet that society relies on to function. Before the first industrial revolution took off in the mid-19th century, the incoming energy to the earth from the sun was greater than the amount of energy we were digging up in the form of resources. This resulted in the steady build-up of resources in the form of oil and minerals within the earth’s crust. This equation has now, however, been inversed. We are burning through the Earth’s resources much faster than the rate at which they are being replaced, and by doing so, whether through power generation or manufacturing, we release emissions into the air and water supplies that were previously held by the material in the ground. On top of this, as affluence rises, so does the inefficiency when using these finite resources. 

Dealing with increasing CO2 emissions and decreasing finite resources requires radically rethinking our industries and society as a whole. This will involve improving process efficiencies and reusing more waste as feedstock in industry. As much as it is a challenge, delivering sustainability through improving efficiency also presents enormous opportunity to provide economic, environmental and social benefits.

Process inefficiency

The scale of process inefficiency throughout industry can perhaps best be appreciated by examining electricity production in the UK. The first thing to point out is just how dependent we still are on non-renewable energy sources, which provide over 70% of UK power generation. Regardless of where the energy comes from, what has been consistent over the last 50 years is the astonishing inefficiency in electricity production. The Office of National Statistics estimates that the UK electricity system loses about 55% of the electricity it produces in conversion, distribution and transmission losses. The more electricity we use, the worse it will get – losses are incurred as we transform electricity from one type to another, and the UK’s thermal power stations do not use their heat usefully. These inefficiencies will not change unless we drastically alter how our transformers work, which may not be achievable within our current system. What is achievable is changing our approach to how we use the heat that is lost. When power stations utilize this heat, it can significantly improve their overall efficiency. Contrary to the current trend to remove them, gas boilers are one of the most efficient items in our homes – exhibiting 90 – 95% efficiency – because of the way they deal with heat. Improving efficiency in general, and using heat in particular, is a critical component of any effort to tackle climate change

Improving Efficiency

Inefficiencies in our system extend to the way we use the world’s resources. Although scare stories about running out of certain elements within the next few decades can be exaggerated (supply and demand can make previously untenable extraction economically viable), it’s true that resources won’t be around forever. What’s more, many metals like platinum, silver and indium, have super low recycling levels due to how difficult it is to recover them from electronics. Population and wealth growth cannot, or should not, be controlled. But what we can do is create less CO2 per point of GDP, by being more resource efficient and creating less waste. Industry can be part of the solution to this problem by manufacturing low carbon products with increased functionality, by creating processes that use less water and less virgin resources, and by developing more zero carbon processes. In order to achieve this paradigm shift in manufacturing, there is a strong need to reach a point of lower cost and ensure security of supply. No process exists in isolation, and thus we also need complementary technologies across supply chains that can take advantage of any improvements to resource efficiency.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, relate

Our entire economy is driven by consumption and disposal. This is fine – provided we use resources with the utmost efficiency and recover, reuse, remanufacture or recycle the valuable materials in our waste streams. However, we often don’t do this. In a generalised industrial manufacturing process, resources are taken out of the ground, processed into raw materials, manufactured into a product, used for the product lifetime and then thrown away. To avoid materials being tipped into a landfill site, the UK incinerates a lot of its waste. This is an awful use of potentially useful materials, and creates damaging carbon dioxide in the process.

The key to achieving sustainable development and protecting the climate is in realising this resource efficiency in manufacturing. In a push to be more resource efficient, the last few decades have seen increased focus on recycling used products back into raw materials. However, recycling consumes a lot of energy, in some cases almost as much as the generation of completely new raw materials. To make processes more resource efficient, a better approach is to design the possibility to reuse, remanufacture and recondition final products. Recycling should only be an option when the alternative is throwing the product away. 

How Recycling works?

Another key issue is our plastic consumption, which is currently splashed across headlines in the news. As a world, we are also concerned about plastic waste, particularly in the oceans. But if we think about, it’s not the plastic that is the problem. Instead, it’s the fact that it is thrown into the ocean. It all boils down to our social behaviour. The vast majority of plastic used served a useful purpose like extending the expiry date on food products or securely storing our detergents. Besides, plastic packaging actually improves energy efficiency in the logistics system as lightweight saves energy and space. The real problem with plastics lies in how we treat these materials once they have been used. And the real solution to this is improving resource efficiency not only for plastics but for all materials. 

We need to reduce the amount of stuff we use and optimise the efficiency when using it. And when referring to we’, the onus must not be on the individual, but the overall system. This goes right from product development, along the supply chain to the consumer, and then to those tasked with managing the product once it has been used for its initial purpose.

The key things that must be asked by all are:

  • How are they made?
  • How are they used?
  • How are they recovered?
  • How are they reused?

When doing this, the age-old adage of reduce, reuse, recycle’ comes in useful. However, at CPI we add in a fourth R”: relate. By this we mean that all of our resources are in a system, and that all parts of this system interact with and influence each other. If we are aware of this then we can think how actions in one place will influence what happens in another. To bring it back to plastic, if it inadvertently ends up in the oceans then it will impact things that it was never supposed to – like the delicate ecology of flora and fauna found below the shores. However, if it is retained where it should be (i.e. not in the ocean) then it can be reused and recycled. This will decrease the amount of plastic needed, which in turn reduces the amount of CO2 we produce because we will be using less new resources.

Working together to change industry

The increasing population, increasing life span and increasing need for food, shelter and electricity is putting immense stress on a finite system. Common ideas put forward to tackle climate change often focus on carbon capture or initiatives such as banning single use plastic straws. However, if we continue with our current approach to industrial processes, these ideas will make little more than a dent in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. We need to drive forward a movement focusing on improved resource efficiency that spans the entire supply chain of a product or service. This should start at the design process, where reuse, resource flows and waste should always be in mind.

Creating sustainable systems will be an enormous challenge, and is only achievable by facilitating links between government, industry and academia to create new value through application development. This is a fantastic fit for what CPI was set up to do, working collaboratively across technical boundaries to look at engineering problems differently and demonstrate the benefits of reliable and reusable products. If we can close the loop between resources and waste, it will deliver economic, social and environmental benefits for both present and future generations.

Plastic Pollution and Recycling
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