Adapted from World on the Edge by Lester R. Brown. Full book available online at http://www.earth-policy.org/book_bytes/2012/wotech8_ss5
July 12, 2012
In their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart conclude that waste and pollution are to be avoided entirely. “Pollution,” says McDonough, “is a symbol of design failure.”
The challenge is to re-evaluate the materials we consume and the way we manufacture products so as to cut down on waste. Restructuring the transportation system has a huge potential for reducing materials use as light rail and buses replace cars. For example, 60 cars, weighing a total of 110 tons, can be replaced by one 12-ton bus, reducing material use 89 percent.
Savings from replacing a car with a bike are even more impressive. Urban planner Richard Register recounts meeting a bicycle-activist friend wearing a T-shirt that said, “I just lost 3,500 pounds. Ask me how.” When queried, he said he had sold his car. Replacing a 3,500-pound car with a 22-pound bicycle obviously reduces fuel use dramatically, but it also reduces materials use by 99 percent, indirectly saving still more energy.
Cutting the use of virgin raw materials begins with recycling steel, the use of which dwarfs that of all other metals combined. In the United States, virtually all cars are recycled. They are simply too valuable to be left to rust in out-of-the-way junkyards. With the number of cars scrapped now exceeding new cars sold, the U.S. automobile sector actually has a steel surplus that can be used elsewhere in the economy.
Beyond reducing materials use, the energy savings from recycling are huge. Making steel from recycled scrap takes only 26 percent as much energy as that from iron ore. For aluminum, the figure is just 4 percent. Recycled plastic uses only 20 percent as much energy. Recycled paper uses 64 percent as much—and with far fewer chemicals during processing. If the world recycling rates of these basic materials were raised to those already attained in the most efficient economies, world carbon emissions would drop precipitously.
The rates of paper recycling in the top 10 paper-producing countries range widely—from China and Finland on the low end, recycling less than 40 percent of the paper they use, to Japan and Germany on the higher end, each between 70 and 80 percent, and South Korea, which recycles an impressive 91 percent. The United States, the world’s largest paper consumer, is far behind the leaders, but it has raised the share of paper recycled from roughly 20 percent in 1980 to 59 percent in 2009. If every country recycled as much of its paper as South Korea does, the amount of wood pulp used to produce paper worldwide would drop by more than one third.