Thursday, December 06, 2007

Beyond recycling
[This is my Materials Witness column for the January 2008 issue of Nature Materials.]

It is surely ironic that global warming and environmental degradation now pose serious risks at a time when industry and technology are cleaner than at any other stage of the Industrial Revolution. Admittedly, that may not be globally true, but in principle we can manufacture products and generate energy more efficiently and with less pollution than ever before. So why the problem?

Partly, the answer is obvious: cleaner technologies struggle to keep pace with increased industrial activity as populations and economies grow. And green methodologies are typically costly, so aren’t universally available. But the equation is still more complex than that. For example, cars can be more fuel-efficient, less polluting and cheaper. But consumers who save money on fuel tend to spend it elsewhere: they drive more, say, or they spend it on holiday air flights. And cheap cars mean more cars. There is an ‘environmental rebound effect’ to such savings, counteracting the gains.

This is just one way in which ‘green’ manufacturing – using fewer materials and environmentally friendly processing, recycling wastes, and making products themselves recyclable or biodegradable – may fall short of its goal of making the world cleaner. All of these things are surely valuable, indeed essential, in making economic growth sustainable. But the problem goes beyond how things are made, to the issue of how they are used. We need to look not just at production, but at consumption.

One of the initiatives here is the so-called Product-Service System (PSS): a combination of product design and manufacture with the supply of related consumer services that has the potential to give consumers greater utility while reducing the ecological footprint. That might sound like marketing jargon, but it’s a tangible concept of proven value, enacted for example in formalized car-sharing schemes, leasing of temporary furnished office space, biological pest management services, and polystyrene recycling. It’s not mere philanthropy either: there’s a profit incentive too.

One of the key benefits of a PSS approach is that it might offer a way of simply making less stuff. You don’t need to be an eco-warrior to be shocked at the senseless excesses of current manufacturing. A splendid example of an alternative model is offered by a team in Sweden, who have outlined plans for a baby-pram leasing and remanufacturing scheme (O. Mont et al., J. Cleaner Prod. 14, 1509; 2006). Since baby prams generally last for much longer than they are needed (per child), who not lease one instead of buying it? If the infrastructure exists for repairing minor wear and tear, every customer gets an ‘as new’ product, and no prams end up on the waste tip in a near-pristine state.

Developing countries are often adept at informal schemes like this already: little gets thrown away there. But if implemented all the way from the product design stage, it is much more than recycling. What remains is to break our current cult of ‘product ownership’. Prams seem as good a place to start as any.

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