Category Materials and the Environment: Eco-Informed Material Choice

National legislation: standards, directives, taxes, trading tools

"The Council of the European Union, having regard to A, B, and C, act­ing in accordance with procedures P Q, and R of activities X, Y and Z, and whereas… (there follows a list of 27 "whereases") has adopted this directive…"—that was a paraphrase of the way an EU Directive starts. Environmental legislation makes heavy reading. These directives are cast in legal language of such Gothic formality and Baroque intricacy that orga­nizations spring up with the sole purpose of interpreting it. But since much of it impinges, directly or indirectly, on the use of materials, it is important to get the central message.

National legislation, typified by U. S. Environmental Agency Acts or European Union Environmental Directives, takes four broad forms:

■ Setting up standards

■ Voluntary agreements n...


International treaties, protocols, and conventions

It is exceedingly difficult to negotiate enforceable treaties that bind all the nations of the planet to a single course of action; the diversity of culture, national priorities, economic development, and wealth are too great. The best the international community can achieve is an Agreement, Declaration

of Intent, or Protocol[17] that a subset of nations feels able to sign. Such agreements directly influence policy in the nations that sign them. And by defining the high ground they exert moral pressure on both signatories and nonsignatories alike. Two are particularly significant in their influence on government policy on materials:

The Montreal Protocol (1989) is a treaty aimed at reducing the use of substances that deplete the ozone layer of the stratosphere.

Ozone depletion allows more ...


Growing awareness and legislative response

Table 5.1 lists nine documents that have had profound influence on current thinking about the effects of human activity on the environment. The pub­lications span a little less than 50 years. Over this period the approach to pollution and environmental law has evolved through a number of phases,[16] best summarized in the following way:

■ Ignore it: pretend it isn’t there

■ Dilute it: make the smokestack taller or pump it further out to sea

■ Fix it where it is a problem: the "end-of-pipe" approach

■ Prevent it in the first place: the first appearance of design for the environment

■ Sustainable development: life in equilibrium with the environment— the phase we are in now

Current thinking has stimulated national legislation and international protocols and agreements...


The long reach of legislation

The long reach of legislation

5.1 Introduction and synopsis

The prophet Moses, seeking to set standards for the ways in which his peo­ple behaved, created or received (according to your viewpoint) 10 admirably concise commandments. Most start with the words "Thou shalt not…," with simple, easily understood incentives (heaven, hell) to comply. Today, as far as materials and design are concerned, it is Environmental Protection Agencies and European Commissions that issue commandments, or, in their language, directives. The consequences of infringing them are not as Old Testament in their severity as those of the original 10, but if you want to grow your business, compliance becomes a priority.

This involves some obvious steps:

■ Being aware of directives or other binding controls that touch on the materials or p...


Recycling: resurrecting materials

Of the five end-of-life options shown in Figure 4.1, only one meets the essential criteria that:

■ It can return waste materials into the supply chain

■ It can do so at a rate that, potentially, is comparable with that at which the waste is generated

Landfill and combustion fail to meet the first, and refurbishment and reuse, almost always, fail the second. That leaves recycling (see Figure 4.2).

Quantification of the process of material recycling is difficult. Recycling costs energy, and this energy carries its burden of gases. But the recycle energy is generally small compared to the initial embodied energy, mak­ing recycling—when it is possible at all—an energy-efficient proposition...


The problem of packaging

Few applications of materials attract as much criticism as their use in pack­aging. Packaging ends its functional life as soon as the package is opened. It is ephemeral, it is trite, it generates mountains of waste, and most of the time it is unnecessary. Or is it? Think for a moment about the most highly developed form that packaging takes: the way we package our­selves. Clothes provide protection from heat and cold, from sun and rain. Clothes convey information about gender and ethnic and religious back­ground. Uniforms identify membership and status, most obviously in the military and the church, but also in other hierarchical organizations: air­lines, hotels, department stores, even utility companies...


End-of-first-life options

Figure 4.1 introduces the options: landfill, combustion for heat recovery, recycling, reengineering, and reuse.

Landfill. Many of the products we now reject are committed to landfill. Already there is a problem; the land available to "fill" in this way is already, in some European countries, almost full. Recall one of the results discussed in Chapter 2: if the consumption of materials grows by 3% per year, we will use and, if we discard it, throw away as much "stuff" in the next 25 years as in the entire history of industrialization. Landfill is not going to absorb that. Governmental administrations react by charging a landfill tax— currently somewhere near €50 per tonne and rising, seeking to divert waste into the other channels of Figure 4.1...


What determines product life?

The rapid turnover of products we see today is a comparatively recent phe­nomenon. In earlier times, furniture was bought with the idea that it would fill the needs not just of one generation but of several—treatment that, today, is reserved for works of art. A wristwatch, a gold pen—once these were things you used for a lifetime and then passed on to your children. No more. Behind all this is the question of whether the value of a product increases or decreases with age.

A product reaches the end of its life when it’s no longer valued. The cause of death is, frequently, not the obvious one—that the product just stopped working. The life expectancy is the least of the following:1

■ The physical life, meaning the time in which the product breaks down beyond economic repair

■ The func...


A resource?



A resource?

4.1 Introduction and synopsis

When stuff is useful, we show it respect and call it material. When the same stuff ceases to be useful, we lose respect for it and call it waste. Waste is deplorable, and it is much deplored, that from packaging particularly so. Is it inevitable? The short answer is yes; it is a consequence of one of the inescap­able laws of physics—that entropy can only increase. A fuller answer is yes, but. The but has a number of aspects. That is what this chapter is about.

First, a calibration. We (the global we) are consuming materials at an ever-faster rate (Chapter 2). The first owner of a product, at end of life, rejects it as "waste." So waste, too, is generated at an ever-growing rate...


Appendix: software for LCA

The most common uses of life-cycle assessment are for product improve­ment ("How can I make my products greener?"), support of strategic choices ("Is this or that the greener development path?"), benchmarking ("How do our products compare?"), and for communication ("Our products are the greenest"). Most of the software tools designed to help with this task use ISO 14040 to 14043 as a prescription. In doing so they commit themselves to a process of considerable complexity.[10] There is no compulsion to follow this route, and some do not. Some of these are aimed at specific product sectors (vehicle design, building materials, paper making), others at the early stages of product design and these, of necessity, are simpler in their structure. Two, at least, have education as their target...