Saturday, March 26, 2011

Going on a resource diet

Or, less is more.

In a posting on February 17th of this year I was building an argument to try to place products in a space defined by the use vs make consumption or impact. This would allow us to consider products to consume that require both fewer resources to produce as well as fewer to consumer. And I argued that such products were closer to sustainable than others. Except for including it in the figure showing the contribution to lifetime impact in that posting,  I did leave out the "post consumer" phase in the discussion. That should be an important consideration also.

We could add that easily. If you are a good visual thinker, you could imagine a third axis on the graph I showed in the February 17th posting representing End of Life Consumption or Impact. Then, by extension of the argument, products would fall into a "high" or "low" end of life impact based on whether they were essentially fully recyclable (or the materials were fully recovered, and extra points for avoiding downcycling) or not, respectively.

Again, living in the lower left quadrant (or cubic space if a three dimensional plot) is most desirable. Recall the Ricoh Comet circle diagram introduced early on in this blog (see the posting of September 21, 2009). In the circle, the forward (counterclockwise loop) is from materials manufacture through parts manufacture, product manufacturing, through sales to delivery and use. The reverse (clockwise loop at the bottom) is after the consumer is done with the product back through recycling, recovery, and return to material supply chain.

So, relative to the Comet circle, the "top half" is the manufacturing phase and the "bottom half" is the use phase. And, the shortest loops of the circle the extend from the consumer and back to the consumer are the most sustainable in the use phase.

So, what about the material diet?

In a follow-on posting to the use vs make chart and discussion I gave an example of Ditto hangers, made from post consumer recycled paper and cardboard fiber, as a product in the lower left hand corner of the chart. I don't know all the details about resources used to produce the hangers but I'm finding out.

The re-use of material reduces our appetite for new materials and, essentially, amortizes the initial environmental cost and impact of the first production of the material.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor on March 15th discusses Pepsi's  plan to move to totally "plant based PET" bottle for packaging their beverage instead of the current oil-based plastic. They plan to start introducing this in 2012 in some markets and it could eventually result in "a switch of billions of bottles sold each year. Of Pepsi's 19 biggest brands, those that generate more than $1 billion in revenue, 11 are beverage brands that use PET." According to the article the bottle will be made from "switch grass, pine bark, corn husks and other materials. Ultimately, Pepsi plans to also use orange peels, oat hulls, potato scraps and other leftovers from its food business. One unique feature is that the input to the material is waste from other uses and not plant bio-matter grown specially for this purpose.

Again, as with the hangers, we'll need to see how much energy and resources go into converting the salad listed above into the bottle and, there is no mention of whether or not this particular bottle will be classified as compostable or recyclable.

Another candidate for the lower left corner?!

Now for something completely different (and apologies to Monty Python for borrowing the phrase!) but on the same subject.  My friend at Cambridge University, Julian Allwood, just sent me the most recent white paper published from a project titled "WellMet 2050" which is, according to the website "investigating novel methods of meeting global carbon emissions targets for steel and aluminium that go beyond improving process efficiency by reconsidering the entire product lifecycle." This recent white paper is titled "Going on a metal diet" (and is available to download).

"Going on a metal diet" discusses means "to use less liquid metal to deliver the same services in order to save energy and carbon." I have referred to Professor Allwood's research on this in past postings. He has pointed out in several publications that just trying to recycle metals more efficiently (or more completely) will never allow us to reach the goals of energy and carbon reduction proposed by many governmental agencies and organizations.

In this latest white paper from WellMet, they report on two key strategies for reducing our intake of liquid metal: "designing products that use less metal and improving the ‘yield ratio’ of metals manufacturing." In this research they used five detailed case studies to examine metal intensive product design. These included: universal beams in construction, food cans, car bodies, reinforcing bars and deep sea oil and gas pipeline.  All real products and large consumers of metal.

The research report states that "in each case, we found we could deliver the same final service with less metal, by pursuing one of four strategies: avoiding over-specification; selecting the best materials; optimising whole products; optimising individual components."

This is the recipe for eating well while on a diet - ala metals. Let's look closer:
- avoid overeating (that is use the correct size, thickness, strength of metal needed - not more; this usually relies on quality control to insure materials meet specifications; we've discussed this before. Recall the example of tightened tolerances on aerospace components saving weight?)
- choose the right food to eat (or, selecting the right materials; use analysis to get the right ratio of strength to weight, or stiffness to weight, etc. Using software like Granta designs material selection software can help.
- consider the whole meal and its overall balance of ingredients (or, optimizing whole product or system of production; we've covered this a lot in the past - thinking of the entire product life cycle)
- read the label on each food item in your meal and choose carefully (or optimize the individual components; recall the "Google earth" view of manufacturing? And we talked there about technology wedges to aid in this optimization. We identified a number of levels that can be analyzed or optimized and improvements can be applied to).

It all makes sense to me. This strategy can be applied to a broad range of materials - not just metals. These can act as the criteria for the creating the technology wedges that we propose to move our products and systems in the green direction.

Happy dieting!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Learning from big events

Or avoiding an "environmental tsunami"

As I am writing this posting the world is watching the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Most concerning is the situation developing around some of the nuclear power centers in Japan where the potential of a disaster of  Chernobylian proportions is a real possibility.

Without trying to assess "who did or did not do what and what they should or should not have anticipated," situations like this humble us (specially engineers and scientists) as to our abilities to "do the right thing" when designing and implementing technological solutions to aid society (and run our businesses).

My wife, with a solid letters and arts education from a top school (and hence a member of that great mass of folks who can pose questions that make  make engineers look down at their shoes and mutter "ohh…uumm…well") often observes these events and makes a very perceptive comment. When an "even" occurs that is based on a situation that was never expected to occur, engineering experts are interviewed about this and the first response is "wow, we never expected that to happen."  She points to the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco bay area in 1989 and the collapse of a portion of the bay bridge. This was exactly what the experts said. This is a true statement but, to many folks, an unsettling response. We should be able to do better. And next time the designs are improved of course.

But, there always seem to be more things that are not anticipated.

The world is full of "things we don't expect to happen." The Japanese earthquake was apparently a once in a millennium event with little or no evidence in history of a prior occurrence. One geologist interviewed on NPR said that we might have to look further back to anticipate potential large earthquakes in the future - for example, in California.

So, this makes us think (more) about a range of future concerns.

A faculty member in the Goldman School of Public Policy here at UC-Berkeley, David Kirp, has just published a book titled "Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future"  (see Amazon). Although this book deals with education and not nuclear energy or sustainability, one of the author's comments on page xiii of the preface of the book (which was also quoted on NPR the other morning) rang true to me for a much broader discussion on sustainability and green manufacturing.

Professor Kirp wrote, relative to educational systems,  "the aim is to make widely available what all parents want for their children, to treat every youngster as well as we'd want our own children to be treated. That's the golden rule, and it's sound ethics, whatever your ideology. What's more, it's good for kids and a solid investment for the rest of us." Last time I checked, the golden rule concept is part of most major religious beliefs.

Doesn't this sum up our discussions on sustainability perfectly? Let's do for everyone else what we'd like to see those we love the most experience. Start with children and work our way up the humanity ladder - next to parents, then extended families, then neighbors, and villages, and countries, regions, etc.

I started this blog some time ago asking the question "why green manufacturing?" And I was very careful to indicate all the reasons this is a good idea for both "believers" and "non-believers" alike - meaning those convinced global warming is a fact or a real threat and those not sure about it or certain it is all hype. And one of the reasons for greening was to reduce risk. That includes natural risks. Does your supply chain pass near to Sendai?

But now we look at Japan.

No one saw this coming. And no one can tell for sure (meaning 100% certainty) if there is global warming or if it is caused by man made activity or just a periodic fluctuation in the earth's climate.

Do we really want to take that chance with our children, or, more likely grand and great-grand children? How do you do the cost-benefit analysis on that?

In the November 17th 2010 posting I referred to a discussion on a smart phone app that would send out hypothetical "text messages from the future." The example message then referred to a need to wear respirators due to past build up of CO2 emissions.

A more current message from the future might read "Please make sure not to build backup power generators for nuclear power stations in low areas.  Mind the tsunami!"

We owe ourselves a more proactive view of the future, and how to insure it is unspoiled for our descendants. It starts with individual commitments, like green manufacturing and sustainable production, whatever your beliefs. And these commitments and the actions arising from them influence our associates, then our companies, then our country and our world.

Let's not get hit by an unexpected "environmental tsunami" which we could have had an effect on - by designing, producing and reusing products more sustainably

In the next posting we'll continue on this path of looking for more technology wedges, and ways to assess their impact, for enabling green manufacturing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Moving to the lower left corner

Achieving sustainable consumption and manufacturing

In the last posting we were discussing the "space" that manufacturing and use impacts occupy depending upon the product. I presented a graphic that outlined four areas of that space - from low manufacturing and use impact (lower left corner) to high impacts for both (upper right corner). The lower left corner was the location of products that could be considered more sustainable both from the production and use aspects. Hence the title of this posting.

The other two "high-low" quadrants then represented products where we need either to increase the efficiency of the product (with respect to design or using manufacturing leveraging) or we need to improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process relative to use and manufacturing phases, respectively.

So the obvious question is - what kind of product typifies the "low-low" quadrant?

One great example is hangers!

OK, I know some of you will snort that this is a typical academic example and does not relate to "real products" - like automobiles, toaster ovens or laptops, etc. I accept the criticism. But wait until you hear the argument (and see the example I've in mind) before totally disregarding this argument.

First, the set up.

Is there any more annoying "consumer product" than the wire hanger? They are absolutely necessary for keeping clothing stored and orderly (either in the store or in your closet or, it turns out, in shipping garments to the store) but hard to get rid of  responsibly. They tangle easily, and recyclers hate them or have severe restrictions on their recycling since they are not easy to process, they are hard to store and transport and are usually coated with something.

Most say the best way to deal with hangers is to reuse them. What do you do with old hangers? They accumulate faster than you can use them!

I looked on line for help. According to the Montegomery County MD waste services,  for wire hangers, they suggest (and the parenthetical comments are my observations!):

"Reuse- The best "disposal" method for wire hangers is reuse! Check with your local dry cleaners to see whether they accept wire hangers -- many do! (if you look behind the laundry at the end of the day you may see them in the trash; that's what I observed;  it is a customer service but it is not recycling)

Recycling - Curbside blue bin program; Sorry, we do not accept wire hangers in our curbside blue bin program

Curbside scrap metal collection program- If you have a scrap metal collection scheduled for large metal items, you may add your hangers to the pile. We do not schedule scrap metal collections for hangers alone. (Next time you are throwing away the scrap steel in your backyard…toss the hangers in!)

Solid Waste Processing Facility and Transfer Station; We accept hangers in the scrap metal drop-off. Follow the signs to the Recycling area. (OK, this is better)

Trash- You may put wire hangers into your regular household trash." (but not recycling).

Enter Ditto hangers. They have developed a product for commercial and residential use - the paper hanger! The website says "The Ditto 10-Pack line is smart, hip and stylish, 100% non-toxic and recyclable anywhere! Strong and long lasting, the Ditto Paper Hanger can hold over 20 lbs, strong enough to hold the heaviest leather jacket or winter coat. Made with 100% tree-free recycled paper the Ditto Paper Hangers can fit twice the amount of clothing in the same closet space!" They are designed to replace the wire hangers (see issues with them above) or the polystyrene hangers that you bring home from the store (and that the clothing was shipped to the store in) and then can't recycle.

Now the sustainable part. Besides making the hangers from 100% recycled paper, they have a strategy for easy reuse or recycle of the hangers. Their website shows the traditional life cycle of a hanger (ending up in a landfill - apparently an estimated 8 billion hangers end up in landfills every year - that's 21 million a day!).

Ditto Hangers include a cartoon in their website under the "environment" tab that shows their product in use in a commercial setting with easy customer reuse/recycling.

This is compared to the traditional cycle of clothing shipped from manufacturer on hanger, item removed from shipping hanger and put on display hanger, and both landfilled when the product is sold. In the new system the "product is shipped and displayed on Ditto Hangers. Hangers can go home with customer for further branding power or can be recycled at the store with cardboard boxes." And, since it is cardboard, the customer can recycle it with their normal cardboard recycling.

The impact? Using 1 ton of Ditto hangers vs. polystyrene hangs saves, according to the website, 2,418 lbs of carbon, 17.44 barrels of oil (yes, plastic is made from oil!), and 121,129,281 BTU of energy.

To me, that puts this product squarely in the lower left corner.

But, what about more complex products? A recent Environmental Leader article (March 1, 2011) discusses the efforts of some major manufacturers and retailers in the apparel and footwear business working to inform customers of the environmental impact of their products. Called the "Apparel Index" this is designed to drive improvements in the whole supply chain as well as inform.

The goals include (from the article): improving water-use efficiency and/or re-use in cultivation or production of raw materials (e.g. cotton) and product manufacturing; Minimizing the volume and chemical constituents of water discharges associated with manufacturing; reducing the need for water use in garment care by challenging conventional washing practices and developing alternative approaches; minimizing direct and embedded energy use; creating products that mitigate other carbon impacts in society (such as reducing the need for heating and air conditioning systems); committing to minimizing operational, supply chain and end-of-life waste; developing effective uses for textile waste; and reducing the use of chemicals and potentially hazardous materials which pose health or environmental risks, both in cultivation and manufacturing.

They hope to substantially alter the "business as usual" model and the potential costs, impacts, and damage it can cause.

I don't have any specific examples of products but one of the prime drivers here, Nike, has its Environmental Apparel Design Tool for assisting its designers in making the right choices at the product design stage. And, this will move Nike products in the direction of the lower left corner of the diagram.

We will look at some additional efforts to drive products to the lower left corner including some major initiatives from US government agencies in the future.

And, finally, something you can do to help with the battle to get more understanding of global warming!

This was brought to my attention by one of my lab researchers, Dr. Barbara Linke.  A new study has proved that "Being in a warm room can make the idea of global warming seem more likely." A study done by a Business school professor and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (described here) showed, among other things, that if people were asked about their impressions of global warming and its impacts when they were in a "heated cubicle", they were more likely to believe in global warming. The article also notes that "In another experiment, the researchers found that participants who were led to experience thirst by eating pretzels were more likely to agree that desertification and drought will increasingly threaten people’s ability to find fresh drinking water." The study comments that the results validate the finding that "people will judge a certain condition of the world as more likely if it fits with what they are experiencing at that moment."

What can I say? Eat your pretzels in a cool room if you want to avoid worrying about global warming!