Resource Dieting 2.0

by | May 4, 2011

Or,  you are what you eat?

The discussion on reducing resource consumption along with energy and other consumables continues. We are moving, steadily, from ‘should we’ to ‘how can we’ and ‘how much have we’? This in regards to reduction of impacts for a variety of industries.

Recent Environmental Leader articles tout advancements by an increasing number of major corporations in areas as varied as “commitment to sustainability” to “CO2 from transportation.” In the former, sustainability, Unilever was at the top of a poll of sustainability experts who were asked to identify companies who are “committed to sustainable development, seeing strategic advantage in pursuing policies and actions which go beyond the requirements of environmental and social legislation.” Other companies high on the poll include General Electric and Interface along with Walmart. Do you remember not too long ago when some of these companies, Walmart in particular, would not have been mentioned anywhere near this kind of improvement?

I take special interest in the “seeing strategic advantage in pursuing policies and actions which go beyond the requirements of environmental and social legislation” part. That’s leadership and smart business practice.

In the latter example, CO2 emission, the reference is to Maersk Line and reduction in CO2 from its shipping operations. Only down 5% this last year but they are committed to reducing their CO2 emissions relative to a 2007 baseline (and that’s before the big downturn) by 25 percent by 2020. One solution – a new class of ships that has 16 percent higher capacity but emit 50% less emissions than typical. That means less fuel for an equivalent tonnage transported. That’s one way to reduce the impact per GDP. The Environmental Leader article mentions that they surveyed over 300 customers and found that a large percentage (41%) consider sustainable operation when selecting a carrier and, thus, Maersk, sees this as a competitive advantage.

Less is more – a great philosophy when going on a diet!

Reduced transportation impact help reduce the manufacturing phase impact if the product is heavily dependent on supply chains stretching out a long distance. And that helps move us towards the lower left corner in the use vs manufacturing impact chart.

Another novel example of resource dieting is in this article on Ford Motor Company “turning carpets into auto parts.” The article gives some impressive statistics. It states that “Ford has recycled nearly 4.1 million pounds of carpet into cylinder head covers … [t]he Ford Escape, Fusion, Mustang and F-150 all use EcoLon, a nylon resin made from 100 percent recycled carpet.” This, added to the use of soy foam seat cushions and recycled blue jeans for sound-dampening material, shows the potential of reuse of materials from the waste stream and, ultimately, reducing the consumption of virgin materials for these applications. Talk about dieting!

Looks like used carpet is going to be a hot item on the commodity market with Ford competing with carpet companies, like Interface and Shaw, for used carpet.

Finally, also on the theme of dieting, is the question of automation. Let me explain.

If a company reduces the amount of machinery used in manufacturing and replaces that machinery with manual labor does that help? It is complicated. Clearly there are some products and processes that don’t lend themselves to this “conversation.” But, for assembly tasks, one might make the argument that more human labor (replacing automation) might produce the product using less energy and resources and, ultimately, making the product easier to disassemble at its end of life.

Or not. We need to think about this.

Next posting we’ll discuss the “energy of labor” based on a paper we published some time ago and the recent thesis of another one of my students.

David Dornfeld is the Will C. Hall Family Chair in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Berkeley. He leads the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability (LMAS), and he writes the Green Manufacturing blog.

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