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Bright Green Metal
Alex Steffen, 19 Feb 08

I'd love some help thinking something through.

Jer's December post Your Stuff: If It Isn't Grown, It Must Be Mined really got me thinking about metals, mining and sustainability (it's an absolutely classic Worldchanging post, if you haven't already read it). I've been contemplating some of the implications.

Industrial activity emits a bit more than 18% of all the CO2 we spew out each year.

About 56% of that pollution, globally, is from metal production.

What can be done to lower that total? Jer runs through many of the current best practices, from recycling metals to better mining techniques. These are all good, but all have some limitations. Ultimately, as Jer says, "our industrial economy will be made up entirely of recycled and biologically grown material."

In the meantime, we need to take steps towards making that possible. I'm interested in the side of the equation that doesn't involve mining or smelting: changes in the way we design, sell and use metal-based products.

There are a whole array of techniques here: dematerialization, product-service systems, producer take-backs and design for disassemby, land-use changes.

Most of them seem to me to boil down to four essential strategies:

1) avoid the creation of the thing in the first place;

2) reduce the need to use the thing on a regular basis, allowing the product to become a service shared by more people and thus reducing the total number made;

3) design the thing to last a long time and be repairable or upgradable, reducing the need for replacements;

4) design the thing to be as completely recyclable as possible, and require the producer to be responsible for its end-use.

Take the car. The best approach is to design our cities and transportation systems such that people don't have cars at all; the next is to make car-use occasional enough that car-shares can meet people's automotive needs, greatly reducing the number of cars on the road; the next is to manufacture those cars in such a way that they can be easily repaired, maintained and upgraded, greatly extending their lifecycles (hopefully while continuously improving their performance); and the last is to make sure that when that car goes to the junk yard, as much of it as possible ends up in another newly-manufactured car.

So far, so good. But what other post-smelting strategies for reducing the impact of metals might we imagine? What other clever ideas are out there? What timelines are possible, realistic? I'd love your ideas, resources and recommendations.

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Quick suggestion about point 2.

It's not really enough to reduce the need to use something on a regular basis. You must also reduce the demand for something at a particular time period. (eg: staggering rush hour reduces the need for everyone to use their car simultaneously and makes it more feasible to share via flex etc.)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 19 Feb 08

Thanks for the shout-out, Alex. You certainly named most of the big strategies.

Recycling big chunks of metal like cars is pretty easy, and that particular example actually has a high recycling rate already. But industries like electronics, not so much. One of the big barriers to recyclability of metals in electronic devices (like computers, cell phones, etc.) is mixing materials - having pvc insulation wrapped around copper, having copper printed on fiberglass to make circuit boards, having polycarbonate plastic co-molded with aluminum in a case, etc. Keeping all the materials separate, disassemblable, and sortable, helps a lot. Each individual phone only has a a dollar or two of metal in it, at most, so it's got to come apart quick and easy for anyone to bother recovering it.

Also, replacing metals with renewable materials (like sustainably-harvested wood, or fiber-mashes, etc.) will be important. Traditionally industry gets strength and toughness by using ductile metal, where nature gets is by using composites (bone, wood, chitin, horn, etc.) Industry has yet to produce good recyclable composites, but I think it should be a top priority.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 19 Feb 08

A well written article Alex if we really want to effect a world change. But are we forgetting we need to reduce air pollutants all together. (at least the parts we don't want in the air) How about a new building material all together to replace metals that's stronger, easier to manufacture and possibly cheaper, and is made of the stuff that produces global warming in the first place. Why not use carbon as a building material to replace metals and renewable energy to power the manufacturing and processing? The best of all worlds since we already have an overabundance of carbon in the first place we need to put somewhere safe because it's causing a problem. Why not extract from the air and put this solid (and/or composite) into our cars, in our homes, and business structures where it can serve mankind instead of destroying the environement in which we live?

Just my two cents for thought.

Posted by: Robert Grothe on 20 Feb 08


What happened to the notion of phone parts etc. manufactured with shape memory connectors? The idea was that discarded items went into a conveyor at one end and got subjected to a range of phase changing temperatures which caused the connectors to snap open and things to fall apart in a controlled manner. I recall this idea reported in a New Scientist some time ago
... Quite some time ago in fact (2000!)

Robert, nice idea about extracting carbon from the air for building materials (it's what plants do!). Unfortunately the trick is getting the C out of the CO2, at a reasonable rate and efficiency.
Still, it sounds like a job for biomimicry!

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 20 Feb 08

Robert- I've been noodling with the CO2 to carbon fiber idea for a while too, but realized that the precautionary principle made that a very scary idea. My idea was that Monsanto could cook up some kind of air plant or bacteria that ate CO2 and put out carbon fiber as waste, but if something like that could self-replicate, you get a whole new doomsday scenario of too little airborne carbon and an end to life on the planet. Distressing side effect. So caution is warranted (Crichton-if you write that book, I want an acknowledgment).

But back on topic, yes I have a warm place in my heart for Jeremy's metals post also. It's very much in keeping with the Natural Step's oddly phrased first principle of not removing things from the Earth's crust. And I think the most exciting thing we're seeing to deal with that monstrous hybrid problem Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart talk about is the sort of take-back legislation Europe is pushing. If companies are responsible for the mess they make, they'll have a financial obligation to make it a useful mess, designing for disassembly and re-use. And as I recall, this tends to reduce manufacturing costs, safety issues, and waste up front once it's worked out how to do it. That takes R&D, which many companies view as a waste of money. This is why countries like Japan who give companies tax credits for R&D are so ahead of the curve, producing clever innovations like auto hybrids and bizarre service robots.
So I see this transition as very doable, but it will require leadership from industry, government, consumers, and voters to make this happen.


Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 21 Feb 08


Genetically engineered carbon extractors aren't necessarily doomsday harbingers.

I was thinking 'tree houses' (in fact, I think Jack Vance once wrote a tale involving such things)

Heh! Think about an address on the 10th floor of the Chrysler sequoia!

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 21 Feb 08

We humans have been co-opting green life's ability to transform atmospheric carbon into structure, of course, since we left our caves--the original "starter" homes--and erected wooden structures in more convenient locations. It's ingrained in me, as a builder, pun intended, to use only as much wood (or anything) as necessary, and to obtain it through best practices, but maybe the opposite tack has merit--trapping as much atmospheric C02 as possible (at least for a few decades/centuries) in our walls and roofs. This feels a bit Swiftian, and there's much to be much improved in modern wood production, but now that the absence of a ton of C02 is worth something, shouldn't a few tons of C6-H10-O5 be worth something (...more than the current cost per board-foot?) In fact, tree farmers are probably already claiming these credits, aren't they.

Posted by: Nick Novelli on 6 Mar 08



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