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Reducing the Impact of Metals

This article was written by Alex Steffen in February 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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 disassembly, 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 upgradeable, 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.


Bright Green Metal is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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