Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. Stabilizing Climate: An Energy Efficiency Revolution: A New Materials Economy

The production, processing, and disposal of materials in our modern throwaway economy wastes not only materials but energy as well. In nature, one-way linear flows do not survive long. Nor, by extension, can they survive long in the expanding global economy. The throwaway economy that has evolved over the last half-century is an aberration, now itself headed for the junk heap of history.

The potential for sharply reducing materials use was first identified in Germany, initially by Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek in the early 1990s and then by Ernst von Weizsäcker, an environmental leader in the German Bundestag. They argued that modern industrial economies could function very effectively using only one fourth the virgin raw materials prevailing at the time. A few years later, Schmidt-Bleek, who founded the Factor Ten Institute in France, showed that raising resource productivity even more—by a factor of 10—was well within the reach of existing technology and management, given the right policy incentives. 73

In their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart conclude that waste and pollution are to be avoided entirely. “Pollution,” says McDonough, “is a symbol of design failure.” 74

Beyond reducing materials use, the energy savings from recycling are huge. Steel made from recycled scrap takes only 26 percent as much energy as that from iron ore. For aluminum, the figure is just 4 percent. Recycled plastic uses only 20 percent as much energy. Recycled paper uses 64 percent as much—and with far fewer chemicals during processing. If the world recycling rates of these basic materials were raised to those already attained in the most efficient economies, carbon emissions would drop precipitously. 75

Industry, including the production of plastics, fertilizers, steel, cement, and paper, accounts for more than 30 percent of world energy consumption. The petrochemical industry, which produces such things as plastics, fertilizer, and detergents, is the biggest consumer of energy in the manufacturing sector, accounting for about a third of worldwide industrial energy use. Since a large part of industry fossil fuel use is for feedstock to manufacture plastics and other materials, increased recycling can reduce feedstock needs. Worldwide, increasing recycling rates and moving to the most efficient manufacturing systems in use today could easily reduce energy use in the petrochemical industry by 32 percent. 76

The global steel industry, producing over 1.3 billion tons in 2008, accounts for 19 percent of industrial energy use. Efficiency measures, such as adopting the most efficient blast furnace systems in use today and the complete recovery of used steel, could reduce energy use in the steel industry by 23 percent. 77

Reducing materials use begins with recycling steel, the use of which dwarfs that of all other metals combined. Steel use is dominated by three industries—automobile, household appliances, and construction. In the United States, virtually all cars are recycled. They are simply too valuable to be left to rust in out-of-the-way junkyards. The U.S. recycling rate for household appliances is estimated at 90 percent. For steel cans it is 63 percent, and for construction steel the figures are 98 percent for steel beams and girders but only 65 percent for reinforcement steel. Still, the steel discarded each year in various forms is enough to meet the needs of the U.S. automobile industry. 78

Steel recycling started climbing more than a generation ago with the advent of the electric arc furnace, a technology that produces steel from scrap using only one fourth the energy required to produce it from virgin ore. Electric arc furnaces using scrap now account for half or more of steel production in more than 20 countries. A few countries, including Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, use electric arc furnaces exclusively. If three fourths of steel production were to switch to electric arc furnaces using scrap, energy use in the steel industry could be cut by almost 40 percent. 79

The cement industry, turning out 2.9 billion tons in 2008, is another major energy consumer. China, accounting for half of world production, manufactures more cement than the next 20 countries combined, yet it does so with extraordinary inefficiency. If China used the same kiln technologies as Japan, it could reduce its cement production energy use by 45 percent. Worldwide, if all cement producers used the most efficient dry kiln process, energy use in the industry could drop 42 percent. 80

Restructuring the transportation system also has a huge potential for reducing materials use as light rail and buses replace cars. For example, improving urban transit means that one 12-ton bus can easily replace 60 cars weighing 1.5 tons each, or a total of 90 tons, reducing material use 87 percent. And every time someone replaces a car with a bike, material use is reduced 99 percent. 81

The big challenge for cities in saving energy is to recycle as many components of the urban waste flow as possible. Virtually all paper products can now be recycled, including cereal boxes, junk mail, and paper bags in addition to newspapers and magazines. So too can metals, glass, and most plastics. Kitchen and yard waste can be composted to recycle plant nutrients. 

Advanced industrial economies with stable populations, such as those in Europe and Japan, can rely primarily on the stock of materials already in the economy rather than using virgin raw materials. Metals such as steel and aluminum can be used and reused indefinitely. 82

In the United States, the latest State of Garbage in America report shows that 29 percent of garbage is recycled, 7 percent is burned, and 64 percent goes to landfills. Recycling rates among U.S. cities vary from less than 30 percent in some cities to more than 70 percent in San Francisco, the highest in the country. When San Francisco hit 70 percent in 2008, Mayor Gavin Newsom immediately announced a plan to reach 75 percent. Among the largest U.S. cities, recycling rates vary from 34 percent in New York to 55 percent in Chicago and 60 percent in Los Angeles. At the state level, Florida has boldly set a goal of recycling 75 percent of waste by 2020. 83

One of the most effective ways to encourage recycling is to adopt a landfill tax. For example, when the state of New Hampshire adopted a “pay-as-you-throw” program that encourages municipalities to charge residents for each bag of garbage, it dramatically reduced the flow of materials to landfills. In the small town of Lyme, with nearly 2,000 people, adoption of a landfill tax raised the share of garbage recycled from 13 to 52 percent in one year. 84

The recycled material in Lyme, which jumped from 89 tons in 2005 to 334 tons in 2006, included corrugated cardboard, which sold for $90 a ton, mixed paper at $45 a ton, and aluminum at $1,500 a ton. This program simultaneously reduced the town’s landfill fees while generating a cash flow from the sale of recycled material. 85

In addition to measures that encourage recycling, there are those that encourage or mandate the reuse of products such as beverage containers. Finland, for example, has banned the use of one-way soft drink containers. Canada’s east coast province, Prince Edward Island, has adopted a similar ban on all nonrefillable beverage containers. The result in both cases is a sharply reduced flow of garbage to landfills. A refillable glass bottle used over and over requires about 10 percent as much energy per use as an aluminum can that is recycled. Cleaning, sterilizing, and relabeling a used bottle requires little energy compared with recycling cans made from aluminum, which has a melting point of 1,220 degrees Fahrenheit. Banning nonrefillables is a quintuple win option—cutting material use, carbon emissions, air pollution, water pollution, and landfill costs simultaneously. There are also substantial transport fuel savings, since the refillable containers are simply back-hauled by delivery trucks to the original bottling plants or breweries for refilling. 86

San José, California, already diverting 62 percent of its municipal waste from landfills for reuse and recycling, is now focusing on the large flow of trash from construction and demolition sites. This material is trucked to one of two dozen specialist recycling firms in the city. For example, at Premier Recycle up to 300 tons of building debris are delivered each day. This is skillfully separated into recyclable piles of concrete, scrap metal, wood, and plastics. Some materials the company sells, some it gives away, and some it just pays someone to take. 87

Before the program began, only about 100,000 tons per year of San José’s mixed construction and demolition materials were reused or recycled. Now it is nearly 500,000 tons. The scrap metal that is salvaged goes to recycling plants, wood can be converted into gardening mulch or into wood chips for fueling power plants, and concrete can be recycled to build road banks. By deconstructing a building instead of simply demolishing it, most of the material in it can be reused or recycled, thus dramatically reducing energy use and carbon emissions. San José is becoming a model for cities everywhere. 88

Germany and, more recently, Japan are requiring that products such as automobiles, household appliances, and office equipment be designed for easy disassembly and recycling. In May 1998, the Japanese Diet enacted a tough appliance recycling law, one that prohibits discarding household appliances, such as washing machines, TV sets, or air conditioners. With consumers bearing the cost of disassembling appliances in the form of a disposal fee to recycling firms, which can come to $60 for a refrigerator or $35 for a washing machine, there is strong pressure to design appliances so they can be more easily and cheaply disassembled. 89

With computers becoming obsolete every few years as technology advances, the need to quickly disassemble and recycle them is another paramount challenge in building an eco-economy. In Europe, information technology (IT) firms are exploring the reuse of computer components. Because European law requires manufacturers to pay for the collection, disassembly, and recycling of toxic materials in IT equipment, they have begun to focus on how to disassemble everything from computers to cell phones. Finland-based Nokia, for example, has designed a cell phone that will virtually disassemble itself. 90

On the clothing front, Patagonia, an outdoor gear retailer, has launched a garment recycling program beginning with its polyester fiber garments. Working with Teijin, a Japanese firm, Patagonia is taking back and recycling not only the polyester garments it sells but also those sold by its competitors. Patagonia estimates that making a garment from recycled polyester, which is indistinguishable from the initial polyester made from petroleum, uses less than one fourth as much energy. With this success behind it, Patagonia has broadened the program to recycle its cotton tee shirts as well as nylon and wool clothing. 91

Remanufacturing is even more efficient. Within the heavy industry sector, Caterpillar has emerged as a leader. At a plant in Corinth, Mississippi, the company recycles some 17 truckloads of diesel engines a day. These engines, retrieved from Caterpillar’s clients, are disassembled by hand by workers who do not throw away a single component, not even a bolt or screw. Once the engine is disassembled, it is reassembled with all worn parts repaired or replaced. The resulting engine is as good as new. In 2006, Caterpillar’s remanufacturing division was racking up $1 billion a year in sales and growing at 15 percent annually, contributing impressively to the company’s bottom line. 92

Another emerging industry is airliner recycling. Daniel Michaels writes in the Wall Street Journal that Boeing and Airbus, which have been building jetliners in competition for nearly 40 years, are now vying to see who can dismantle planes most efficiently. The first step is to strip the plane of its marketable components, such as engines, landing gear, galley ovens, and hundreds of other items. For a jumbo jet, these key components can collectively sell for up to $4 million. Then comes the final dismantling and recycling of aluminum, copper, plastic, and other materials. The next time around the aluminum may show up in cars, bicycles, or another jetliner. 93

The goal is to recycle 90 percent of the plane, and perhaps one day 95 percent or more. With more than 3,000 airliners already put out to pasture and many more to come, this retired fleet has become the equivalent of an aluminum mine. 94

Another increasingly attractive option for cutting carbon emissions is to discourage energy-intensive but nonessential industries. The gold jewelry, bottled water, and plastic bag industries are prime examples. The annual world production of 2,380 tons of gold, the bulk of it used for jewelry, requires the processing of 500 million tons of ore. For comparison, while 1 ton of steel requires the processing of 2 tons of ore, 1 ton of gold involves processing an almost incomprehensible 200,000 tons of ore. Processing ore for gold consumes a vast amount of energy—and emits as much CO2 as 5.5 million cars. 95

In a world trying to stabilize climate, it is very difficult to justify bottling water (often tap water to begin with), hauling it over long distances, and then selling it for 1,000 times the price of tap water. Although clever marketing, designed to undermine public confidence in the safety and quality of municipal water supplies, has convinced many consumers that bottled water is safer and healthier than water from faucets, a detailed study by the World Wide Fund for Nature could not find any support for this claim. It notes that in the United States and Europe there are more standards regulating the quality of tap water than bottled water. For people in developing countries where water is unsafe, it is far cheaper to boil or filter water than to buy it in bottles. 96

Manufacturing the nearly 28 billion plastic bottles used each year to package water in the United States alone requires the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil. And whereas tap water is delivered through a highly energy-efficient infrastructure, bottled water is hauled by trucks, sometimes over hundreds of miles. Including the energy for hauling water from bottling plants to sales outlets and the energy needed for refrigeration, the U.S. bottled water industry consumes roughly 50 million barrels of oil per year, enough oil to fuel 3 million cars for one year. 97

The good news is that people are beginning to see how wasteful and climate-disruptive this industry is. Mayors of U.S. cities are refusing to spend taxpayer dollars to buy bottled water for their employees at exorbitant prices when high-quality tap water is readily available. Mayor Rocky Anderson of Salt Lake City noted the “total absurdity and irresponsibility, both economic and environmental, of purchasing and using bottled water when we have perfectly good and safe sources of tap water.” 98

 San Francisco Mayor Newsom has banned the use of city funds to purchase bottled water. Other cities following a similar strategy include Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and St. Louis. New York City has launched a $5-million ad campaign to promote its tap water and thus to rid the city of bottled water and the fleets of delivery trucks that tie up traffic. In response to initiatives such as these, U.S. sales of bottled water began to decline in 2008. 99

Like plastic water bottles, throwaway plastic shopping bags are also made from fossil fuels, can take centuries to decompose, and are almost always unnecessary. In addition to local initiatives, several national governments are moving to ban or severely restrict the use of plastic shopping bags, including China, Ireland, Eritrea, Tanzania, and the United Kingdom. 100

In summary, there is a vast worldwide potential for cutting carbon emissions by reducing materials use. This begins with the major metals—steel, aluminum, and copper—where recycling requires only a fraction of the energy needed to produce these metals from virgin ore. It continues with the design of cars, household appliances, and electronic products so they are easily disassembled into their component parts for reuse or recycling. And it includes avoiding unnecessary products.


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