Sustainability

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

Some people may lay more emphasis on aspects like:
  • healthy people and futures
  • regeneration of land and communities
  • education, food and water for all
  • agriculture, farming and Fair Trade policies
  • climate change and energy resources,
  • building, housing , construction and infrastructures
  • waste minimisation
  • the environmental impact and performance of business

The existence and supply of water, energy, paper, petrol, food, travel, peace, health and wellbeing just to mention a few things, is very much taken for granted especially by those of us living in developed countries.

But how many of us stop and think of the consequences if they were no longer available?

The sad fact is that this statement could become reality in the next 50 years if we do not act now to prevent this "out of stock situation".

As a result of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, governments worldwide are having to face the stark reality that economic development and growth has had a high a price tag to pay - over consumption of energy and environmental destruction.

Two major problems in respect of this are:
  • The depletion of natural resources
  • The end of life disposal of consumer goods

As a result of the Rio Earth Summit, the governments of the United Nations around the world have signed up to Agenda 21 to stop this destruction of our natural environment and protect it from human impact.

It is widely acknowledged and accepted that our current levels of living, consuming and producing are unsustainable and so we all must make an effort to think, live and act differently. It is never too soon to start!

The need for life-cycle thinking

We need to think of the whole of the life-cycle of a product, because products may have totally different environmental impacts during different stages of their cycle. For example, some materials may have an adverse environmental consequence when extracted or processed, but be relatively benign in use and easy to recycle. Aluminium is such a material. On the other hand, a printer or battery-powered product will create the bulk of its environmental impact during use, because of the consumption of consumables.

The product life cycle is shown in five distinct phases, all of which interact with the environment. For most products, the period of use is far longer than the other periods, and there may also be periods of storage and non-use between the stages shown. Usually, but not always, these stages will be environmentally benign.

It also shows, as feedback loops, the potential for recycling, remanufacturing, and reuse. It is worth making the obvious point that reuse is the strategy that potentially has the lowest environmental impact, merely based on the fact that this involves fewer processes, and each stage absorbs energy and has an environmental impact.

The graph below shows a life-cycle assessment of a washing machine, in terms of the energy and water used, of the contribution to pollution of air and water, and of solid waste. As you might expect, most of the environmental impact is during use. However, you might have predicted that most of the solid waste impact would be the two stages of delivery (when the packaging is removed and disposed of) and eventual end-of-life disposal. Whilst the solid waste levels are indeed significantly higher than other contributors at these stages, in fact they total less than 15% of the solid waste produced by the washing machine. Strange? Just think of the many packets of washing powder and other consumables that are thrown out during the machine’s life. This illustrates how careful we must be to consider every aspect of use.

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