Environment & the World

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Natural Capitalism, Ch. 4

Filed under: Corporate Sustainability, Reading Group, Waste — amirj @ 7:31 pm

Reading this chapter didn’t spark off any strong reactions or deep thoughts for me. In fact, very few–if any–of the ideas in this chapter (as with others) were new to me, and I wonder if that would have been the case had I read the book closer to its publication date. Either way, I’m curious to hear what your reactions were. The basic premise of this chapter revolved around the notion that we can drastically reduce natural resource extraction and waste production by implementing smart processes that will keep the same materials circulating in the economy.

H&L expand the typical call of “reduce-reuse-recycle” to include repair, upgrading and remanufacturing to improve the efficiency of material flow and use. In their typical style, H&L accompany these ideas with concrete examples: design away scrap, reduce the number of parts, improve quality, and on and on. The jist seems to be that “innovations turn trash into cash” (80).

If this innovation thing plays out according to plan, H&L argue that we will move towards an economy that mimicks a mature “type 3” ecosystem (73). Such an economy will be characterized by heavy recycling of materials, little new material inputs, diversity and many niches. I thought this ecosystem comparison was instructive, and it plays into a larger theme of the book–to emulate efficient natural systems and processes when possible.

One other interesting idea they mentioned was the “take-back” laws in Europe and Japan.
These discussions of materials efficiency and waste have a tendency to focus on the role of industry and corporate leadership, so it was encouraging also to see a fruitful and benevolent role that government can fill. In this case, government does not directly lay down hefty fines and taxes. Instead, it simply transfers the burden of product disposal into the hands of the producers rather than onto public lands and waste collection services. True to the capitalist spirit, this sort of policy has spawned innovation in production, design, materials use, etc. and “the market” then rewarded the companies who best responded to the call. The U.S. already has such a policy in place for certain items like car batteries, perhaps it’s time to expand its scope..?

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1 Comment »

  1. I had a similar reaction to Amir, that there wasn’t all that much to comment on this chapter. That’s not to say that the ideas in this chapter aren’t important; on the contrary, H&L argue that most industrial processes can be re-designed to use significantly less energy and resources. If industry rises to meet their challenges, H&L predict a significant increase in energy efficiency in many heavy industries.

    According to H&L, the key barrier to radically improving resource productivity is not technological but rather institutional. That is, people do not actively seek out energy savings or try to re-design their processes if the status quo is working fine. Incentives for employees to cut energy waste (perhaps by giving them a fraction of the savings) could help overcome this problem. There is also the difficulty of training people to properly use unfamiliar technologies. Just today I was talking to a green building expert in China who told me that up to 60% of the potential energy savings from a green building can be forfeited if the building manager and occupants are not trained to properly operate the building systems. Although this problem can be easily overcome with training, it is nevertheless important to bear in mind when thinking about how quickly new standards and ways of thinking can be adopted.

    Unfortunately, although this chapter presents many case studies of drastically improved efficiency, I wish that H&L had presented more of a “big picture” view. That is, I still lack a good understanding of how the many different energy saving technologies and case studies presented in this chapter fit together and what would be a reasonable estimate for overall potential energy efficiency improvements in industrial production.

    Comment by ckunkel — Friday, February 2, 2007 @ 11:44 am


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