A Cyclical Materials Economy: What goes around comes around...or does it?
The growing attention to the concepts of industrial ecology, closed loop
systems and a "recycling society," as appealing as they are, raises a
fundamental pragmatic question: Is it possible to develop and maintain an
advanced industrial society? Is there enough stuff in circulation to do the
It's a question that deserves a reality check, based in the actual flows of
material in society. And it's not just a theoretical question with a "yes or
no" answer; it may be a guidance system question, because it offers
strategic direction, and perhaps new economic opportunities, depending on
how your firm or community answers it.
The quick answer is probably yes, given the striking material inefficiency
of industrial society (only 7% of
physical US throughput winds up as product, and only 1.4% is still product
after six months), and the relatively low recovery rates for most secondary
materials--but only with some dramatic changes in our materials economy.
And the answer must be yes, given the biological drivers. According to
Swedish physicist John Holmberg, the anthropogenic flows of many metals (the
result of human activity like mining and fossil fuels) in the biosphere now
dwarf the natural flows (from weathering of rock and volcanic activity).
While the anthropogenic- to-natural flow ratio is less than 5% for aluminum
(the most abundant metal in the earth's crust), and about 2% for silicon,
the ratio for iron is 140%, cadmium 390%, mercury 650%, lead, 1200%, silver
2200%, copper 2400%. So maximizing recycling of these metals is only part
of the story. In the long run, we also need to gradually reduce the flows of
these materials into the biosphere, or we risk toxic impacts on living
systems, which are simply not adapted to deal with such flows.
Fortunately there are strategies that can reduce the environmental burden
from this imbalance of flows, meet societal needs, and provide new business
opportunities for those willing to grasp them, by reducing throughput while
enhancing utility and profitability.
This represents a fundamental strategic challenge to the mining industry.
Its present identity is extracting ores from the earth's crust and refining
metals out of those ores. But for many commodities, the "ores" represented
by urban and industrial waste streams are significantly richer than ores
being dug from the earth. (Donald Rogich of the US Bureau of Mines reports a
clear decline in the primary metals industry since the 1960s, "with a
concurrent increase in metals obtained from secondary sources.")
Sell Function Instead Of Product
Amory Lovins, who coined the term "negawatts," observes that when a man goes
to a hardware store to buy a drill, its not because he "needs" a drill; he
needs a hole. Figure out how to sell him the hole instead of the drill--or
the function the hole was to serve--and you've increased both utility and
profitability, while reducing throughput. (Actually, the hole isn't what he
needs either, but that's a longer story...)
Product Life Extension & Product Stewardship
It may run against the grain of several decades of the throwaway society,
but many companies are finding a growing niche for durable
products--products that last a long time, that are repairable or upgradable,
that can be refurbished or remanufactured. This is old news for the auto
parts industry; driven by the European "take-back" regulations, it will
become new news for many other sectors. One advantage: longer product living
Design For Recyclability
This aspect of Design for Environment shifts recycling concerns (ironically,
all too often an "end of pipe"
solution) to the very front end of the design process, with principles like:
use materials that are easily
(and economically) recyclable; avoid coatings, laminates, and other material
combinations that reduce
recyclability; make the product easy to disassemble into pure material
Buckminster Fuller coined this word to embody his design principle of "doing
more with less" --"doing so much more given work with so much less pounds of
materials, ergs of energy and seconds of time per given function as to
occasion ever newer, lighter and stronger metallic alloys, chemicals and
electronics." We see this impact most dramatically in computers and
communications, but it is a feature of progress in industries as diverse as
automobiles and outdoor clothing as well.
Fuller observed in Fortune magazine 56 years ago that tonnage no longer
represented prosperity. Today we are finally figuring out that the measure
of wealth is no longer throughput of materials and energy through company or
country, but the benefit generated per unit of throughput. And with that
realization, a prosperous cyclic society becomes possible.
(c) 1996 Gil Friend and Associates. All rights reserved.
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate. 
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Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is president of Gil
Friend and Associates, a consulting group specializing in strategic
environmental management, including Integrated EcoAuditing, Industrial
Ecology and ecological re-engineering.
Gil Friend * Tel: 1-510-548-7904
Gil Friend & Associates * Fax: 1-510-849-2341
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Berkeley CA 94704 * http://www.eco-ops.com/eco-ops
"Nature's ecosystems have 3.5 billion years experience in evolving
efficient, complex, adaptive, resilient systems.
Why should companies reinvent the wheel, when the R&D has already been