Skip to main content

Material Efficiency, Longevity, and Re-Use

The industries responsible for the majority of industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produce materials used in other products, such as cement, steel, plastic, aluminum, and ceramics (brick and tile). As such, one of the most powerful ways of reducing industrial sector emissions is to reduce demand for these materials, while still delivering equivalent or better final services to businesses and consumers. There are a variety of approaches that can achieve this outcome.

Material Efficiency involves using smarter design to reduce the required amount of material. Many products are engineered to use more material than they need, sometimes to reduce manufacturing or construction complexity. For example, a building may require steel support beams of a variety of strengths, but assembling a building involving two dozen distinct types of steel beams increases construction complexity. Therefore, beams of only two or three types may be used, resulting in the use of larger and more massive beams than would be needed in various places within the building. Better systems to manage complexity can result in material savings. Computer-aided design and simulation software can similarly help to identify places where material can be reshaped to provide equivalent strength with less material use.

Additive manufacturing (3D printing) is a relatively recent technique that enables material efficiency by placing material only where it is needed, and eliminating wasted material that results from subtractive manufacturing techniques (e.g. carving material away from a larger block).

Product Longevity means that products and buildings are designed and built to last longer before they need replacement. The longer the replacement cycle, the greater the material savings. Greater longevity may also mean the product is designed and built with a better quality, which can provide an improved experience for the end user.

Re-Use of Products, Components, or Materials is another technique for reducing the consumption of new materials. When a consumer no longer has use for a product, if that product can be transferred to another consumer who wants it, a new product does not (yet) need to be manufactured, resulting in material savings. If the product is broken, it may not be possible to transfer the products as a whole to a different consumer, but it may be disassembled for parts (e.g. motors, pipes, wires, etc.) that can be used to repair similar products. If even the parts have no value (for example, obsolete electronic devices), materials may be able to be scavenged from the device via recycling.

Manufacturers can make it easier to repair, disassemble, and recycle the materials in products through appropriate deisgn and assembly techniques. For example, electronics may be manufactured with cases that can be opened, and internal components that are not soldered together and can be individually replaced. Buildings can be built to facilitate repurposing of the building to a new use (for instance, converting industrial spaces or warehousing to residences), so the building does not need to be torn down.