Monday, December 22, 2008

Don’t buy Plastic products

Well I’m becoming even more concerned at the state of ecological thinking. As I previously wrote in Paradoxes in Sustainable Product Design Life Cycle Analysis LCA would prefer a plastic kettle over a Stainless steel kettle despite the disadvantages of plastics that I listed.

However after a little more reading I realise that it isn’t just the difficulty in keeping the plastic uncontaminated with other types of plastic in recycling that is the issue this is rather a guise. The real issue is the chemical makeup or plastic which is not really suitable for continued reuse the chemical bonds break down so that even if the plastics is separated meticulously into the different types, the resulting recycled plastic is likely to not be as mechanically strong it will lose some of its properties in reprocessing. Coupled to this the effect that UV light has on plastics and you will start to realise that a 10 year old television’s plastic casing is no longer very desirable except in a down cycling stage where it may be used to make a kerb stone or turned into a recycling bin.

You may ask what the problem with down cycling is, well its that this plastic should be reused in another T.V. otherwise the new T.V. needs to have more oil extracted from the ground and processed into new virgin plastic. Oil that we are running very short of and extraction and processing of which adds to the environmental problems.

Plastics are in terms of materials fairly new the plastics revolution erupted in the 1960’s with cheaper disposable goods feeding the affluent baby booming generations that prospered after the struggles of their parents throughout the 1940 and 1950’s due to second world war rationing. Plastics enable new organic shapes to be produced in bright vibrant colours, products were cheaper and fashions started to change more frequently. The advent of mass produced plastics mean that more people could move with the times and follow the design movements of the day unlike post war styles such as Art Nouveau and Deco which were restricted to the upper classes.

The problem is that cheaper products mean that people consume more, cheaper products mean that more of them can be bought, more plastic consumed. Product life spans have tumbled, my grandmother owned an electric iron from the early 1960’s it was given to my mother when ours broke and used right up until the mid 1990’s in fact it still works today except the technology has improved so it is no longer used. But modern irons last between 3 and 5 years from my experience, the technology isn’t the reason for this monumental drop in life expectancy, they aren’t made to last any longer. It’s down to cost people want cheap products and don’t get them repaired it is cheaper on the pocket to buy a new one. But not on the environment…..

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Energy efficiency or Governmental intellect deficiency

Why such a focus on the reduction of Carbon Dioxide and CO² as the main environmental agenda. Measurable targets are not the way the environmental agenda should be going because it results in only a small number of areas being focussed upon at the expense of others.

Such is the case in the reduction of carbon dioxide or CO², which will only be replaced by other problematic emissions perhaps worse than CO² for the environment. This is already happening through the strivings to reduce CO², as energy efficiency has become the main buzz word. However its intentions are not as transparent, clean and pure as they may first appear.

Perfectly good usable products are being scrapped because they are supposedly high energy consuming, for example CRT TV’s. Which are being rapidly replaced by LCD screens, which are being driven ahead of their technological improvements by the exaggerated claims that they are energy efficient. However one of the by products in the production of LCD modules is nitrogen trifluoride, an agent that is a formidable greenhouse gas. It’s been calculated that it is 17,000 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide and is increasing at an alarming rate in the atmosphere. See the following on this finding in the guardian and new scientist.

How then can their claims be justified, this premise of energy efficiency is not green technology it is far from it. By buying a LCD TV or monitor you are making a substantial contribution to greenhouse gas far greater than a lifetime of CO² from an inefficient traditional CRT TV set.

The automotive industry has also gone silly over reducing CO² because the government are now taxing it. But they are ignoring and actually contributing to the problems that have been associated with Diesel cars for years (of which sales are now rapidly increasing because of low CO² emissions). Such as the link to the causes of asthma and severe respiratory conditions as well as smog in many cities. See the following for details: America Lung Association

Energy efficiency as a green agenda is no more than a misleading headline, a buzz word that may have well been invented by a tabloid newspaper for all the paradox’s, lies and misleading truths behind it. Energy efficiency was the reason that CFC’s were put into refrigerators’ all those years ago, which significantly contributed to the hole in the ozone layer.

I’d rather efforts were focussed on producing energy from sources that don’t produce CO², then it wouldn’t matter really how much energy you used. The problem with this solution is that it requires industry and the government to do something themselves, other than finding more ways to extort money out of their citizens through ridiculous claims and guilt trips about the environment.

The reason energy efficiency is chosen as a focus is because it pays. People go and buy new products they don’t need in order to do their bit, replacing perfectly good products that are then sent to landfill. This attitude only helps the greedy industrialists become richer and the treasury coffers swell due too CO² taxes. Of course government could argue that it is also creating jobs when really it only employs a few shop assistants and a couple of overworked civil servants. As these new energy efficient products are most probably manufactured in China, in an extremely energy inefficient factory, with serious working practise violations and suspect waste disposal into the local environment. But let’s just keep those wheels of industry turning and not ask those difficult questions hey.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Paradoxes in Sustainable Product Design

LCA is the commonly used tool in industry to assess products that are already designed and often in production. It highlights areas where the product has a high environmental impact based on categories such as extration of raw materials, processing, transportation, energy in use and end of life.

However is LCA just confirming what the producers want confirmed, allowing manufacturers to carry on with unsustainable practise and a seemingly clean concience because they have consulted LCA software. Also what is the purpose of analysing something when its already in or about to enter production, surely the damage has been done or development time already been wasted.

Consider this plastic would be the preferable material over stainless steel for manufacturing a kettle if LCA is consulted for the following reasons:
  1. Plastic is a better insulator than Stainless Steel so the water would retain heat for longer.

  2. Plastic has a lower density than Stainless Steel meaning that the product would be lighter and therefore use less fuel to transport

  3. Less energy would be used in production due to less operations and a more maleable/mouldable material.

However here are reasons why I consider that a stainless steel kettle would be prefered

  1. Metal is far easier and is therefore more likely to be recycled than plastic. In fact the inherent value of stainless steel will make it very likely that the metal will be recycled to a high quality allowing for reuse in a quality product and with a high percentage of metal return.

  2. A stainless steel kettle generally has a timeless classic style which combined with additional durability would give the product a much longer lifespan that its plastic equivalent. Perhaps even three or more times, when I was a child my family had a classic Russell Hobbs K12 kettle for over 15 years. It was servicable as so had the element and switch replaced once during this period. Therefore if you factor in the consumer attachement to a more aesthetic stainless steel kettle you can compare it to the production of a least two plastic equivalents if not more in its lifetime.

The problem here is that LCA doesn't work on the basis of the lifecycle of the product in durability or the material and so doesn't account for the fact that the steel could be recycled many times with little loss in quality or strength.

So now some reasons why plastics shouldn't be used:

  1. Plastics leach chemicals and small particles into water and over time this will increase encouraged by the heat and UV degradation of the plastic. Leading tio health concerns for the user in the long term.

  2. Fumes produced in the processing of plastics and the injection moulding process are not only harmful to the environment but a severe concern for the workers especially in less developed countries with questionable health and safety measures and no accountability. Workers health could suffer in the long term with severe respiratory and skin complaints
  3. Also why should the water remain hotter for longer its a kettle not a boiler, surely this only encourages unsustainable behaviour, the user should be encouraged to only boil what is needed.

So much for LCA it is in my view significantly flawed, and so you might ask how does this example of the kettle benefit the manufacturer. Well plastic is very cheap, products can be mass produced cheaply, with limited life-cycles, which will ensure the greatest revenue in the long term especially if a customer buys 2 0r 3 plastic kettles for every stainless steel kettle they may have previously bought. The disposable society we live in wasn't built on stainless steel kettles but with advent of thermoplastics in the early 1960's.

One thought to finish this rant what is plastic made from oil we really could do with reducing our dependance on that as yes it is used in the extraction and processing of Iron ore into steel but if this is recycled efficiently it will cut out the extraction stage next time round making for a much more efficiently produced product.