Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Book review – Materials and Sustainability

Here is a pre-print version of my book review, published online in Journal of Industrial Ecology, available at

Book review
Rankin, W. J. 2011. Minerals, Metals and Sustainability: Meeting Future Material Needs. Collingwood, Australia: CSIRO publishing. ISBN 9780643097261. 440 pages.
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Allwood, J.M., Cullen, J.M., Carruth M.A, Cooper D.R, McBrien, M., Milford, R.L. Moynihan, M.C., Patel, A.C.H. 2012. Sustainable Materials - with Both Eyes Open: Future Buildings, Vehicles, Products and Equipment - Made Efficiently and Made with Less New Material. Cambridge: UIT.  ISBN 9781906860059. 384 pages.
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J.C. van Weenen (1990) used Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, as a metaphor to examine the materials life cycle. His focus was on waste prevention, a subject that has recently been recast into the more comprehensive notion of “material efficiency,” which aims to minimize negative sustainability impacts of materials over the life cycle. We are long overdue for literature on material efficiency to complement the widely popular and related body of work on energy efficiency. Members of the academic community have recently elaborated a vision of material efficiency, including engineering discussions on reducing material demand (Allwood et al. 2011) and economic analysis on market incentives (Söderholm and Tilton 2012). The two books reviewed aim to bring the idea of material efficiency from a research dialogue to a broader audience including, possibly, to the general population.
Both books begin by confirming society’s need for materials, such as plastics, concrete and metals, and by establishing continued need and growth of materials use into the future. Both look in detail at types of mineral ores and at primary materials production. Both follow industrial materials through their loops and life-cycles. Both are technical reports with an abundance of flow diagrams, tables and graphs. Both ultimately call for behavioral change and social solutions.
I read the Rankin book first and was pleased to see the coverage of big sustainability concepts, such as cleaner production, The Natural Step framework, and the IPAT equation that relates pollution intensity to population, affluence and technology. The author provides a survey of environmental challenges confronting the minerals industry. Other chapters examine mineral economics, mine development, mineral extraction and processing, and primary material production. Curiously, I was comforted by this volume, but then realized that it was a feeling of nostalgia: Rankin revisits my engineering education (geology, mine shaft engineering, mineral beneficiation, tailings dam design, and ternary phase diagrams), and then reviews much of the environmental thinking that underpins industrial ecology and materials flow analysis, that I became familiar with in the 1990’s. The book also updates this knowledge … to about 2005.
Rankin relies heavily on mining industry proceedings, with selected illustrations from the sustainability literature, and a curious Australian bias (including detailed metallurgical process flow diagrams from places like Cadjebut, Western Australia). It is fact-laden, written clearly and concisely with clean line-diagrams. It is also predictable and reminiscent of previous work in mineral economics (e.g., Tilton 2003) and extractive metallurgy (e.g., Gilchrist 1989).  Published out of CSIRO, Australia’s public research agency, where Rankin was chief scientist of the minerals division, the tone and messages are consistent with industry viewpoints and established government perspectives on balancing “economic, environmental and social sustainability of the industry... [with] technologies for tomorrow’s challenges” (CSIRO 2012). He does eventually note that the minerals sector has been “adopting the language of sustainability … [but is as] … yet to take the next major steps” (p. 380). But the book also fails to take us to those steps. The chapter on water, perhaps the weakest given its brevity and simplicity, defines terms and presents issues, yet (surprisingly given that the author is in such a dry country) suggests no solutions on water innovation. The book’s penultimate chapter “Towards zero waste” is an engineer’s list of technical options reminiscent of pollution prevention handbooks from the 1990’s, including the requisite diagram on the Kalundborg industrial metabolism.
Minerals, Metals and Sustainability is valuable to students of mining, minerals and metals as a friendly introduction to sustainability, providing a broad interdisciplinary survey of environmental and industrial ecology concepts. But this book neither guides nor innovates. Rankin concludes by reviving a ten-year old framework (Young et al. 2001) that has found on-going traction within the metals industry (the International Council on Mining and Metals, in particular) as a framework for material efficiency. The new analysis suggested, however, provides little inspiration other than to request improved industrial efficiencies, better use of materials, and a plea for “design for the environment.” Fortunately, these very themes are not only explored but elaborated in charming detail by the other book reviewed here.
The WellMet2050 team from the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, has consolidated several years of work into an easy-reading book that is both valuable and entertaining. It is also beautifully organized with luscious graphics including, most notably, numerous brilliant Sankey diagrams. The associated website provides extra materials, such as readers’ questions and with answers and downloads of the book free-of-charge. Music, art and beer drinking also find roles in the book’s narrative.
In the introductory section the authors outline the types, use, energy, emissions and economics of industrial materials, and substantiate their focus on steel and aluminum as cornerstones of our buildings, vehicles, machinery and other goods. The second section “with one eye open” takes us methodically to their “devastating” (p. 162) finding that heavy industry is already tremendously efficient and that future intensity improvements in energy and emissions are limited. Part three opens “both eyes” to get to the heart of material efficiency and demand reduction. Their vision is progressively developed with colorful examples that move the reader through various strategies. The strategy of intensity of material use is illustrated showing how rail tracks could be used four times over through smarter design.  Their nuanced argument about product replacement vs. durability for longer life products is neatly supported by an example showing that most refrigerators are condemned for lack of pennies worth of lubricant. Finally, in the last chapters, the Allwood et al. provide context and return to assess their findings against targets for emissions reductions. They provide implementable actions available to business, policy and individuals, such as preserving and updating material composition information over the product life cycle. 
On the way through this book, the authors happily opine on the fruitlessness of plastic bag policies, the inherent weaknesses of life cycle assessment, the origins of Sankey diagrams, and the waste of engineering overdesign. One gem is their deconstruction of the industrial myth that it takes only 5% the energy to recycle aluminum vs. producing new metal from ore.
I did manage to cultivate some fuss with this book. One is the intentionally narrow focus of analysis on carbon dioxide. This not only ignores the longer list of usual greenhouse gas villains (more than one-third of direct emissions from primary aluminum production are perfluorocarbon compounds (IAI 2012)), but also the broader suite of sustainability issues. A second qualm is more stylistic: the book is relentlessly optimistic yet the pessimist in me kept seeing clear and convincing demonstrations that hard social changes are needed. The authors carefully understate the message that “behaviour options appear to be more powerful than those related to technology” (p. 281). They quietly and weakly suggest to industry that “we must not build any new production facilities” for primary aluminum and steel (p. 283) because primary capacity is already sufficient if their suggestions for material efficiency are implemented.
Why I will use this book by Allwood and colleagues is certainly for their elegant visual communication of materials flows and metrics of energy and carbon that supports their vision.  Continual improvement of industry will not be sufficient to achieve any measure of sustainability, and therefore society (supported by public policy) will need to adjust its patterns of behavior and expectations of prosperity. I am more comfortable in presenting these messages somewhat veiled within an engineering discussion. The Cambridge team poses and addresses their question of significant emissions reductions by 2050, and ultimately presents options for material efficiency and to engage and affect practical change in industry, government and private life. I should note that Allwood and team are already stepped forward in their work:  in January they organized a Royal Society Meeting in London on energy, economics, culture and other dimensions of materials efficiency (Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 2013).
These books ­­both make contributions to the quandary that underlies much of industrial ecology: the physical provision of function, the interrelation of products made up of materials made from natural resources, and the multidimensional characterization of materials flows and footprints at different scales, segregated by both time and responsibility. Rankin’s book is Janus looking backwards: it is a conventionalist compilation of thinking from the past twenty years that provides fundamentals and a dated diagnosis suitable to a narrow audience. Allwood et al., on the other hand, is Janus with both eyes open with insight and cheer – looking forward.

The International Aluminium Institute (AIA). 2012. Greenhouse gases. Accessed April 2012.
Allwood, J. M., Ashby, M. F., Gutowski, T. G. and Worrell, E. 2011. Material efficiency: A white paper. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 55(3), 362-381.
Gilchrist, J.D. 1989. Extraction Metallurgy. 3rd ed. Oxford, U.K.: Pergamon Press.
Söderholm, P. and Tilton, J. E. 2012. Material efficiency: An economic perspective. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 61, 75-82.
Tilton, J.E. 2003. On Borrowed Time? Assessing the Threat of Mineral Depletion. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future.
Van Weenen, J.C. 1990. Waste Prevention: Theory and Practice. Ph.D. thesis. Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands.
Young, S. B., Brady, K., Fava, J. and Saur, K. 2001. Eco-efficiency and Materials. Five Winds International. Ottawa: International Council on Mining and Metals.