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Sustainability is a Bad Word

Sustainability is not merely a trend or buzzword but a necessary shift in how we interact with our planet’s resources.
Oct 01, 2023

I’m not saying sustainability is bad! Sustainability itself isn’t a bad word. However, it can be perceived negatively when it is overused, misunderstood, or used insincerely, such as when companies claim to be sustainable without taking substantial action (often referred to as “greenwashing”). Additionally, some people may associate sustainability with higher costs or restrictions on business practices. Despite this, the concept of sustainability is widely recognized as crucial for our planet’s long-term health and survival.

What Makes Something Sustainable?

A thing is considered sustainable if it can be maintained or kept going continuously over a long period of time without causing harm to the environment, society, or the economy. Here are some factors that make something sustainable:

A typical example of sustainability would be the use of solar power. Solar panels generate electricity by converting sunlight, a renewable resource, into energy. This process emits no greenhouse gases and the energy produced can sustainably meet certain electricity requirements. But what about solar panel materials? Don’t they go bad eventually, and then the material can’t be recycled?

The production and end-of-life disposal of solar panels does raise environmental concerns. The production process of solar panels requires mining raw materials – which can have negative environmental and social impacts – and includes the use of hazardous materials.

At the end of their life-cycle, solar panels can create a significant amount of waste. While they can last up to 30 years or more, dealing with solar waste is a challenge. Many components of solar panels can be recycled, including glass, aluminum, and some semiconductor materials. However, the process of recycling them is complex and can be costly, and not all parts can be recycled.

There’s ongoing research being conducted to improve the end-of-life management of solar panels and to develop more sustainable designs. This includes efforts to design solar panels for recyclability from the start, minimize the use of non-renewable or hazardous materials, improve recycling technology, and set up take-back and recycling systems. So, while solar power is a renewable, clean source of energy, it’s not without its issues, and it’s important to work toward full life-cycle sustainability.

There Are Two Sides to Every Sustainable Coin!

By this logic, aren’t plastic bottles technically sustainable? Most plastic is a petroleum byproduct from processing crude oil into fossil fuel. It’s so plentiful that oil companies practically pay people to use plastic for packaging. Using something else would cost way more money, time, and energy, making plastic the sustainable option.

The issue with plastic bottles is less about their production and more about their disposal. Plastic is a durable material made from petroleum, which indeed is readily abundant; however, it can take up to 1,000 years for a plastic bottle to degrade in a landfill. This high durability, combined with the massive amounts of plastic we generate yearly, poses a huge environmental problem.

Furthermore, while it’s technically possible to recycle the plastic in these bottles, the rate of plastic recycling remains low worldwide. In many regions, it may be more cost-effective to produce new plastic bottles from raw materials than to recycle old ones. And even when plastic bottles are recycled, they can often only be turned into a lower grade of plastic that can’t be recycled further.

Additionally, the extraction of petroleum itself is not without environmental impacts. It can lead to oil spills and contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases, playing a significant role in global climate change.

Last but not least, sustainability isn’t just about the environment but also involves social and economic factors. The plastic production industry does not significantly contribute to regional economies or provide many jobs compared to the renewable energy sector, for example. Plus, plastic pollution has devastating impacts on wildlife, ecosystems (there’s an island made of plastic trash swirling around in the Pacific that’s three times the size of France), and potentially human health (we ingest about five grams of microplastics every week without knowing it) – all indicators that plastic bottles are not a sustainable product. In fact, a growing number of cities and companies are taking steps to reduce or eliminate plastic in favor of more sustainable alternatives. So, while plastic bottles may seem convenient and economical due to their inexpensive production costs, their environmental, economic, and social impacts make them a far cry from sustainable.

Sustainability in Manufacturing: Additive vs. Subtractive

Subtractive manufacturing, which involves removing material to create a product, can indeed be more sustainable if all the waste produced in the process is effectively collected, filtered, recycled, and reused. Lean principles can also add to this sustainability by reducing waste, improving efficiency, and consuming less energy. However, it’s worth bearing in mind some caveats.

The environmental impact can vary greatly depending on the specific materials and energy sources used. For example, if the material being worked on is non-renewable or if substantial energy (especially from non-renewable sources) is required, these factors can impact the overall sustainability of the production process.

On the other hand, additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, uses the exact amount of material needed to create a product, thus producing less raw material waste. Both methods have potential advantages in terms of sustainability.

The specific environmental impact of additive and subtractive manufacturing can depend on a range of factors, including the scale of production, the efficiency of the machines used, the recyclability of waste materials, and the life-cycle of the products made, among others.

That being said, efforts toward recycling, waste reduction, energy efficiency, and lean manufacturing are always beneficial steps toward sustainability. It's crucial to consider these factors holistically rather than focusing on single elements. Innovation and technology development in both sectors continue to push us toward more responsible and sustainable manufacturing practices across industries. Regardless of the methods used, striving for optimal efficiency, minimal waste, and recycling should always be at the forefront of sustainable manufacturing strategies.

Conclusion

Sustainability is not merely a trend or buzzword but a necessary shift in how we interact with our planet’s resources. It involves utilizing resources in a way that does not deplete them for future generations, refraining from harming the environment, contributing to social equity, and being economically viable.

While some practices, like the production and recycling of plastic bottles, may seem sustainable, a more comprehensive look at plastic's life-cycle shows its overuse extracts a heavy toll on the environment and our health. Other technologies, like solar panels and additive and subtractive manufacturing, offer varying levels of success. Because sustainability requires emphasizing energy efficiency, environmental preservation, waste control, life-cycle management, social and economic impacts, and a web of other considerations, a holistic viewpoint must be employed to make the well-informed choices that will improve our systems and products for the overall benefit of our planet and future generations.

TL;DR and Key Takeaway

You better watch your mouth when you use “sustainable” around these parts, traveler! We need to take more time to assess what is in fact sustainable and what isn’t, and more importantly, we’ll call it out when something is falsely claimed as sustainable. 

If you have any questions about this information, please contact Stephen at slamarca@AMTonline.org. For more LaMarkable content, stream Seasons One and Two of “Road Trippin’ with Steve” now on IMTS.com/plus.


To read the rest of the Energy Issue of MT Magazine, click here.

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Author
Stephen LaMarca
Technology Analyst
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