Sustainability – Part 2: Environmental Impacts

Environmental impacts come in many forms, but, in terms of the larger concept of sustainability, this is a subject almost as large as sustainability itself and there are distinct stages or periods in a product life that all impact the environment.

To make a product, raw materials need to be garnered and transported to all the various facilities that make the components, assemble the product, and make and pack the packaging  (even the packaging is a kind of sub-product itself for the purpose of this discussion. )Then the product must be distributed to all the outlets where it is sold and resold. The products they must make it from the seller to the end-user. Finally, the user will use the product for a time, and, finally, once it has past its useful life, it needs to be ‘disposed’ of in some way.

Obtaining resources for manufacturing has mostly meant extracting and harvesting raw materials followed by refining those resources so that they can be made into components to be assembled into useful products.  Extraction (mining, drilling, fracking) and harvesting (especially trees and many forms of petro-based agriculture) is extremely harmful to the environment. Whole mountains have been torn down in South Africa to obtain diamonds, and in West Virginia to obtain coal. The Amazon and the Olympic rain forests have dwindled drastically in size, destroying natural habitat and watersheds in the process.

Now, mostly landfills and garages and even the ocean, are full of these resources that are no longer used for any productive purpose and, often, represent ongoing environmental damage. Repairing, recycling, reusing, and repurposing are all simple ways to reduce the impact of gathering materials to be made back into useful items or to extend the life of these products. These approaches all reduce what is, often, the worst causes of negative environmental impacts in a products lifecycle. So, any products that are designed to have a long useful life, and to be easily recycled when that useful life is over, can be said to be deliberately sustainable.

Ducoterra infrared radiant heating panels are made from four basic component parts which are all sourced as close to the factory as possible, to reduce the energy (and emissions) needed to transport them. They have a steel plate on the ceiling side, which is a highly recycled material.  Aerogel, a high-tech insulation made from silica, which is originally found in sandstone and other common rock, is non-toxic and completely recyclable. The heating element is next (moving down from the ceiling-side) and is made from specialized wire which is, again, can be recycled. And, finally, the whole thing is enclosed in a unibody (one-piece) box that closes in the sides and front (room-side) of the panel. And that’s it.

So, not only do these panels have a lifetime warranty because they will last for decades of effective use, the materials to make them are not transported across oceans, are easily recycled, and even the process of taking them apart and separating the materials for recycling couldn’t be simpler. When measured over time, the environmental impact of the panels is extremely low, and they represent a new and necessary approach to sustainability called cradle-to-cradle, which mimics natural cycles in how products are made and remade.

Geo Answers: Sustainability – Part 1: Definition of Terms

There are a lot of terms out there relating to technologies and techniques designed to help reduce the effects of climate change and environmental harm: green, ecofriendly, energy efficient, etc. They range from vague to specific. And there is the opportunity for some marketers to muddy the waters with what is known as ‘greenwashing’ – a practice that involves exaggeration or even false claims in order to cash in on people’s concerns about climate change. Even the term ‘climate change’ really ought to be ‘climate chaos’ or ‘climate catastrophe.’

The overarching term ‘sustainability’ is also bandied about, usually in more serious circles, but it also can be vague in the way it is applied. So, I am writing a series of short articles to help clear it up and examine it in depth. I’ll start with an overview of the terms and concepts that sustainability encompasses.

  1. Environmental Impact: Everything we use has an impact on the environment when it is produced, used, and dealt with after it is no longer useful. Even the energy of installing something can have environmental impacts. In fact, it’s possible to look at environmental impact as the other side of the coin. Lowering somethings environmental impact increases its sustainability.
  2. Embodied Carbon: This is a specific form of environmental impact since everything we use requires energy before it is even in use – from garnering the raw materials to manufacture to all the transportation involved. This is called embodied energy. How much this carbon is released into the atmosphere making and using that energy is a thing’s embodied carbon. In some cases, this includes greenhouse gas emissions such as methane leaks from fracked natural gas, for example.
  3. Installation Impact: When something is installed, it takes energy and can often result in waste products that have to be dealt with, energy to install such as all the equipment it takes to build a building, and even the energy it takes to get the installers to the site.

  4. Operational Emissions: This is the amount of carbon and other pollutants released during the normal operation of something. The more energy efficient something is, the less energy it takes to operate it. The less pollution emitted when producing the energy in the first place, the less pollution is emitted per unit of energy. There are additional impacts involved as well. Even carbon-free hydroelectric power has environmental impacts associated with its production.
  5. Durability and Reliability: Many times, we fail to consider that, since the environment does, over time, ‘repair’ itself, the longer something reliably works and remains in use, the lower its overall environmental impact. This includes how much energy it takes to maintain and repair something’s functionality. Repair trucks, new parts, etc. are all part of how reliability can contribute to something’s environmental impact over the lifespan of that thing.
  6. Resilience: This is related to durability and reliability but includes how well something continues to operate, recovers, or otherwise remains useful after unforeseen disasters, changes in land-use, and upgrades in technology.
  7. End-of-life Impacts: Once something is no longer useful, as all things become, it has to be dealt with. Perhaps it ends up in a landfill. Perhaps it is recycled, reused, or repurposed. Or, often more likely, it ends up in a landfill. And of those things that cannot be put back into use, there will be further impacts. Something that is biodegradable and is industrially composted is much more sustainable than something that contains toxins and has not further use.

Ultimately, sustainability refers to a large, complex, systemic picture that relates to effects of what we make and use on the environment over time, and that, in turn, is largely measured in something that nature does not, generally produce without our help: waste. In the subsequent articles in this series, I will explore each of these concepts in depth.

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2020 Northwest Remodeling Expo

2020 Northwest Remodeling Expo

Friday, Jan 24 – Sunday, Jan 26

Washington State Convention Center
Halls 4EF 800 Convention Place, Seattle, WA 98101

GET YOUR FREE TICKETS HERE! (Just print and present at the event.)

The 2020 Northwest Remodeling Expo brings together hundreds of local and regional home improvement companies for one weekend only. Bigger and better than ever– at Seattle’s comprehensive “one stop” home improvement marketplace, you’ll discover new resources and companies to help you update and maintain your home.

Geo Lafontant, from our team, will be presenting at the Expo during the seminar session Big Heat for a Small Footprint to talk about innovative and efficient infrared heating solutions for small and multi-use spaces that tread lightly on the planet at 4 PM on Saturday, January 25 at Stage Left. Click here to register for the seminar.

Come and visit us at Booth #1012!