Recycling… vs. Embodied Energy

By Jim Glessner, CEO, Clean Concrete Technologies

For many years people with an environmental conscience have lived and breathed and pushed for the necessity of recycling, and with good measure. However, as we progress down this road of reusing our current products, whether it be an aluminum can or a quart of motor oil or a slab of concrete, we have learned that it is more important to think about the energy it takes to make these recycled products, than the recycling of them itself.

While recycling is still a keyword when discussing environmental issues, more often than not we will move on to the topic of Carbon Footprint or the aforementioned Embodied Energy.

As Wikipedia so eloquently puts it; “Embodied energy is defined as the available energy that was used in the work of making a product. Embodied energy is an accounting methodology which aims to find the sum total of the energy necessary for an entire product life cycle. This life cycle includes raw material extraction, transport, manufacture, assembly, installation, disassembly, deconstruction and/or decomposition.”

Carbon footprint is simply the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, organization or product. The carbon footprint, which directly relates to the amount of embodied energy we use, allows us a starting point that we can place employable strategies to reduce that set number.

While recycling is and will remain a key to improving our environment and reducing the immense amount of waste material sent to landfill, the more important and pressing need is to reduce our energy consumption. If we had the ability to process used materials into new products, as is what defines recycling, all the while limiting our energy consumption, the world would be a much better and more sustainable place to live. It is extremely important not to look just at recycled content, but to have a good idea if the production of the recycled product or material actually uses less energy to manufacture or use.

In some cases within the building industry, certain products manufactured using recycled content actually use MORE energy to produce than with all new raw materials. Why, you might ask, would they do this? Money! I will save my sermon on greenwashing for a follow-up article, but please be advised that all things recycled are not completely good for our environment. In some cases, as much as three times (!) the energy is used to manufacture these supposedly Green products. Buyer beware!

If you are curious about a product that makes claims about its super-high recycled content, call up the manufacturer and ask them for their energy numbers. In most cases they simply won't know – or claim not to know – since those standards have yet to be established. Even the USGBC's LEED program, which is at the forefront on green building standards, is just now putting CO2 and embodied energy into their assessment system. It's a start, but it seems the industry needs a few years to catch up to where it should and (hopefully) will be in the future.

Ultimately, it is our government that will be responsible for stimulating the most dramatic and positive changes. As it stands now, the building sector has federal rules that limit the amount of good we can do with the technology we currently have. Those limitations need to be looked at, refined and amended to meet the current innovations today's technology offers.

As long as a product reaches its strength, durability and longevity numbers – factoring in the energy required to make it – why limit the content of recycled materials it contains? I scratch my head and wonder.

As a side note… Clean Concrete Technologies, Inc., formerly operating as EkoCrete, Inc, offers products and formulations that utilize up to 92% recycled content. But the important number is the energy used to make it versus standard concrete mix designs. Are you curious? How about a 57% reduction in energy!

Now that is what it's all about.

If you are curious about what we are trying to achieve in the building industry, how our products fall in with the LEED and other energy efficiency programs, please contact us at any time. We are here to make a change… one bag, or yard… at a time!

Now CEO of Clean Concrete Technologies, Jim Glessner has nearly 30 years experience on the sustainable side of the concrete construction industry.
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