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Life- Cycle Studies from Worldwatch Institute

Every Friday for several weeks, the Worldwatch Insitute has been posting a quick life-cycle study on some common item – topics have included antibiotics, beer, dry cleaning, and toothpaste. They’re entertaining to read, and provide some nice historical background as well as a few paragraphs about the environmental impacts of the production/use/disposal/etc. of the product in question, and what people are doing to improve things.

From Life-Cycle Studies: Concrete (something I already know to have rather large environmental impacts):

Stepped on for more than 2,300 years, concrete rarely gets the respect it deserves. . . Analysts expect greenhouse gas emissions from global concrete production to become a larger contributor to climate change than the European Union in the next 20 years.

. . .

Heating and grinding the cement materials consumes an average of 4-5 gigajoules of energy per cement ton. The industry as a whole uses at least 8 billion gigajoules each year. Cement production. . . accounts for about 6 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent WWF report.

In addition to its contribution to climate change, concrete production generates substantial amounts of waste. In China, it is responsible for more than 40 percent of industrial dust emissions.

I periodically see articles talking about ways to improve the production of concrete – reduce energy inputs, reduce greenhouse gases, use fly ash instead of cement, or change the recipe in some way so that the finished concrete can absorb lots of CO2, perhaps even more than was emitted during its production.

I not-so-secretly thought all of the studies were fun to read, because I am a nerd like that, but I will only excerpt from one more, the Life-Cycle Study on Palm Oil, because I’ve read on and off for years about how bad palm oil production has been; it got popular in part due to people thinking it would make a great biodiesel.

Once planted, oil palms can produce fruit for more than 30 years, yielding more oil per hectare than any major oilseed crop. . .

Yet plantations often replace tropical forests, killing endangered species, uprooting indigenous communities, and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. Due mostly to oil palm production, Indonesia emits more greenhouse gases than any country besides China and the United States.

Palm oil agriculture has also lead to violence between farmers and local residents, and may lead to the extinction of orangutans in some regions of Borneo in a very short time. And as far as the biodiesel goes –

Palm-oil biodiesel, once supported as a low-carbon alternative to gasoline, often contributes far more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than it helps to avoid. When each hectare of carbon-rich tropical peatland is drained for oil palm production, an estimated 3,750-5,400 tons of carbon dioxide are released over 25 years, according to peatland ecologist Jack Rieley.

And this is without considering that it’s kind of a lousy idea from the get go to turn a food crop into a fuel crop.

Due to environmental concerns and (probably the bigger impact) European Union biofuel laws, the palm oil industry created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004. They’re planning to create standards for emissions, and will certify palm oil as sustainably produced if it meets certain criteria; this sounds like a bit of an improvement, but I’m a little dubious about how trustworthy a certification is when it is done by the same industry that is creating the product. How about some certification where there isn’t an obvious conflict on interest?

I also really liked reading the study on Post-its, which are much less horrifying than palm oil; you can find the complete list of life-cycle studies here under Trade and Consumption.

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