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Input-Output Conference 2010

Industrial symbiosis and 'material efficiency' options for Australia

Jacob Fry and Manfred Lenzen

The modern industrial system is highly dependent on flows of material and energy. The system is characterised by a reliance on non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), high material throughput, low recycling rates and the ejection of waste products into the natural environment. These flows have been likened to those required by an organism; and is described by Ayres (1994) as an 'industrial metabolism' - "the set of physico-chemical transformations that convert raw materials (biomass, fuels, minerals, metals) into manufactured products and structures and wastes". The system is vulnerable to future scarcity of important resources and permanent damage to the life-supporting biosphere in which it is contained.

Australia's per-capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are amongst the highest in the world and the nation faces a serious emissions reduction challenge. Population growth and rising affluence make the task of emissions reductions more difficult because of the flow on increase they cause in the consumption of goods and services. Low carbon renewable energy technologies could most likely provide for Australia's stationary energy needs, however this is major infrastructure building task and will take some time to implement at significant cost. Energy conservation measures can provide significant energy and emissions savings but are also constrained by thermodynamic limits and the so-called 'rebound effect'. Material efficiency strategies offer a third way of emissions reduction through reducing the material content of goods and services and hence the embodied energy, emissions and other environmental impacts associated with their production and provision.

The term 'material efficiency' describes the number of strategies which can be employed to reduce the material throughput of society. Such strategies reduce virgin material extraction, impacts associated with production, manufacturing and transportation, and reduce the flow of waste material into the environment. The aim is to reduce the material requirement of goods and services while preserving their functionality. Allwood et al. (2010) identify four main material efficiency strategies: longer-lasting products; modularisation and remanufacturing; component re-use and designing products with less material. This scope has been interpreted and broadened into a series of 'interventions' which can occur progressively along the product lifecycle - as shown in the figure below.

Potential case studies this project will investigate include:

  • A study of Australian flows of electronic waste and the energy and GHG implications of recovering important metals from this waste.
  • Investigating the remanufacture of appliances - when should an energy consuming appliance (such as a refrigerator) be repaired/reconditioned/remanufactured rather than replaced?
  • Shift Australia's freight more efficiently - would a large scale shift towards transporting the majority of freight by rail, rather than by road, yield significant energy efficiencies?
  • Material efficiency strategies have a reputation for being labour intensive - i.e. activities such as dismantling, repairing, sorting etc. To what extent is this true in an Australian context?

This research will use high resolution waste data to model waste flows within an input-output framework. The project is hosted within the Industrial Ecology Virtual Laboratory which forms part of the NeCTAR research cloud. Dr Damien Giurco, from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, will co-supervise this project.

For further information please contact

Prof Manfred Lenzen
ISA, A28
The University of Sydney NSW 2006
+61 (0)2 9351-5985