Human Settlements Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Professor Peter W. Newton, CSIRO Building, Construction and Engineering, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06747 7

Emerging issues (continued)

Food

  • Genetically modified food
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    Genetically modified food

    Gene technology enables plant breeders to go beyond the capabilities of traditional plant breeding within species, to the introduction of genes from unrelated plants or even from bacteria or animals. Beneficial modifications to food crops are proposed which include increasing yields, improving nutrient values and inducing resistance to insects and plant diseases. In Australia, the only genetically modified (GM) plants grown commercially are insect-resistant (INGARD) cotton (Huppatz and Fitzgerald 2000). Elsewhere, GM soya, corn, canola and potato are grown and others will follow, though their release onto the market may be halting as a result of consumer concern, especially when safety is raised as an issue. The testing of food for safety, where it is not known what the hazard might be, is almost impossible and thus stalemate is the likely outcome. GM food has recently been banned in the UK, predominantly on food safety grounds, presenting the food industry with an insoluble dilemma. The greatest concerns were in fact environmental, which are much easier to address. Australia has a Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC) which advises upon the release of GM organisms, and is establishing an Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) which will implement the regulation of industry.

    Materials

  • Dematerialisation
  • Ecodesign and life-cycle analysis responses
  • Reducing material impacts through recycling
  • Buy recycled
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    For Australia, over a century of global wealth based on 'easy oil and metals' is at an end (Konkes 2000). The challenge for Australian mining companies is to continue the search for new reserves, although lack of exploration success is being attributed to three factors: the lack of new-generation exploration and mining technology, the environmental challenges of zero waste and zero emissions in mining by 2020, and uncertainties due to Aboriginal land rights.

    Dematerialisation

    If materials are seen as a means to an end, with that end being some utility or service, it is possible to envisage a number of possible ways to deliver the service using less net material and energy. Dematerialisation is the reduction or elimination of the material component of services by focusing not on the products but on the utility they deliver. Many examples of dematerialisation exist, such as nappy wash services where the use of the nappy is retained, but its ownership and laundering are not. Efficiency of scale in the production and laundering of the nappies has the potential to reduce material inputs to the system. These, however, have to be traded off against transport energy use to deliver and collect nappies.

    One example of dematerialisation at an industrial scale is shared responsibility contracts, which are coming into use in the supply of chemicals to manufacturing industry. The manufacturer contracts the chemical supplier to provide and manage the chemicals required to produce manufactured goods. However, the chemical suppliers are paid, in at least some degree, on a per unit of manufactured output and not per unit of chemical use. This provides the chemical suppliers with an incentive to minimise the chemical inputs required in the manufacturing process. This is the opposite of the dominant existing situation whereby chemical suppliers are rewarded for maximising chemical use in a process through increased sales of the chemical rather than the manufactured product.

    The concept of dematerialisation can also be seen in terms of resource efficiency. Weizsaker et al. (1997) argued that it is possible to supply twice the goods and services we currently use with half the resource use, with existing technologies. Others have taken this concept further to suggest a factor 10 (or 90%) reduction in resource use will be required if we are to have a chance of stabilising environmental pressures such as global warming.

    Ecodesign and life-cycle analysis responses

    The use of most materials is largely set at the design stage of product development and processing. For this reason, it is important to focus on reducing environmental impacts during the design of new products and processes. This is equally important for something as large as the Sydney Olympic Stadium as it is for a domestic appliance such as a kettle.

    The Dishlex dishwasher, made by Email Appliances (formerly by Southcorp Appliances), was redesigned with a focus on materials and water use and overall energy efficiency. Life-cycle analysis was used to determine environmental priorities in the redesign and to evaluate design options against the existing design. The result was a dishwasher that used less materials in its production but, more importantly, used far less material and energy over it useful life because of energy and water savings.

    Techniques are being developed that can track the web of energy inputs to products and services, as well as their operational energy use and the energy impacts of their disposal. The full energy implications of our use of products and services can then be evaluated, and optimised to maximise efficiency and minimise environmental costs.

    Reducing material impacts through recycling

    Much of the policy drive for recycling has been to reduce the volume of waste disposed to landfill, but for many materials such as metals and plastics their disposal in landfill also represents a great loss of resource and embodied energy. The initial production of these materials requires significant energy and resource inputs, and leads to the production of airborne, waterborne and solid wastes. If these 'spent' materials can be collected efficiently and sorted or separated from other materials, they can be recycled with lower environmental impacts than that of the production of new products from virgin material. A recent study commissioned by EcoRecycle Victoria showed that recycling steel, glass and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) containers in Melbourne leads to energy savings of between 70% and 85%, depending on the material (Grant et al. 1999). Recycling aluminium is generally recognised to save up to 95% compared to primary production.

    Buy recycled

    'Buy recycled' campaigns are used to assist in the development of markets for recycled material. Current programs in Australia are voluntary, while in some other countries mandatory recycled content programs have been initiated. The Buy Recycled Business Alliance is a group of Australian businesses which produce and use recycled products and which promotes the use of recycled products and helps support recycled product producers.