One of the main sinks of energy in the "developed" world is the creation of stuff. In its natural life cycle, stuff passes through three stages. First, a new-born stuff is displayed in shiny packaging on a shelf in a shop. At this stage, stuff is called "goods." As soon as the stuff is taken home and sheds its packaging, it undergoes a transformation from "goods" to its second form, "clutter." The clutter lives with its owner for a period of months or years. During this period, the clutter is largely ignored by its owner, who is off at the shops buying more goods. Eventually, by a miracle of modern alchemy, the clutter is transformed into its final form, rubbish. To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to distinguish this "rubbish" from the highly desirable "good" that it used to be. Nonetheless, at this stage the discerning owner pays the dustman to transport the stuff away.
Let's say we want to understand the full energy-cost of a stuff, perhaps with a view to designing better stuff. This is called life-cycle analysis. It's conventional to chop the energy-cost of anything from a hair-dryer to a cruise-ship into four chunks:
Phase R: Making raw materials. This phase involves digging minerals out of the ground, melting them, purifying them, and modifying them into manufacturers' lego: plastics, glasses, metals, and ceramics, for example. The energy costs of this phase include the transportation costs of trundling the raw materials to their next destination.
Phase P: Production. In this phase, the raw materials are processed into a manufactured product. The factory where the hair-dryer's coils are wound, its graceful lines moulded, and its components carefully snapped together, uses heat and light. The energy costs of this phase include packaging and more transportation.
Phase U: Use. Hair-dryers and cruise-ships both guzzle energy when they're used as intended.
Phase D: Disposal. This phase includes the energy cost of putting the stuff back in a hole in the ground (landfill), or of turning the stuff back into raw materials (recycling); and of cleaning up all the pollution associated with the stuff.
To understand how much energy a stuff's life requires, we should estimate the energy costs of all four phases and add them up. Usually one of these four phases dominates the total energy cost, so to get a reasonable estimate of the total energy cost we need accurate estimates only of the cost of that dominant phase. If we wish to redesign a stuff so as to reduce its total energy cost, we should usually focus on reducing the cost of the dominant phase, while making sure that energy-savings in that phase
embodied energy (kWh per kg)
fossil fuel wood paper glass
PET plastic aluminium steel
7 30 40
Table 15.2. Embodied energy of materials.
aren't being undone by accompanying increases in the energy costs of the other three phases.
Rather than estimating in detail how much power the perpetual production and transport of all stuff requires, let's first cover just a few common examples: drink containers, computers, batteries, junk mail, cars, and houses. This chapter focuses on the energy costs of phases R and P. These energy costs are sometimes called the "embodied" or "embedded" energy of the stuff - slightly confusing names, since usually that energy is neither literally embodied nor embedded in the stuff.
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