Think Out Loud

"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey

Ideal industry: Steel and Cradle to Cradle ‘nutrient’ cycles

Steel foundry wikimedia

This photo of a steel foundry is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Steel is currently the world’s most recycled material. Unlike many plastics and paper materials, steel does not necessarily degrade in quality each time it is reprocessed. This makes it a possible contender for Cradle to Crade design.

Cradle to Cradle design is the brainchild of German chemist Michael Braungart, American designer William McDonough and others. In a nutshell, the design ethos turns all consumer waste into “nutrients” by initiating two cycles through which all goods must flow: the biological cycle and the industrial cycle.

In the biological cycle, everything you use can be safely re-integrated into ecosystems, e.g. as compost, with a “waste equals food” ethos. In the industrial cycle, every material that is used up must be re-processed into something new without sacrificing quality and without generating industrial waste. For example, Braungart and McDonough’s 2002 book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” was printed on durable plastic with chemically removable inks that could actually be recycled into a totally new book of the same physical quality. Such base materials are considered “technical nutrients,” and are never meant to leave the cycle between industry and consumer (i.e. they are never deposited into the natural environment as waste).

An interesting extension of this idea is the notion that we merely rent our technical goods — we no longer own them. In fact, we sort of rent our technical goods for the entirety of their usefulness, then return their nutrients back to the industrial system.

Over the past few months, I’ve been looking deeply into the possibility that steel might be part of a sustainable “technical nutrient” cycle. In fact, two corporations in Europe claim to have already earned the Cradle to Cradle certification. As for steel firms in Taiwan, plenty of obstacles to sustainability remain. I will list just a few:

1. Energy concerns: Recycled steel foundries use an electric arc furnace, which uses a blend of energy from the grid and natural gas. McDonough has made clear in public lectures that fossil fuel use and nuclear power have no role in a Cradle to Cradle system.

2. Raw materials quality: The most caustic emissions released from EAF furnaces derive from substances like oils, paints and rubber that might contaminate the scrap metal and become airborne pollutants in the furnace. Only when these substances can be removed and reclaimed from steel products (and set into motion along their own recycling journey) can a truly waste-free technical nutrient cycle come to be in the steel industry.

3. Steel alloying and refining: Currently recycled steel is made to order according to specific grades of strength, hardness, etc. This is done by precisely adding and/or subtracting carbon, heavy metals and other elements from the melted scrap. Under extreme temperatures, however, some of these elements are combusted to form smog and acid rain-causing pollutants like nitrous oxides and sulfur oxides as well as greenhouse gases like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. A more ideal steel foundry would probably specialize in a particular grade of steel in batches, neither upgrading or downgrading the raw material through alloys or combustion as much as is possible. A truly Cradle to Cradle system would also be able to harness industrial emissions has “technical nutrients,” for instance, by recycling heat energy and more.

The technology and standard procedures for mass producing recycled steel according to Cradle to Cradle design principles probably does not exist yet. Still, I think the steel industry has exciting potential to one day be a part of a sustainable technical nutrient cycle. What do you think?

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