Buy Clean: Embodied energy matters!

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There’s so much to think about as consumers, assuming we want to encourage a green, sustainable environment here in the Pontiac, the Outaouais – and world.

Embodied energy (EE)

Science Direct explains that Embodied Energy is the amount of energy to produce a material, where the “material” is anything we can think of: food, clothing, shelter, recreational equipment: you name it, everything we use from cutlery to pets’ supplies has been made from something. This processing is where EE is derived.

Science Direct’s website notes:

“Embodied energy, or ‘embedded energy,’ is a concept that includes the energy required to extract raw materials from nature, plus the energy utilized in the manufacturing activities. Inevitably, all products and goods have inherent embodied energy. The closer a material is to its natural state at the time of use, the lower its embodied energy.” (https://bit.ly/3IYj12u)

This website, incidentally, shows a scientific explanation of the calculation used to quantify the EE in a product/material. The formula assumes that “the origin of EE was associated with fossil fuels.”

When we realize that everything we purchase requires EE, and when we factor in the use and amount of fossil fuels needed to extract, create, deliver said product to market, promote/sell/ship it, and then dispose/reuse/recycle it, we can understand the relevance of EE (whether it’s in the context of a cradle-to-grave, circular economy – or not).

EE has “repurposing legs”

Authors Monahan and Powell explain that EE includes, “the total primary energy required for extraction of resources, transportation, manufacture, assembly, disassembly, and end-of-life disposal of a product.” (https://bit.ly/3IYj12u)

Although we may prefer to ignore it, “end-of-life disposal” possesses intrinsic energy expenditures, too. Mattresses are not only manufactured and delivered to our homes, they’re collected and “vanish” from our lives.

Ditto with appliances and every other product we own. Everything has a lifetime – not simply us human beings. So landfills become wastelands of unwanted or broken materials.

No-one wants to live near a landfill.

Therefore, it’s prudent to consider EE when buying something. What went into it to make it? Do I need it?

Is there a similar product that is better made, made from sustainable materials where the company has a cradle-to-grave policy? These are questions we must train ourselves to ask when we purchase anything.

Examples: Sand and gravel and cement

When first thinking about cement which is made from naturally occurring substances such as sand and gravel, we can be forgiven if we think cement production is not a harmful industry.

But let’s apply critical thinking.

Before sand and gravel can be harvested, forests are clearcut, eliminating biodiversity and the cleansing nature of woodlands – habitat for native and migratory birds through to the endangered wood turtle here in Quebec. Then, these natural aggregates are extracted, using fossil-fuel powered heavy equipment. Sifting and sorting requires further energy, where consumers can then order, for instance, 0–¾ inch pit-run aggregate for laneways, or ¾ inch washed stone for roof driplines, etc. Sand and gravel are trucked to industrial sites for making concrete.

Concrete issues

That seemingly innocuous, all-pervasive material, cement, is a polluter requiring immense EE. The Columbia Climate School’s State of the Climate website informs
us about cement as an ingredient of concrete:

“A single industry accounts for around 5 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. It produces a material so ubiquitous it is nearly invisible: cement. It is the primary ingredient in concrete, which in turn forms the foundations and structures of the buildings we live and work in, and the roads and bridges we drive on. Concrete is the second most consumed substance on Earth after water. On average, each year, three tons of concrete are consumed by every person on the planet.” (https://bit.ly/3SG53FC)

Cementing our understanding

Everyone uses products.

We must accept responsibility for our planet’s wellbeing, inform ourselves, and examine what we purchase to foster a cleaner, greener, more sustainable Outaouais and world.

Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer and visual artist. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com