With certain issues, it can become the done thing to advertise your commitment to the cause at every opportunity. There is often more hot air than action. Sadly, sustainability is one of those issues. But it’s critical to our survival, and to that of every other species on this planet, that we take it seriously.
That’s not to say we can simply decide to adopt a few sustainable practices and we solve all our problems. It’s far more complex than that. But complicated or not, we all – and I stress ‘all’ – need to do what we can. We can’t leave it to organic agriculture and green energy providers.
Taking on the challenge
With every move made towards sustainability, it’s important to weigh up all the pros and cons. Some changes might seem like the obvious ‘easy decision,’ but in this global economy, we can’t, for example, look at things like replacing fossil fuels without considering the impact of biofuel production on food crop capacity.
With genuine ethical issues everywhere, it would be easy to retreat to a position of complying with current legislation and waiting for definitive guidance. The trouble is that our planet can’t afford to wait. We must do more than the minimum, we must shape the future we want to see.
Despite the challenges, I believe we can make a real difference. In industry and particularly in engineering, we are good at solving problems. The ability to juggle multiple variables and get positive results is essential when tackling issues of sustainability. I’ll give you an example we’re using at elumatec. Around 90 per cent of the electricity used to compress air is converted into heat. Instead of wasting this energy, we use it to heat our water and storage heaters. To engineers, this kind of thinking isn’t revolutionary, but it often surprises those in other industries and sectors.
These innovations are good for business – using less energy helps us control both costs and prices – but we would do the planet no favours by keeping quiet about what we’re doing. When we have made a positive change, it’s right to spread the word, using the hashtags of social media, not as empty sound bites, but to highlight what can be done.
Reduce, reuse and recycle
By looking at every resource we consume, and by being efficient in their use, we can have an immediate impact. The mantra ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ goes a long way to explaining the principles. Though it sounds simple, it can be very effective. To give you an idea of what’s possible, elumatec has reduced its annual electricity bill by around €20,000. That’s enough to supply thirty-five, four-bedroomed homes.
This isn’t a one-off. We implemented our energy review programme in 2011. For over a decade we have been making significant economies and cutting by around sixty-six tonnes our annual carbon emissions.
In addition to using less power at the initial stage, looking in detail at a process may reveal more opportunities to save. At elumatec, we use lots of compressed air. Producing it is expensive in terms of energy, so we’ve worked hard to eliminate compressed air leaks. If you’re wondering how significant that can be, it’s worth knowing that, in industry, leakage rates of between 15 and 70 per cent are not unusual. People think it’s just air, conveniently ignoring the energy cost of compressing it.
Making sustainability a reality
As manufacturers, indeed as a society, we need to get into the habit of considering the impact of all our activities because one solution won’t be enough. At elumatec, looking at what we can do is an ongoing process. We’ve put solar panels on the roof of our company headquarters. They’re producing the electricity we use there. We’ve also switched to using energy-efficient servers. It might be a supermarket slogan, but every little does help.
I said at the start that sustainability must become more than a hashtag. It needs to be running through our thinking like the letters in a stick of Blackpool rock. We need to design things better, look at the supply chain and every stage of a product’s life cycle. We need to favour durability and adaptability rather than fashion while keeping thoroughly up-to-date on the best sustainable practices.
We also need to share what we’re doing. To learn both what others have achieved and what is possible. We must move sustainability from an ideal we tweet about to being
a part our day-to-day reality.
I believe we can do that.