Manufacturing’s, energy’s, transport’s environmental records: They could be better

If you’re looking at today’s environmental landscape as a gauge, a measure, a yardstick and are contemplating whether or not it is where it needs to or should be, the answer is: no; the environment is not where it could or should be. That’s the reality.

Environmental stewardship the name of the game

It’s all about taking care of the environment and, in the larger sense, the planet. The temperature at the Earth’s surface has risen 1.2 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution’s debut some 273 years ago in 1750. We are, at this very point in time, seeing the effects of that temperature rise. The planet we share has heated up – it is hotter than at any time in the last 100,000-plus years.

Also, according to World Health Organization data, every year, in excess of 7 million people globally prematurely lose their lives from the effects of polluted air. Coupled with global warming, these two world crises are posing an existential threat.

Which is why I want to take this time to look at three sectors – manufacturing, energy, transport – and in terms of their environmental records past, see where improvements can be made thus leading the way to a healthier, more sustainable, more secure future for all.

Manufacturing

At its core, what we are talking about here really, is manufacturing processes, those actions that lead to a product’s completion. Without said processes carried out in an organized, orderly fashion; well, I’m sure you would have no trouble imagining what would be the result of not having that.

There’s also this idea of continuous or ongoing improvement: seeking and employing methods that not only can lead to better products and outcomes, but can reduce waste (which could come in the form of time, energy, capital expended during manufacturing – maybe there is ineffective employee utilization or perhaps materials acquisition at the front end that could be better scheduled in terms of arrival time, at, say, a factory’s receiving dock or it could have to do with parts-supply inventory handling and organization, to name just a few) in the manufacturing process itself, but also in regards to product failure percentage and how the number of such failures could be lowered or even eliminated. Or, maybe improvement could even be with respect to what happens downstream after a said product leaves the factory floor, such as with what that particular product’s impact will be on the environment (e.g., if the product requires packaging when shipped, how the packaging can be produced so there is less waste when the contents inside are removed and said packaging needs to be thrown away and whether that material is environmentally friendly, meaning if it will decompose in nature over time or environmentally unfriendly meaning if it won’t. It’s what’s called outside-the-box thinking.

It could also have to do with the affect the overall manufacturing process has on the air. Could toxic substances be emitted into the air and, if so, what can be done to mitigate those poisonous-substance releases?

As an aside, a lot of us have in our minds indelible, unforgettable images of buildings filling the field of view replete with smoke pouring out of smokestacks invariably signifying or symbolizing progress. This imagery is associated with economic and/or industrial might. These scenes were frequently integrated into promotional film productions either intended for internal company or made-for-public viewing such as would be possible at a public movie theater and introduced to audiences prior to the main movie offering being shown.

Energy

Energy is a big one, meaning it is in constantly increasing demand. And, there’s been debate in terms of how it should be supplied and what types should be generated or produced, depending on what type of energy it is.

Historically, energy was created using materials and processes known at the time, such as the burning of wood, peat or coal. If that was what resources were then at our disposal, those were the ones called upon.

Over time, though, with either acute or chronic exposures – to those toxic pollutants in question – in high-enough concentrations, depending, what began to come to light was the realization that such could exact a costly toll on human health. This coupled with visible harms to the air in the forms of haze and smog as well as those affecting building and other surfaces such as was evident with the impact caused by long-term exposure to acid rain.

Or, worst-case scenario, such caused nearly immediate and overarching sickness and death, as had happened with the London-based killer-smog episodes – plural – in the early and mid-1950s. This is but one example of a situation that got completely out of hand in the sense that due to the sheer numbers of individual households engaging in coal-burning activities all in an effort to keep the homes in question heated and the occupants warm, compounded by the fact that the meteorological conditions of dense, localized fog were present at the time thus trapping the smoke pouring out of chimneys with it remaining in close quarters rather than dissipate, a truly tragic outcome resulted.

But, as you well know, these types of incidents have not always been one-time events. Some have been recurring, as would be the case with the infamous Los Angeles-area smogs of the early-to-mid 1940s. It was only through concerted and focused study and research that the source of the smogs was properly identified – in this instance, transport, which, incidentally, is up next.

Transportation

Once again, this all has to do with how the sector has progressed.

Transportation, with its many varied forms, has been the beneficiary of tremendous improvement gains. And, with the propulsion element, over time has come considerable advancement and refinement, especially in the over-the-road and on-the-rails modes. In fact, the advancements and improvements made have been ongoing.

As to the automobile’s development history, the learning-curve path, where advancement and improvement are concerned, had followed a more of a circuitous course, rather than a direct one.

I’ll explain.

The earliest automated cars utilized electric and steam propulsion technologies. Internal combustion as a means to move autos did not see extensive use until the late 1800s, whereas electricity and steam used to power wheeled vehicles were first experimented with in the 19th and 18th centuries, respectively. For a number of reasons including driving-range limitations associated with batteries and their charging capabilities and those connected with steam generation in that it was dirty to air and, according to Wikipedia, steam cars could take as long as a half-hour to start, ultimately these two propulsion types in this arena just could not compete. (See: “Steam car”).

You see, steam and electricity were actually forerunners of internal combustion as a method of moving automobiles. Also according to Wikipedia, more than 50 percent of all new 1902 automobile registrations were steam-powered.

From “Making an impact: The effect on air from electric cars – NONE!” “… electric automobiles debuted in the 1830s. It took another 50 or so years before practical electric-car production was in vogue in the year 1884 in London, England; the batteries for such being rechargeable. For a time – during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – this was the preferred method of car travel due to the electric car’s comfort and ease of operation compared to internal-combustion-engine-powered motorcars. The enviable position once held by the electrics, as we all know, just didn’t last.”

Although aviation, navigation (shipping) and railroading have their own unique development and advancement paths and stories and, whereas ships and trains made use of steam-power technology (also known as external combustion) as well as electricity (this coming to railroading much earlier on and to aviation late in the game – the latter mostly in the experimental stages), aviation and navigation are pretty much in classes all their own where propulsion is concerned: It is very heavily internal-combustion-power oriented.

All of which brings up the question: How can each of the sectors be made better?

I believe the answers are simple – Employment of common-sense principles; deployment of technologies that will advance the sectors even farther without: crippling the economy; seriously hampering the labor market; causing undue inefficiencies which would all affect progress momentum moving forward, common-sense exercises like creating a transportation network where there is better balance and articulation among modes; more equal mode distribution and utilization, in other words.

In manufacturing, I’ve really already pointed out how this could be improved. It can be done using the strategy of continuous or ongoing improvement to cut down on or eliminate waste with the aim of producing as good a product as one can, both economically and environmentally. There need not be a situation where one is sacrificed or traded for the other. It could actually be a best-of-both-worlds outcome producing a win-win-win condition for all interested parties – the suppliers, the manufacturers and end-users. And not only could better air result, but there could be less negative impact on the waste stream and, depending to what extent, that could pay huge dividends and have big-time implications. There are some business concerns capitalizing on some really innovative ideas that are indeed revolutionizing manufacturing processes. Again, what it’s all about.

And, as for energy, there’s a dynamic that has been, is and will be changing for the better. No question. This is perhaps the one sector where this change is the most pronounced and evident, and the environmental reward has come as a result, as in the corresponding emissions-reduction numbers being borne out.

Notes

An earlier version of this article contained the statement: “Internal combustion as a means to move autos did not see extensive use until the late 1800s, whereas electricity and steam used to power wheeled vehicles was experimented with in numbers in the 1700s;”that was not completely accurate. The statement in question in this article has been revised and is now correct.

Image featured on corresponding, connected home-page entry: Wikipedia Commons

– Alan Kandel

Copyrighted material.

Last updated on Jan. 23, 2023 at 9:16 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

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