Guest blog 4

From our knowledgeable family member.

Stuck in traffic my mind wandered to one of my go to problems. I open a can and stare at it wondering how much effort and raw materials were needed to make it. I open a screw topped bottle or peel tin foil off a product and always have this problem in my mind. How much raw material are we using, how much damage is caused and do we really need it? Free plastic toys in cereals have gone out of fashion but did we really need them in the first place?

Years ago, in my younger days, I sold washing powder. It came in a small square box and would wash as many clothes as the huge boxes of proprietary brands that were the fashion then. Those huge boxes giving more ‘value for money’ were actually 90% fluffers and fillers, those non essential materials to just give more body and extra lather because we were being told it was the lather that cleaned the clothes. It did clog machines up as well but that’s a different subject. The powder I sold was as fine as castor sugar and you used an egg cup full instead of 4 huge scoops. It cleaned beautifully but was a hard sell as there was no real lather and everyone insisted on using loads of the stuff instead of following instructions which made it very expensive. Today, it would probably be an easy sell. I digress. Stuck in traffic I wondered how much steel is needed to make an average car and how much energy and raw materials would that take?

To keep this blog short enough to read I’m just going to calculate the steel and not the other plastics and rubbers etc. We’re going to need 900 kgs of steel. Steel is not a natural product as we know so first we need some Iron Ore. 2.3 metric tonnes of ore will provide us with 1.62 metric tonnes of Iron after processing. Then we need to get rid of the impurities and reduce the amount of carbon to turn it into Steel. For this we will be using 0.8 metric tonnes of Coke (which is made from Coal), and 0.4 metric tonnes of Limestone. That little lot is the equivalent in volume to 30 bath tubs of material. Now we’re going to need some serious heat to process it all. Bear in mind that if all of the raw materials were in your own garden, and you had enough hours in a year to work with a pick and shovel to mine the materials, you would still need to pool resources with many more people to generate the amount of power needed to turn it all into Steel. But, we can calculate the proportion of power needed to make your 900kgs of Steel. You would need 18 GJ of energy. That’s the equivalent of burning 18 billion wooden matches simultaneously or enough energy to heat 18,000 pots of coffee or to power all of the lights in your house for a year.

Of course, figures like this are meaningless unless we start taking in the other natural resources, rubber, plastic (from oil), other metals such as copper for wiring, the list goes on. Then, depending where you car was manufactured you have to add on the energy involved in transporting the processed materials to the manufacturing plant, the energy involved in transporting the raw materials to the processing plants, the energy used to mine the raw materials as well. I even saw a report that in the UK a single car part might have been shipped backwards and forwards across the channel 35 times before final assembly.

We have a major problem with the increasing world population but there are many countries where nothing is discarded until there simply is no use left in an item. Think of Cuba where they have been repairing and using 50 year old cars, not replacing them. We are all too fond of saying we helping the environment when we recycle but do we all re-use items? Until we start to refuse to replace our mobile phones and cars, wear our clothes until they fall apart and stop buying stuff we really don’t need we will never get on top of the problems we have.

But to finish, back to cars. I saw a report about plug-in hybrid vehicles. These should do around 150 mpg when used correctly but most are doing more like 35 mpg. That’s because people fail to charge them up and don’t get the benefit of the 20 or 30 miles of electrical energy. In fact, using them this way they are less efficient than a petrol engine as they are much heavier. Another report has worked out that the energy required to make the batteries for a Tesla vehicle is enough to run a petrol car for 8 years. As usual, there are no clear cut ways to solve our transport requirements. We are in the midst of an electric car frenzy and are banning petrol and diesel car engines. Is this the right thing to do? Instantly development work on cleaner oil powered engines will cease meaning that in remote areas of the world where there might not be electricity they will not benefit from cleaner, more efficient power units. It also means we will be scrapping lots of relatively new cars to replace them with electric vehicles meaning more raw materials being used causing more damage to the planet plus needing even more energy to make them and run them the we are saving. Let’s not forget the manufacture of a whole new network of charging points to be installed and the relevant materials and energy costs of that. We are also ignoring Hydrogen powered cars. These would need less materials to make, hydrogen can be sold through our current petrol station network and far less energy would be expended to install the infrastructure.

Currently the World requirements for Steel mean we are using, 2 billion tonnes of Iron Ore and 1 billion tonnes of Coal. 575 million tonnes of scrap steel is the used in the refining process. Our knee jerk reactions to fossil fuels being bad but electric vehicles is good could well result in a no Coal, no Cars scenario with no Steel being produced or even a lots of Electric Cars but no Oil to move them to where we need them scenario. Both of these scenarios are pretty ridiculous but those are the types of arguments being bandied about now. If you are replacing a car and decide to go electric then well done. Hopefully, it will balance out the energy costs in making it by being cleaner to run but the batteries will probably need replacing, thereby using even more energy, before the pollution caused in making it has been offset by your use of it. However, you are going in the right direction. If, on the other hand, you decide to replace a perfectly good vehicle with an electric vehicle to help the environment then you simply won’t be. You need to run a current electric vehicle for 8 years just to break even on the initial energy requirements (which cause pollution) before you factor in the damage being done in South America to the rain forests as that is where 70% of the Lithium for the batteries comes from.

So, next time I get stuck in traffic I might start work on how long before battery efficiency makes the production of all electric vehicles a positive for the environment. Meanwhile, I will still ponder on why we need to put plastic over mushrooms to stop them falling out of the punnet when years ago we used to pack everything in open topped wooden punnets and all of the items stayed in place. Personally, I buy mine loose in paper bags.

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