Page 4: Examples of promoting the sustainability of steel
Tata Steel demonstrates ethical and sustainable practice in its own operations. However, it goes further in encouraging its customers and markets to also make decisions based on sound sustainability principles. These three case studies demonstrate where life cycle thinking is helping Tata Steel to promote the use of steel, while at the same time encouraging ethical behaviour.
Case study I: The automotive industry
A major part of the UK’s CO2 emissions come from cars, referred to as ‘tailpipe emissions’. The government has passed laws targeting the reduction in such emissions. However, this only looks at car emissions in the ‘use’ phase, rather than those caused by manufacturing and scrapping vehicles. One way to reduce use-phase emissions is to make the car lighter as lighter weight cars use less fuel.
However materials such as aluminium, magnesium or carbon-fibre reinforced plastics have high environmental costs in manufacturing and they are not as easy to recycle as steel. The savings made from using them are usually outweighed by the CO2 produced in the other life-cycle phases. Providing the whole life cycle of the material is taken into account (LCA) - not just the ‘use’ phase - steel has been shown to be the best material to decrease CO2 emissions of cars.
Outcome: Tata Steel has joined forces with other steel-makers to produce the ‘Future steel vehicle’ which showcases the latest advances in steel technology. Using its LCA studies, it is now influencing the next generation of legislation to move towards an LCA approach rather than just looking at ‘tailpipe’ emissions.
Case study 2: the construction industry
Traditionally, timber was used for constructing frames for buildings but it was difficult to find trees large enough for bigger buildings. New technology means that timber can now be used for large buildings and with increased concerns about sustainability, there has been a revival in the use of timber frames for buildings such as supermarkets, warehouses and schools. Timber is perceived as being a sustainable and ‘green’ resource.
However, when Tata Steel looked at the LCA of timber in terms of where it came from and how it was recycled, it found that carbon emissions were similar to a typical steel framed building. How the timber is dealt with once the building is demolished was found to have a major impact on the overall sustainability of the building structure. Most timber from demolished buildings is either land-filled or incinerated. The final result shows that using a steel frame (where studies have shown that 99% is recycled) produces less CO2 over the entire life-cycle than using a timber frame.
Outcome: The results from the LCA study of building structures are being used to provide facts to architects, engineers and legislators regarding material choice.
Case study 3: the packaging industry
Many consumer brands are keen to give an image of environmental responsibility. One way is to try to reduce packaging. It is an area where government regulators have a big influence too. The UK government’s goal is to reduce the carbon impact of grocery packaging by 10% by the end of 2012. One legislative approach to this is to reduce the total weight of packaging used.
However, LCA studies by Tata Steel have shown that focusing on weight reduction does not necessarily make for more sustainable packaging. Targets just on weight reduction could lead to the wrong decision, for example, to use alternative packaging materials that could take more energy to produce and are not always completely recycled when they are disposed of.
All steel cans that are collected are truly recycled. Steel does not downgrade when recycled. It can be re-used over and over again whereas other materials tend to be used only once and, even if recycled, will be used for alternative, lower-grade applications. When adopting the Tata Steel LCA approach, it is clear that steel cans, even though they may weigh more than some alternative packaging, provide a more sustainable packaging material.
Outcome: Tata Steel and its industry partners used their LCA approach to persuade regulators to take a different view on steel used in packaging. This resulted in national recycling targets taking a full life-cycle approach by using actual recycling rate as the measure, rather than reducing the total weight of cans.