Of Ecology and Economy
Since the turn of the century, there has been a surge of interest and ideas in environmentally conscious products. Almost the entire range of goods commercialized in the world now have an eco-friendly version of sorts, and in general we like to think that we’re minimizing our environmental impact by using these products. Often with these eco-friendly solutions, we find that they end up being a little more costly than their counterparts, but in return we’re making sure that we’re doing the right thing for the planet. If this was the point I was trying to make, I’d be a few years late to the conversation. Instead, I’d like to look at what happens when these eco-friendly solutions are also economically friendly.
We’re starting to see in the headlines signs of these eco-friendly solutions taking on the competition not on a social responsibility basis, but strictly on an economic basis. We’ll see an even bigger shift towards eco-friendly design as we have more tools available to us that allow us to push towards more efficient designs.
One example of such convergence of eco-friendly products having an economic advantage is Genius Foods, a company in Mexico that takes food processing by-products and creates a replacement flour ingredient for bakeries and other food producers. They take wasted food materials like mango and avocado pits and convert them to a food ingredient with a proprietary process. Their products provide a more nutritional food source than traditional ones, at a lower price point, and with no impact on the flavor while at the same time utilizing crops to their full potential. With the old adage of one man’s trash is another’s treasure for a business model, as well as a positive impact in people’s health and a thumbs up from the environment, we see an idea that has its roots on eco-thinking and has a natural competitive advantage.
In a completely different market, we see another example of the eco/economic-friendly push in solar energy. According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), 2016 was the tipping point where solar energy starts becoming cheaper than some fossil fuel energy sources like coal. That is on a leveled, unsubsidized playing field; however, only in certain countries. The WEF estimates that by 2020, photovoltaic electricity will be cheaper than coal or gas power in most countries. On a similar note, we see the promise of photovoltaic roof tiles from Tesla and Solar City that claim they will have a lower cost than traditional roofing when the energy savings are taken into account, becoming an obvious solution to many homeowners.
When the eco-friendly surge of products and services began, it was driven by a wish to preserve our precious resources and take good care of our planet. But as we become more conscious of our ecological impact, we invest more time, money, and effort into rethinking the way we do things. Today, we can start to see those solutions not as an alternative, but as the main solution to a problem.
It makes sense, from an engineering perspective, that for many industries the most economical solution is also the most environmentally friendly. In the case of Genius Foods, we get a higher yield from our raw food materials. In the case of solar energy, we are simply taking advantage of a source of energy that’s just sitting there, ready for us to take. In the end, we’re talking of economic activity as an energy balance problem - the more efficient we are with our inputs, the more potential value we can generate.
The many current advancements in technology not only change our available options for design solutions, but, if we keep track of these new developments, can open new avenues in our thought processes when designing new solutions. It is then, with clever ideas and innovative thinking, that we can get more efficient technologies, both in the realms of ecology and economy. With all of this said, I would like to end by asking you, the reader, to think: How can you or your company find these efficiencies?
-Dan Gutierrez, Mechanical Engineer