Sustainability starts with knowing what to buy

This is an experimental bioenergy plot at Fermilab, south of Batavia Road near the Village. Ethanol produced from switch grass has about 75 percent less embodied energy than either gasoline or ethanol made from corn. Photo: Rod Walton

Once again, it is time to prepare our Site Sustainability Report and submit it to DOE. This annual report is intended to demonstrate to DOE and the federal government how Fermilab will contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through a combination of energy-efficient practices and wise purchases.

While the term sustainable is often used, many people struggle to articulate a definition. The most often used definition, put forth in the 1980s by a United Nations Council, defines sustainability as “…meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Many of our actions begin by purchasing items, materials or services, so an important part of understanding sustainability is to realize that purchasing decisions have consequences, some of them unintended and unknown. A useful concept in evaluating potential purchases is embodied energy, which recognizes that the true cost of an item must account for the energy necessary to extract its raw materials, manufacture, transport and dispose of it.

Minimizing these hidden costs can lower the overall impact of our purchases. Finding things that are manufactured from recycled rather than virgin materials, are made close to where we want to use them, and that ultimately can be reused or recycled all lower the total energy needed to get the item into, and out of, our hands.

Another important aspect of making purchasing decisions is how much energy and cost is involved in maintaining the item, and its life expectancy. While it may make sense in the short term to buy an item that costs 20 percent less, if it will require 25 percent more energy to operate, it’s really more costly in the long term.

When deciding what to purchase for work, or in your own home, considering embodied energy and associated hidden costs makes good economic and environmental sense.

Rod Walton, Fermilab ecologist