Renewable Resources: We Sorely Need to Develop a Culture that Embraces Them

What's draining U.S. energy resources faster than any other product or technology? Cars? Lighting? HVAC? Refrigeration?

None of the above.

The little things in life are the nation's fastest-growing energy drains, such as computers, printers, TVs, vending machines, DVD players, ceiling fans and more of the like--especially devices that are always on. Taken together, they generate what energy analysts call Miscellaneous Energy Loads, or MELs. America's MELs are already bigger than the primary energy consumption of almost every other nation, notes a just-released report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) on Miscellaneous Energy Loads (MELs) in Buildings--and are growing more quickly than any other energy use category in the country.

More significantly, energy is only one of the many resources we use excessively on a routine basis. There's also water, as I noted recently in a Huffington Post article, "Water: The Most Critical Asset in Your Production Strategy," as well as all the commodities derived from plants and animals, and fossil fuels. While the latter is limited by supply, the others are not because they are renewable resources that if managed well will never be depleted.

In an ideal world, all of the resources we use would be renewable. Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway, voiced this concept in 1987 when she authored the landmark report, "Our Common Future," which noted the critical importance of "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Unfortunately, our ideal world has been a long time coming, but not for want of trying. Over the last 26 years, three high-level major global conferences aimed at preventing the destruction of the planet's irreplaceable natural resources followed Brundtland's report: the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and last year's Rio+20.

Hopefully, the push for further reliance on renewable resources may finally be taking hold in the U.S. This summer, President Obama released an ambitious 2013 Climate Action Plan, which makes a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020; double current U.S. renewable energy production by 2020; and double U.S. energy efficiency relative to 2010 standards by 2030. And in August, to 'practice what he preached,' he re-installed the solar panels on the White House that were originally put up by President Carter and removed by President Reagan.

These are heady, and admirable, ambitions. But the U.S. has far to go. According to the respected 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) put out by researchers at Yale and Columbia Universities with the World Economic Forum and European Commission--which ranks countries on how close they are globally to established environmental policy goals--the U.S. ranks 49 out of 132. This assessment is based on the nation's environmental stresses to human health, ecosystem conditions and natural resource management. That's far below all other G6 nations and a surprising host of developing nations. Even worse, our Trend EPI rank, which indicates how quickly we're moving up, falls even lower at 77.

So how can the U.S. catch up?

Brundtland had it right; renewable resources are key. The world population is growing and so is the demand for already scarce natural resources. It is critical to tap the available--and vast--supplies of renewable resources we have here. And more significantly, we must learn to manage them astutely, systematically and equitably so they aren't wasted. There are many considerations to do this:

1. New game plans to use and conserve renewable resources are going to require a massive cultural shift that has to start with education. There is still low awareness and a lot of confusion around the term renewability and the concept of renewable resources at all levels. As a result, we need to start focusing on schooling businesses and consumers alike on the relevance and benefits of using renewable resources.

2. In a resource-constrained world, it's key for industry to limit its dependence on nonrenewable resources. We need to move away from the linear model--'take, make, dispose'--to a restorative, circular economy where renewable resources are used efficiently and effectively. We all know about the three Rs--reduce, reuse and recycle--but a circular economy goes further. It combines cleaner production, comprehensive utilization of resources, eco-design and sustainable consumption to forge a multi-win model that reconciles our economic, environmental and developmental objectives.

3. Government and industry needs to put plans in place to grow programs and implement processes to ensure that products are designed with the environment and renewability in mind from the start and not just as an afterthought. In addition, everyone along the supply chain must think holistically, which means selecting materials, ingredients and products that are sourced responsibly from replenishable resources. At Tetra Pak, we use the greatest possible proportion of renewable materials in our packages. Our cartons, on average, are made of more than 70 percent paperboard, a renewable resource from selectively harvested and regrown trees; we have launched bio- based plastic caps made from polyethylene from sugar cane; and our goal is to offer packages made from 100 percent renewable materials.

4. The use of forests as a source of raw material can sometimes be questioned. How can it make good environmental sense to cut down trees? The first consideration is that the alternative would be to use more nonrenewable resources. Therefore, using forest-based products that are continuously replenished makes a significantly better net contribution to the environment. Of course, there are forests that have such a high environmental or social value that they should not be touched. These forests must be identified and protected by the forest owner and/or government. This is an important part of responsible forest management, which is fully supported by Tetra Pak.

5. There is a need to step up programs and create new ones where necessary to identify products made with responsibly sourced renewable resources. Some successful examples of these efforts include the United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program and the Forest Stewardship Council's certification program.

And it is not about just using renewable resources--but also using the least amount of them. So, focusing on efficiencies is key. It is critical to lower and streamline the use of every resource possible throughout the whole lifecycle of a product, from conceptualizing to manufacturing to end of life.

America is a fierce competitor and has always taken note of, and tried to address, its deficits. However, this problem requires not only global leadership, but also collaboration, as President Obama has rightly noted. America is moved by powerful shifts in human thought, and to me, renewable resources is an issue needing to be rethought as it affects everyone and everything and impacts our businesses. So let's move beyond symbolic gestures and make the most of the renewable resources we already have.