The New Engineer

Citation: This was article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Saving money without costing the Earth', Engineers Australia, June 1998, p. 56.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Engineers have long prided themselves on their ability to "build for $1 what any mug can build for $2". Traditional engineering skills have enabled them to apply scientific and mathematical principles, and the odd rule of thumb, to hone down the material requirements of their structures, plants and machines to the bare minimum in order to save their clients or employers money.

New engineers seek not only to minimise costs but also environmental impacts. They pride themselves on their ability to protect the environment whilst saving money for their employers or clients in the long term. Pollution, energy losses and waste are signs of inefficiency and represent potentially valuable resources in the wrong place.

Companies such as 3M, Dow Chemical, Du Pont and Chevron have reduced discharges by between 50 and 90 percent by changing raw materials and manufacturing processes. Moreover, their investments in cleaner technology were repaid in a very short time-from less than one year to about three years.

The book Caring for the Earth also cites a study of five hundred industrial case studies in which wastes were reduced by 85 per cent to 100 per cent, and in which the firms got their money back within three years and in some cases within a few months. The benefits for the companies which reduced their wastes and pollution in this way included lower energy, material, operating, liability and waste treatment costs.

Too often such innovations have to be compelled through legislation. But such technology-promoting legislation is usually opposed by companies and vested interests who do not want to change or fear such changes will reduce their profits. This was all too evident at the recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto where the Australian government, influenced by industry lobbying and the industry financed ABARE economic modelling, argued that reducing greenhouse gases would be too expensive for Australian industries.

Industry has a long record of dire predictions about the consequences of environmental regulation which often turn out to be wrong. The chemical industry overestimated the costs of a proposed vinyl-chloride standard by two hundred times. Wastewater pretreatment standards proposed for effluent from the electroplating industry were predicted to force a closure of 20% of electroplating job shops. A research and development project following this announcement produced a new rinsing method, the 'Providence method' which reduced water consumption by one third and cut hazardous waste production by 50-70%.

The US banned CFCs in aerosols in the face of strong opposition from the CFC industry which employed public relations professionals to argue that the claim that CFCs depleted the ozone layer was a mere hypothesis. The ban resulted in two innovations; a non-fluorocarbon propellent was developed and a new pumping system was introduced that did not depend on propellents and actually turned out to be cheaper than CFC propellents.

Similar PR strategies have been used to argue that global warming is merely a theory promoted by environmental groups and a media starved for sensational stories. However, the consensus reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which involves 2,500 climate scientists from all over the world, is that "the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate." IEAust has long taken global warming seriously, formulating policies, convening conferences, and taking a lead in the greenhouse debate.

The 8 percent increase in greenhouse emissions that the government won for Australia at Kyoto, far from being a triumph, was in reality a public defeat for Australian engineering. The government had put the case, in an international arena, that Australian engineers were not capable of achieving the cost saving greenhouse gas reductions that other countries were counting on. Few engineers publicly contradicted this view.

Yet the new engineer is capable of producing affordable technologies that exceed the standards committed to by governments and should be willing to say so. Environmental standards and targets are too often influenced by vested interests and determined by those who have little faith in the ability of engineers to come up with cost-effective innovations that protect the environment.