Trends like an increasing average US home size, a decreasing number of occupants per household, and an increasing US population do not indicate a sustainable housing future. Research in this area focuses on the development of tools for assessing building environmental performance, and the application of the methodologies of industrial ecology to better understand material flows, energy flows, and costs associated with building design and construction. Since the design and construction of new buildings is one of the most resource intensive decisions made by developers and consumers, the Dana building which houses the Center for Sustainable Systems and the School of Natural Resources and Environment has recently been retrofitted to attain a gold certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System from the US Green Building Council.
Communities across the US face enormous challenges regarding urbanization, resource distribution, land conversion, population growth, and the extension of infrastructure. Community metabolism draws on the disciplines of biology, engineering, and physics to increase efficiency and reduce environmental impact of material and energy flow through human communities.
From cosmetics to appliances to furniture, the industrial products that we use every day can have significant environmental impacts. CSS Life cycle analysis studies on products like cars and furniture have identified which processes and materials are the best environmental choice for producers and consumers. A set of recommendations from a CSS student study on a yogurt product delivery system have led to an annual savings of 270 tons of materials and waste and 800,000 gallons of water from one yogurt producer.
Only 7.8% of energy consumed in the US comes from renewable, potentially sustainable sources, while 22.4% of total US energy consumption is met by net imports. Though the implementation of novel renewable energy sources and technologies is imperative for our future well-being, the critical evaluation of these systems for environmental impact before they become widespread is essential. CSS is active in promoting renewable energy through systems based research that evaluates total benefits and impacts of emerging technologies. The CSS offices are powered by a combination of wind power and three different roof mounted solar arrays installed for a long-term comparative efficiency project.
As awareness about the social, environmental, and economic impacts of the US food and agricultural industry grows, research continues to shed light on the sustainability of our food system. Increasingly intensive farm management techniques coupled with increasing packaging, processing, marketing, and transportation energy has lead to an increasingly fossil fuel based system. In 2000, the US food system delivered 1.4 quadrillion BTUs of food energy to the consumer at the expense of 10.2 quadrillion BTUs of energy for storage and preparation, food service, food retail, packaging, processing, transportation, and agricultural production. This food production energy is equal to about 10% of the total energy consumed in the US at that time. Ongoing CSS research focuses on the sustainability of this system, with focused analysis as food moves through its life cycle from the field to the consumer’s plate.
Quantifiable and standardized metrics, tools, frameworks, and methodologies provide the basis for effective and efficient analysis of societal systems. Considerable achievements have been made with the international research community in the development of a growing set of tools for industrial ecology research. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an ISO standardized analytical tool used to evaluate the environmental consequences of a product or activity across its entire life. Much industrial ecology research builds on a foundation of LCA by taking a life cycle approach to system modeling and impact assessment with tools like Life Cycle Design and Life Cycle Costing. There is a large breadth of research focusing in on the creation of these tools and frameworks, as well as many applied uses of groundbreaking Industrial ecology publications here.
Research involving energy or resource flows must by characterized into an appropriate environmental or physical metric for comparisons with the natural environment. These environmental Impacts must relate a physical quantity or energy flow such as pounds of coal burned into some environmental quantity such as the Global Warming Potential released into the atmosphere from the burning of this physical quantity. Impacts and burdens must be carefully calculated from the best and latest available research to ensure that material and energy flows calculated through tools such LCA are accurately transposed into a different type of metric. Some environmental impacts such as Global Warming Potential, eutrophication effects, regional acidification, and biological toxicity are commonly used to indicate the environmental impacts of various systems. Impacts and burdens take into apublications/ccount a wide range of subjective and/or objective factors that must be carefully assessed for accurate results.
As the demand for plastics and alternative materials increase throughout our economy, the environmental impacts stemming from the life cycles of these materials continue to increase. Groundbreaking chemical research is currently exploring the efficacy of plant-based feedstocks for material manufacturing as alternatives to petroleum-based materials like plastics and rubbers. Since only 2% of current manufacturing production begins with plant-based feedstocks, there are significant obstacles and opportunities in this emerging field. Assessments of these emerging technologies may account for myriad environmental impacts along the life cycle of competing materials including material production energy, local eutrophication potential, and global greenhouse gas potential, among others. Additionally, a life cycle approach to the assessment of common construction materials is crucial for decision making throughout the value chain.
The environmental impacts of the US service industry are an often overlooked but crucial sustainability focal point. While services require special consideration within Life Cycle Assessments of products like vehicles that require service of some kind during their use phase, the service industry also has also been the direct focus of comparative assessments and other research to reduce the overall impacts and burdens of the industry as a whole. One such comparative analysis compared the use of toxic perchloroethylene (perc) in dry cleaning services to an alternative wet cleaning method to assist regulators, policymakers, dry cleaners, and consumers in understanding the relative advantages and disadvantages to both systems. Each service sector uniquely affects the environment, so research in this field is necessarily adaptive and specific.
Transportation systems that meet the mobility needs of society are general resource intensive and result in significant environmental impact. The US transportation sector accounts for 26.8% of total US energy consumption and 33% of total US carbon dioxide emissions. Research in this area ranges from component design to environmental metrics and Life Cycle Assessment of vehicle manufacture to larger scale analysis of integrated transportation systems to the development of cutting edge technologies like hybrid and fuel cell vehicles.
Projected to be the humanities most crucial and limited resource by many, water must be carefully managed to ensure a sustainable future. Many major metropolitan centers devote a large amount of resources to supply water needs by the diversion of water from its natural sources, wastewater treatment facilities, desalination plants, and other means. Additionally, the agriculture industry consumed 39% of total US freshwater withdrawal in 1995 and is the leading source of pollution in the nation’s lakes, rivers, and wetlands according to the National Summary of Water Quality Conditions. Furthermore, withdrawal rates from many freshwater resources exceed natural recharge rates like in the Ogallala aquifer in the American High Plains region.