The Principles of Sustainable Engineering Explained



Sustainability is more than a buzzword. It is a solution in the effort to address matters as diverse as resource scarcity, population growth, globalization and environmental degradation. Sustainability is the effort to meet the needs of the current generation without adversely affecting the rest. Discussions on how this could be done have resulted in lists of sustainable engineering principles. Here are the principles of sustainable engineering explained.

Design Products and Processes to be as Non-Hazardous as Possible

One of the main principles of sustainable engineering is to make sure that the product and the process by which it is made is as non-hazardous as possible. One variation of this principle is to design processes that are integrated with other energy and material flows.

For example, you can design your manufacturing process to tap into someone else’s waste stream. This can take the form of using recycled materials in your own operations. The ideal application of this principle is developing closed cycles of operations for consumption and product collection for recycling into new models.

Capturing and utilizing waste heat for another purpose is another. Using “green” materials is ideal. Another variation of this is prioritizing the use of renewable energy. We even see this as oil and gas firms invest in renewable energy. Less obvious applications of this principle take the form of inherency, creating less toxic versions of a chemical for use in your product, or less harmful forms of a waste product. This reduces the harm caused if the substance leaks into the ecosystem or if workers are exposed to it. However, if every material used to make the product is benign, then the intrinsic nature of the system cannot create these risks.

One application of this principle is looking at the entire life cycle of the product and seeking to make all of these stages environmentally benign. For example, an environmentally benign end product that requires the use of hazardous or nonrenewable materials to produce it is not really sustainable. In this case, you have simply shifted the environmental impact to another stage in the life cycle.

Prevention of Waste Trumps Treating or Cleaning It Up

Eliminate waste instead of trying to figure out how to dispose of it. A related concept is making separation and purification part of the design process. This means understanding how the product will be recycled or otherwise disposed of while it is on the drafting board. Designing items so that they can be disassembled and recycled or reused is ideal. Where there are multiple components, try to use the same material so that it is easy to recycle by throwing the whole thing into the one, correct recycling bin.

A related principle is being as efficient as possible. For example, use as little material as possible, and find ways to use as little energy or fuel as possible while manufacturing it.

Planning construction projects so that they minimize the creation of construction waste is another example of this. A few firms are using drones to monitor construction sites to minimize theft and waste of materials while allowing managers to get real-time information about the project without having to visit the site. The impact of construction in particular, explains why civil engineers are now expected to consider sustainability when they engineer anything from office buildings to mines.

Make It Last

Products should be made to last. This means not making throwaway items, but instead durable items that last for years. This also means creating products that are compostable or that quickly degrade instead of lasting hundreds of years in the landfill. Another variation of this principle is solving the problem for the foreseeable future instead of solving the immediate problem.

Think Globally, Not Locally

Sustainable engineering encourages people to think globally, not locally. You are not just solving this immediate problem at this particular site. Instead, you are supposed to look for solutions that meet long-term needs in an environmentally responsible manner. Taking steps to preserve biodiversity and minimize ecological disruption is one application of this principle. Another version of this is making polluters pay for their actions, instead of buying the cheapest product and ignoring the environmental impact of how it is made or disposed of.

One way to advance this principle is to encourage the development of more sustainable materials or manufacturing processes up and down the supply chain. Knowledge transfer so that others can improve the sustainability of their operations is another. Learning what already works for others could save you time, money and resources as well.

Make Sustainability One of Your Metrics

What is measured is managed, according to one management guru. One way to move the organization towards greater sustainability is including the design for performance in a commercial afterlife as part of its performance metrics. Considering the efficiency of the manufacturing process from its energy inputs to waste generation is another.

The proper setting of metrics and the process of realigning business operations to meet these new goals are addressed in engineering management programs. Kettering University Online engineering management degree offers customizations in global leadership, supply chain management and operations management, preparing you to implement sustainable principles anywhere from the purchasing department to the factory floor.

Seek Synergy

Traditional engineering focuses on technical issues. Sustainable engineering considers both technical and non-technical issues at the same time. You are not just building a building. You are considering the environmental impact of the construction project and related land use issues. You are making decisions based not just on the cost and technical requirements, but you are also considering the ethical, political and societal issues.

Seek stakeholder involvement not only in the business, but in the local community as well. Offer individuals and the community at large opportunities to improve their skills. For example, invest in human capital. Hire local unskilled talent and offer training so that they can do more.

On the flip side, do not push public policies that benefit the company but economically burden the local community. Instead, allocate costs and benefits in a fair manner. At a minimum, do not set up operations that are disruptive to a community or cause it harm. At its best, this principle results in culturally compatible products produced in an area where it is consumed, while it is made in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Sustainability engineering is not a specific skill set. Instead, it involves a new way of thinking, and it means always working towards green solutions instead of balance sheets and shareholders.