Engineering solutions in the fight against climate change

By Heather Royston | June 13, 2022

With climate change continuing to affect nearly every area of our lives and businesses, we must reflect: in the fifty years since World Environment Day was first recognized, what could we have done differently on a social and industrial level? What can we do differently moving forward? And what can we do today in order to impactfully meet our climate goals?

We’re living in what I like to call a “throwaway culture.” Gone are the days of reusable, refillable milk jugs; now, we throw away plastic milk bags and buy more at the grocery store when needed. Somewhere along the way, we collectively decided it was more convenient—and more advanced, perhaps—to place our social and industrial value in what is new and accessible rather than what is reusable and sustainable. When this shift began, we thought our resources would last forever. But now that we know better, it’s our responsibility to do better.  

What is throwaway culture? 

Sustainability goals can feel insurmountable when we try to tackle them as a modern issue requiring new, innovative solutions. Although innovative solutions are indeed needed, what if—in our day-to-day lives—we simply began to distance ourselves from the notion of throwaway culture and shifted our focus to include a simple, straightforward return to the way things once were? 

To do this, we can begin by taking a look at examples of everyday throwaway culture. 

In many places in the world, we’re fortunate to have free-flowing, clean water from our taps, yet the convenience of bottled water continues to prevail. We’ve all seen the images of plastic water bottles in landfills, but despite knowing where our plastics end up, 19% of Canadian households admit to primarily drinking bottled water1.  It takes millions of barrels of oil to make enough plastic bottles to meet America’s bottled water demands. Consumers put these water bottles in household bins to be recycled rather than reusing them themselves, and rarely question where the water bottles go next, or what the carbon footprint of facility-based recycling is compared to reusing plastics within the household.  

The same can be said for our reusable coffee cups. 

How many of us grab a disposable coffee cup on the way to work?  

How many of us grab a disposable cup for coffee at work? 

And how many of us are tossing these disposable cups in the recycle bin and displacing the recycling process onto an external facility?  

This way of recycling takes us away from our own responsibility as consumers and places it on a more energy intensive system that is being pushed to capacity. We can no longer operate as a circular economy when we defer the recycle and reuse responsibility this way. 

The list of ways we’ve become a throwaway society is long, and in order to begin the transition away from this lifestyle, we—on a social and industrial level—need to begin to realign our values. 

Grounding ourselves in achievable and impactful sustainability goals 

In order to shift the organizational and individual focus, we need to create awareness and have a plan, and continually measure and assess our sustainability goals as we go. It needs to be a dynamic process—one that must continually evolve—but the root of the goal needs to be based in a commitment to reducing our environmental impact. 

There are some simple, straightforward ways we can do this on both a social and industrial level. The best place to begin is through education. The concept of “The Three Rs” is being taught in schools at a young age, and these lessons continue throughout grade-level learning. But on an organizational level, when it comes to education, this is often where the ball is dropped.  

Within an organization, very few employees are aware of how their company’s supply chain functions, or the environmental impact of this supply chain. In order to make room for improvement, we need to begin with awareness and with assigning value to reducing the company’s environmental impact. Value can be defined monetarily, or it can be defined as the benefits to the environment; and reducing an organization’s carbon footprint by greening the supply chain is both. Finding the way to reduce costs and impact on the world at the same time is the ideal solution - one that’s not out of reach these days.  Companies do not have to compromise to make the responsible choice for their bottom line and the earth. They just need to pay attention to the details. 

The same is true on a community level. While many of us place items in a recycle bin, very few of us question what happens next. But if we begin with education and engagement, we can begin to bring sustainable solutions to the forefront, particularly to underserved communities where support is most needed.  

What next 

Everyone on earth can bring their gifts and talents to this issue. As engineers, we need to bring the gift of technical expertise and technical solutions to the table. Whether we’re bringing our talents as technical experts or as advisory experts, we need to connect within our organizations in order to create robust, complete solutions and begin to make incremental changes in anticipation of achieving our overarching goal: to do no harm, and to apply unprecedented ideas to the world’s toughest challenges.  

If you want to learn more about how we’re engineering solutions and taking a holistic approach to client solutions, contact Heather Royston, our new managing director with the Environment and Sustainability Group.