12 Key Sustainability Principles For Engineers

Author: Emma O'Brien
Published date: October 12, 2020

12 Key Sustainability Principles for Engineers

Our recovery from COVID-19 has to be a “green recovery”. It’s being talked about in every industry: how to create sustainable practices that will help us tackle the climate crisis. But what does that really mean for engineering – and why is it so important in this field?

Why does sustainability matter in engineering?

While sustainability obviously matters in every industry, there are a few reasons why it’s a particular concern in engineering:

  • Engineering uses a lot of the earth’s resources, including, carbon, energy, water, and raw materials.
  • Engineering projects also produce a lot of waste.
  • The machinery and vehicles used in engineering can produce harmful emissions and noise pollution.
  • Waste from engineering and development produces pollutants that can contaminate the air and water.
  • Local engineering projects can have a long-lasting global impact.
  • Engineers can play an important role in sustainable community development

This puts engineers in a powerful position: since they’re the source of the problem, they get to decide how to solve it.

While sustainability has to be an organisation-wide effort, engineers’ decisions carry more weight because they’re responsible for the design and execution of new projects. They decide how to meet the requirements of a job. They can help choose and procure the materials and supplies, and have ideas on how to use equipment and machinery more efficiently to finish a task faster.

When it comes down to it, a project’s efficiency and success depend largely on the engineers. If they start following sustainable practices, the environmental impact of the whole team will probably improve.

Here are twelve guiding principles every engineer can use to make sustainable decisions:

  1. Try to make sure your inputs and outputs and outputs of both materials and energy are not hazardous.
  2. Rather than focusing on waste management, focus on waste minimisation. Use by-products creatively in your design, and you’ll save money on both purchasing and waste disposal.
  3. Design for reuse and recycling. Make it easy to separate and purify waste.
  4. Design every component for maximum time, energy and mass efficiency. That generally means keeping them small – which will also keep costs down.
  5. Avoid wasting energy and materials by minimising overproduction. Make sure production is responsive to real-time demands.
  6. Don’t use the same end-of-cycle disposal solution for every project. Let complexity and entropy guide your decisions.
  7. Reduce high-tech waste by not creating overdesigned products that outlast their usefulness.
  8. Only include components and abilities the product is realistically likely to need. Cutting bells and whistles cuts consumption and waste.
  9. Make waste management simply by using as few different materials as possible, especially sealants, coatings, and adhesives.
  10. Remember product creation is just one part of the life cycle. Use life-cycle analysis to evaluate products, and look at things like transport and resource extraction methods to minimise the impact on the environment at each step of the cycle.
  11. Where possible, use renewable or readily available resources, unless using renewables would be more damaging than not.
  12. Consider the needs and opinions of the communities affected by projects, both at the design stage and during the whole process.

Engineers are building the foundations of sustainability. But while it starts with them, the ultimate aim should be to achieve sustainability throughout the whole industry.