The sustainable use of natural resources from a ‘full-life-cycle’ perspective

When resources are extracted from the natural world, made into things and consumed in the human world, and then returned to the natur al world, the process can be referred to as the entire life cycle of resources. Viewing resource utilization from this perspective helps discover links that may have been overlooked in the traditional way of looking at resource use. It helps further an understanding of not only the inadequacies but also the potential that exists for China’s sustainable use of resources.

The entire life cycle of resource use

In terms of physical form, resources take on four basic aspects as they move through a life cycle. First, various activities extract resources from the natural world. Resources are then made into usable products through manufacturing and processing. They pass through a stage of being consumed by humans, and in the course of that, they generate waste materials. These materials are then put through treatment processes before being returned to nature. Figure 2.1 summarizes the entire cycle.

In reality, the situation is considerably more complex and is not, in fact, a simple one-way cycle as described in Figure 2.1. As materials are being extracted, waste materials are discharged that may cause damage to the ecological environment. A portion of consumer goods may be remanufactured into new products rather than going directly into being waste materials that require treatment. Only a portion of waste materials may return to the natural world, either in treated or untreated form. Another poxtion may, in fact, be retrieved or be reused thr ough a process of recycling. There are often two-way processes in the course of moving through the four basic ‘fonns’ as described earlier, and there are overlapping, complex relationships. In the course of extracting resources and using them in production, what you often get is not just one sole type of resource or product but, rather, a vaiiety of resources and products. Each has its own characteristics and usage, which also makes the conversion from one form to the next more complex.

These very complexities also provide an opportunity to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, however. They can help reduce the total quantity of resource inputs, and they provide an opportunity for reducing enviromnental

Life cycle of resources

Figure 2.1 Life cycle of resources

Note: Dispos = Disposition; Consu = Consumption; Produc = Production.

impacts. With greater complexities as resources are converted from one form to another, the chain of resource use is extended, and resources are used in more thorough and prolonged ways. This reduces the need for a greater total quantity of resources to be extracted. The same resource can thereby support a greater amount of economic output. Reducing waste emissions and increasing the capacity of the ecological environment can also increase the availability of resources.

Conventional ways of applying life-cycle management to the extraction and use of resoiuces have already been examined in the existing literature. They have been well researched and discussed, so this report mainly focuses on the potential for using resources in ways that have not yet been sufficiently explored. Such things include (1) integrated development and use of resources and integration of the multiple functions and outputs that can come out of production processes, as well as raising the level of compound use of land and space; (2) maintenance and repair of products as they are being used; (3) remanufacturing; (4) retrieving and reusing. Strengthening these weak links in resource utilization throughout the resource life cycle is the direction to take in the future if we want to significantly increase resource sustainability in China.

Integrated use of resources

 
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