Systems Approach to Addressing Sustainability: Breaking New Ground

January 21, 2015

Photo of Jason Hill from Winter 2015 BioBrief's main articleSustainability is like the elephant in the room. It’s easy to see its importance, but dif­ficult to see whole. Yet it is only by looking at it holistically that sustainable solutions to our world’s problems can be found.

Three BBE faculty are demonstrating ways of tackling that elephant. Omar Espinoza, Jason Hill, and Tim Smith approach sustainable issues from di­fferent directions, but all three of them look at systems as a whole. Espinoza investigates how new products and processes can support the sustainability of the forest industry. Hill and Smith look at sustainability in food and energy systems. Hill (right) focuses more on the agricultural production side, and on the environmental impacts of producing energy or food. Smith’s studies start closer to consumption, working with companies like Walmart and Smithfield Farms to help them look at the costs and impacts of their inputs and outputs (photo below left).

To get the big picture that sustainable solutions require, their research teams need to collect, sort and analyze a lot of data. The end product of their work can help clarify options and reveal the implications of choices to help companies, producers, and also policy makers and regulators make better decisions.

“When you start thinking in systems you see relationships between things and include feedback loops,” Smith says. “This is one of the tools we try to give our students—an understanding that the world is not linear, but often looks like circles.”

“We train people how to sift through information and ask good questions in the first place.” Hill adds.

This work often includes life cycle analysis to track material and energy flows through a system. Life cycle analysis looks at tradeoffs among impacts. For example, use of one material may reduce carbon emissions, but may have negative effects on water or air quality. Life cycle analysis also looks at shifting of inputs across stages of the life cycle. For example, switching from aluminum cans to plastic bottles using a byproduct of petrochemical process might reduce energy use in production, but create challenges at the back end of the life cycle in recycling.

A sustainable approach quickly reveals that everything is interconnected. For example, one of Hill’s current projects is looking at the impacts of decisions to support human health on climate change. “Take transfat labeling,” he says. “Consumers have been moving away from transfats and towards saturated fats due to health concerns. That has resulted in changes in the formulations of foods, which leads to changes in crops grown. And this has impacts on the environment and implications for climate change. So we try to make good decisions for our health, but until you look at the big picture, we don’t think of how those decisions might also a­ffect the environment.”

The field of bioenergy is full of examples of these tradeoffs and challenges. Both Hill and Smith are working on large projects funded by USDA on turning trees and grasses into jet fuel and other products now made from oil.  e problem is that breaking down the sugars in feedstocks like trees and grasses to make fuels takes quite a bit of energy, and produces a lot of residues. For this process to be economically feasible uses must be found for this material. A sustainable solution must look at all the advantages and drawbacks of every option.

Photo of Tim Smith from Winter 2015 BioBrief's main articleSustainable systems look at how to keep things in the system, rather than using up inputs and adding more. For example, one of Espinoza’s studies focuses on how lumber residues can be used to generate both electricity and heat. This cogeneration is much more efficient. But there are barriers to adoption that must be addressed, including transportation of the residues, and policy barriers, such as difficulties in selling back electricity to the grid.

Another example of a sustainable solution is looking at what under-used materials can be better used. Espinoza is looking at market opportunities for new wood-based materials and technologies. One, called Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), uses low value trees to create a high value added product. CLT creates massive multi layered panels made from solid wood layers that are glued together to improve rigidity, stability and mechanical properties. These are created in the factory to size, and moved to the building site where a small crew can assemble them.

What is clear is that sustainable practices require a new way of thinking. To meet this need, BBE faculty, working together with faculty across the University, are designing a new major in Sustainable Systems Management, which looks at the full range of economic, environmental and social impacts. The new major acknowledges that e­ffective leaders in the modern world will have to have not only a strong quantitative skill set, but a deep understanding of our connected world, and an ability to ask the right questions.

Espinoza, Hill and Smith all recognize that an important part of their work is to connect with producers and practitioners, and help educate them in the opportunities and limitations in using the information from their research. “Our work is timely, but won’t have an impact unless people have access to it,” Hill says. “In the world of practice it’s not about what ifs,’ it’s about what to do.” Smith says.

The world of bioproducts and biosystems—the green world—more and more demands a bigger view. BBE doesn’t own the sustainability issue, these faculty members point out. But BBE is in a unique position to look at this interconnected world to help find sustainable solutions to make this a better place for all.