Issues and Challenges

Invisible Loss of Natural Resources during Manufacturing and Recycling

The high standard of living that we enjoy today is undoubtedly dependent upon the availability of the natural resources. Natural resources can be defined as materials comprising earth’s biosphere and are being used to meet people’s demands and support life. Renewable natural resources are trees, air, sunlight, soil and water. The replenishment of renewable resources is supposed to occur at the same rate at which they are being used. Oil, natural gas, coal, stone metals and sand are non-renewable natural resources. If not managed or conserved properly, they can deplete at a very fast rate and at present, that is exactly what is happening. Resource usage for meeting the demands of 7 billion people is gradually resulting in exhaustion of these natural resources.
Natural resources replenish themselves by means of the earth’s natural cycles. However, it is becoming increasingly impossible for the natural resources to regenerate themselves as depletion is occurring much more rapidly than replenishment. The moment industrial revolution began, slow onset disaster started its course. Humans invented many things to make their lives easier. Their demands increased and so did the loss of natural resources. Our planet could not keep up with our demands as we used too much, too rapidly and without any care. And we are continuing to do so. The alarming rate at which these natural resources are being exploited has devastated large parts of the natural world. It would be no surprise if a day comes when these natural resources become so scarce that they barely meet our needs. Moreover, the consequent damage that the depletion of the natural resources causes to the environment would also be inevitable and irreversible. 
Natural resources are used to make fuel, food and raw materials for the manufacturing of goods. Fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal that we obtain are used to provide power, light and heat. Thus, theses are important components used during manufacturing of goods. Natural gas is the largest source of energy consumption by the manufacturing sector. Most of the energy demands are fulfilled by natural gas in the manufacturing sector. That is mostly because natural gas is not only cheaper but the carbon emissions are also lesser than other fuels. The rest of the energy requirements are met by using electricity and burning other resources like petroleum products, wood, coal etc. 
Moreover, the raw materials for making a lot of our everyday products come directly from natural resources, the most prominent component being the petroleum-based products. We know how deeply the utilization of plastic has been incorporated in our lives. Various industries use plastic for packaging and producing consumer products, textiles, industrial machinery, appliances and even in building and construction. Plastic is made with the help of petroleum products like polystyrene, polyethylene, polyester, polypropylene, PVC, acrylic and nylon. All these products account for millions of tons of plastic that is being disposed of into the environment. Out of all the plastic products that are generated annually, less than 10% is recycled. Thus, all the resources used during their production accumulate in the form of waste as plastic cannot be destroyed or composted. Incineration of plastic is also not ideal as it only turns it into substances that are just as bad as plastic itself. Using landfills or water bodies is the only way to dispose of plastic waste. Hence, it is apparent that manufacturing industries are also using resources like land, water bodies and air as waste dumps and emission sinks. 
Food manufacturing industries are also playing a major role in resource depletion. All the food that we eat comes from either animals or plants. These industries are expanding the crop production areas, and livestock and aquaculture grounds to obtain more food. Excessively removing trees to use the land for crop production could end up damaging the soil and making it incapable of growing anything. Desertification of once fertile lands has already begun in some parts of the world and will continue to do so if we do not monitor the productive capacity of the soils we are dealing with. Thus, soil which is a renewable resource is also at risk of losing its replenishing abilities if we continue to damage it in order to meet our excessive food demands. Unsustainable use of livestock and aquatic ecosystems can also result in degradation of the environment and create imbalances in the global food chain.

It is obvious that we are losing a lot of natural resources making products to meet the demands of 7 billion people. Exhausting our resources without any check and balance is resulting in disastrous consequences. Each and every product is inexorably generating waste and provoking harmful environmental effects. We need to come up with alternative ways to generate energy and meet our current demands. The resource scarcity is another important issue that can be dealt with if only we use our natural resources in a more sustainable way. Fossil fuels like natural gas and oil take hundreds of years to form, though once they are mined and utilized fully, there will be no way to restore them. 
Extraction and processing of raw materials and non-renewable resources obtained from the earth are causing irreversible ecological changes. The whole manufacturing sector collectively intervenes in the natural ecosystem and is creating imbalances that are hard to cope with. Even the renewable resources are affected by the energy intensive activities of the manufacturing sector as a result of which air, water and soil pollution is caused. Extensive use of energy, chemicals, materials, etc, are all leading to pollution in one way or another. 
In short, all the unsustainable activities that are used in manufacturing of various products are leading to problems like water shortage, food shortage, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, extinction of various animal and plants species, damaged functions of the ecosystem, floods, droughts, excessive greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbation of global warming. 
Resource depletion is not only taking place during the manufacturing process, but even when the product is at the end of the supply chain, i.e., the product has been used up by the consumer and thrown out. At any stage, the damage it poses to the environment is unavoidable. For instance, even when the product or its remnants are to be recycled, recycling would also require the use of energy. In case of recycling, the energy is mostly generated by burning either fuel or waste. Consequently, the production of greenhouse gases and other toxic and harmful pollutants is inevitable. However, if burning wastes is not part of the recycling process, less energy is required to extract, transport and process the raw materials. Recycling products like paper, aluminum cans, plastic bottles, etc., are all economically and environmentally beneficial for the ecosystem. 
All these ecological problems that we discussed above show that earth’s regenerative capacities are already deteriorating with the gradual loss of natural resources. The steady growth in worldwide population has made it increasingly difficult to use the finite source of non-renewable resources in a sustainable way. There may be some sustainable alternatives to avoid depletion of natural resources like using windmills or solar power to generate energy, but so far these approaches fail to meet the current energy demands to support an ever increasing population. Thus, it is important for us to play a part in reducing the use of natural resources on a local and community scale by cutting down on the manufactured goods that do not comprise essentials, or by reusing so that the benefits we reap make an impact globally. HH

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