In some cases, the conventional wisdom is indeed correct. But out of 25 case studies on products in eight categories done by a team led by Professor of Mechanical Engineering Timothy Gutowski, there were just as many cases where remanufacturing actually cost more energy as cases where it saved energy. And for the majority of the items, the savings were negligible or the energy balance was too close to call. Why are the new results so different from what might have been assumed? The MIT team looked at the total energy used over the lifetime of a product — a life-cycle analysis — rather than just the energy used in the manufacturing process itself. In virtually all cases, it costs less money and less energy to make a product from the recycled "core" — the reusable part of the product — than to start from scratch. But the catch is that many of these remanufactured products are less energy efficient, or newer versions are more energy efficient, so the extra energy used over their lifetime cancels out the savings from the manufacturing stage. Gutowski emphasizes that this research does not necessarily suggest a specific course of action. For any given product, there may be other reasons for preferring the remanufactured version even if it produces a net energy penalty. For example, remanufacturing may reduce the burden on landfills, reduce use and disposal of some toxic materials, or produce needed jobs in a particular area. And the expanded use of cell phones may have important social benefits, such as contributing to the recent wave of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. "We're not saying you shouldn't do it," he says, "just suggesting that it's worth understanding the decision's effects in their entirety."

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