The worldwide call has gone out for “sustainable” and “renewable” technologies, materials, industrial practices and sources of energy.
But what does it mean to be classified as a “non-renewable resource”? And why worry about this distinction at all?
Here are some answers, along with eight examples of non-renewable resources we should all get serious about divesting ourselves of in 2020.
What Are Non-Renewable Resources?
Before we continue, let’s borrow from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s definition of “non-renewable resources,” which it defines as resources that do not replenish themselves over a relatively short period and which naturally appear in limited supplies.
According to the EIA, most of the energy consumed in the United States comes from non-renewable sources.
Why divest from non-renewable resources? The simplest answer is that doing so helps ensure that the needs of future generations can be met without overtaxing the natural world.
Plus, apart from physically depleting the materials we all require for survival, using non-renewable resources worsens the effects of climate change and frequently contributes to air and water pollution.
Alternative energy investments also support the creation of decent-paying jobs — enough to more than makeup for the jobs shed by the coal industry and others.
Here are some non-renewable resources in common usage that should be phased out or dramatically reduced in 2020 and beyond.
1. Crude Oil
Crude oil is the most famous example of a non-renewable resource. Oil takes long enough to form that the term “peak oil” was coined. It describes the point after which humanity’s stores of oil can only decrease with time. Apart from appearing in finite quantities, crude oil also requires a substantial amount of energy and infrastructure to retrieve, process and transport.
Coal is used throughout the world in power plants and to heat homes. It is in decline, however, in part because of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and other progressive energy policies. It’s more difficult than ever for a new coal investment made today to deliver a profitable return in the time allotted before major eco-minded regulations come into effect.
3. Diesel Fuel
Diesel fuel is a product of crude oil, but it deserves a special mention. According to the EIA, every 42-gallon barrel of oil yields just 12 gallons of diesel.
Low-sulfur diesel reduced some of the more immediate human health risks posed by this fuel. Even so, it’s still a non-renewable resource and a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions — as much as 461 million tons of CO2 per year, says the EIA. Plus, with electric trucks coming into their own, there’s increasingly little reason to put more diesel vehicles on the road today.
4. One-Time-Use Plastics
Companies and consumers all over the world are feeling the pressure to remove as much plastic as possible from their personal supply chains. The effects of plastics on wild animals and the environment are now well-documented, including digestive problems in birds and whales starving or beaching themselves.
In cases where only plastic packaging or other products will do, there’s an increasingly diverse selection of plastics derived from hemp and other ecology-friendly alternatives.
5. Poorly Managed Farmland
The problem isn’t that animal agriculture and growing food crops require vast amounts of land. The problem is that our existing techniques for managing this land are completely unsustainable. It’s hard to imagine a resource more non-renewable than land, and we’re not doing what we should to ensure that it’s fit for farming in the future.
According to scientists in 2014, planet earth has 60 years of farmable soil left. We need to implement some simple changes in our soil management practices on a massive scale if future generations are to have the farmable land they need to grow their own crops.
Uranium, or uranium U-235, to be exact, is the fuel that’s used in nuclear power plants. These facilities do not emit carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases or air pollution. That’s all to the good, but U-235 is a non-renewable resource that’s difficult to source and potentially dangerous to turn into energy. Moreover, nuclear plants are complex and require considerable overhead to run.
7. Natural Gas
Natural gas is inexpensive and abundant compared to other energy resources, but it’s still a non-renewable resource derived from crude oil. Moreover, its most common retrieval method — hydraulic fracturing — is at best controversial and at worst detrimental to environmental and human health. Natural gas can help us pivot from coal, but it’s not a long-term replacement.
8. Virgin Wood Products
Wood isn’t just versatile — it’s sustainable too, although mileage varies depending on the species and how the forest is managed. In 2020, it’s more important than ever to seek out reclaimed wood to repurpose for new construction projects.
According to various studies, wood has a smaller energy and sustainability footprint as a building material than both steel and concrete. Meanwhile, wood represents about nine percent of the municipal waste that enters landfills. It’s is a vast, useful and oftentimes untapped resource consisting of literal tons of serviceable building supplies.
This list is just a sample of some non-renewable resources, but there are many others. Fortunately, companies and consumers alike can help bring about changes in how we exploit resources and which products and materials become popular.