We tend to ignore the environmental impact of using cement for all construction practices and do not consider alternatives.
Let us try answering a simple question. Which item among the following list is the cheapest in terms of cost per kg. – old newspaper, cement, local vegetables or packaged mineral water? While most people may consider paper or vegetable, the surprise answer is cement. A bag of cement weighing 50 kg. comes at less than Rs. 350, hence costing less than Rs. 7 per kg., while even the old newspaper costs nothing less than Rs. 9 in Bangalore. Regarding vegetable prices, the less said the better.
Next, let us look at another question in continuation of the above. Among the above list of materials, which one consumes maximum energy and produces maximum wastage? Many of us may consider paper, but zero in on cement and we are right. Cement production consumes much and also wastes much.
Finally, third and last question in the series. Possibly which material contributes maximum to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and has the highest carbon footprint? Of course, now we all are sure of it being cement. The construction industry contributes to nearly one-third of all GHG emissions, within which four materials in heavy demand today, i.e. steel, cement, glass and aluminium, contribute majorly to greenhouse gases.
The foregone paragraphs are not meant to question and denounce cement, but use it as a case in point to discuss the myth of costs in eco-friendly approaches. A hidden contradiction in the contemporary sustainable discourses revolves around a possible belief that all that is cheap is sustainable in society and all that is costly is detrimental to nature. Considering the cost as a derivative of resource consumption, this theory may appear valid in certain cases. However, materials like cement being the backbone of the construction industry worldwide, it is produced in such large quantities, bringing the prices down, thanks to economies of scale.
When materials which are harmful to nature are available at such low prices, we tend to ignore the environmental impact of using them, for they are popular, seemingly necessary and available everywhere. Any alternative, possibly an eco-friendly one, comes at a higher cost, hence becomes less of a choice for all of us.
How is it possible for an energy intensive item, factory-made material, transported over long distances to cost so less, despite having high carbon footprint? Every material invented by humans depends upon nature to supply the raw sources and in turn produce the manufactured ones, causing a two-way impact – decreasing the natural and increasing the artificial. Yet, why do local and natural alternatives cost more than the artificial and manufactured? We may not be able to right away understand the complex market economics to get an easy answer, but need deep introspecting into such contradictions if we have to tread the path of long-term sustainability.
One thing is clear – during our times of green talk everywhere, economic cost and ecological cost are not directly related.