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What is Sustainable Engineering?

Karyn Maier
Updated May 21, 2024
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Sustainable engineering is the science of applying the principles of engineering and design in a manner that fosters positive social and economic development while minimizing environmental impact. This mission is largely accomplished through efforts to redesign and retrofit existing systems based on an analysis of current operations, production quality, and the functional deficiencies that may potentially hinder these processes. Sustainable engineering practices may be applied to a variety of industries, including manufacturing, new and existing construction, energy systems, transportation, waste management, and environmental remediation. In short, any industry in which energy is expended or resources are consumed can benefit from responsible sustainable development.

In terms of existing energy systems, buildings, and industrial processes, civil and environmental engineers specializing in sustainable engineering will typically review and benchmark energy and resource usage over a period of time for the purpose of evaluating function and performance. This also helps to serve as a marker for comparison analysis between similar systems or structures. The engineer may then look for ways to improve function and performance by identifying and prioritizing measures that will promote sustainability and reduce reliance on non-renewable resources. In effect, this equates to increasing overall profitability through realized savings in operational costs. It also usually requires the engineer to suggest necessary modifications to the existing design or construction in order to implement these strategies.

New construction and development are another matter. In fact, it’s generally much easier to reap the benefits of sustainable engineering when designing from the ground up, so to speak. In addition, operational savings are typically sooner recognized simply based on the fact that installing sustainable systems at start-up enhance the performance and life cycle of the equipment or constructional materials involved from day one. Recommendations regarding sustainable design are likely to include consideration of geothermal construction, solar and wind-powered lighting, heating, and cooling systems, waste heat and water recovery systems, and other “green” initiatives.

In the US, sustainable engineering is a growing industry and many colleges and universities now offer graduate study programs in this field. However, sustainable engineering is a global movement with an international community that exercises practices that extend beyond environmental conservation and restoration. In fact, the World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development (WEPSD) and the World Commission on Environment and Development were both instrumental in the development of the Earth Charter, an international agreement intended to provide guidance toward the establishment of global sustainability as a means to promote world peace and the preservation of human rights and biodiversity for future generations.

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Karyn Maier
By Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to All The Science is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill Mountain region, Karyn is also a magazine writer, columnist, and author of four books. She specializes in topics related to green living and botanical medicine, drawing from her extensive knowledge to create informative and engaging content for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon966021 — On Aug 16, 2014

I would suggest that engineering is typically the process of maximizing utility while minimizing the cost to the client. Environmental engineering sets 'utility' on issues such as pollution, and cost is both 'human health' and 'fiscal cost'. Sustainability engineering sets 'utility' as 'social benefit', and cost as 'ecological impact'.

By Alchemy — On Apr 21, 2011

@georgesplane- That was a nice explanation of the difference between sustainable engineering and environmental engineering. I wonder if you or anyone else could describe the difference between industrial ecology and sustainable engineering. Is industrial ecology the same as sustainable engineering or is one a component of the other? I do not really understand the concept of industrial ecology, but I would be interested to learn more.

By Georgesplane — On Apr 19, 2011

@glasshouse- I would say that the scope of sustainable engineering is much broader than that of environmental engineering. Environmental engineering involves using chemistry and biology to conserve and restore environmental features. Environmental engineers may work on issues like climate change, deforestation, natural disaster clean up and the likes, but they are less concerned with the social aspects of the work that they do. Environmental engineering is almost purely scientific and mathematics in scope.

Sustainable engineering on the other hand, can encompass refer to any type of engineering, i.e. structural, mechanical, civil, aerospace, etc. The purpose of sustainable engineering is to design infrastructure that equitable serves a population and efficiently uses resources. Sustainable engineering is not necessarily concerned with environmental issues, but can be concerned with issues like transportation and energy. Sustainable engineering is less solution oriented and more outcomes oriented.

By Glasshouse — On Apr 18, 2011

Are sustainable engineering and environmental engineering the same thing? If not, what are the differences?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to All The Science is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's...
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