What Biden’s infrastructure plan fails to reimagine

“This is the moment to reimagine.” Among the countless details, proposals and impassioned appeals within the American Jobs Plan Fact Sheet, the outline for the Biden administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, this line struck a chord with me. 

While the drafters of the plan have employed considerable imagination — redefining not just what infrastructure can include but expanding the aspirational scope of what it can achieve — I fear the powers that be will fail to adequately reimagine not what we build, but how we build it. 

From material selection to designing for disassembly, how we make our infrastructure can define or inhibit the “new economy” that the administration (and the moment) calls for. Today’s planning decisions will determine how many emissions we release or capture; what value can be reclaimed when tomorrow’s infrastructure is decommissioned; which communities will be affected or improved by the materials we extract, produce and recover.

If the plan’s aim is truly to “build back better” — using climate change mitigation, social equity and economic opportunity as measures for success — the Biden administration must reimagine with the end and next life of infrastructure in mind. 

The end is just the beginning

Perhaps counterintuitively, as we design the new we must consider what happens when it gets old. To assure infrastructure maintains a positive impact, providing value throughout its lifespan (or new value down the road), it’s imperative to consider and prepare for end-of-life.

Unfortunately, politicians, city planners and companies often fail to do just that: a symptom that is evident in the lack of waste management, recycling, composting and repair infrastructure outlined in Biden’s otherwise quite comprehensive plan.

But a little infrastructure pre-planning is critical to achieving the three goals most prominently woven throughout the plan. Here’s my (non-comprehensive) take on how. 

Materials can mitigate the climate crisis

No matter how you slice it, building new infrastructure will require greenhouse gas emissions. Planning for end of life, however, can extend the useful life of embedded emission while avoiding further emissions down the road. 

Take for example steel. The plan will require a tremendous volume: an estimated 50,000 net tons for every $1 billion in infrastructure spending, equating to more than 180 million tons of CO2 emissions, based on 2018 data.

Building steel structures for disassembly — employing techniques such as modular design and connection design— would ensure that invested carbon can live on through reuse and recycling. Given its versatility and durability, steel is considered a strong candidate for reuse, and recycled steel requires 85 to 90 percent less energy than primary production. 

Reuse provides economic opportunity

Much like carbon, the materials that make up our infrastructure contain embedded economic opportunity. Without pre-planning, we will fail to capture this value as infrastructure reaches the end of its useful life.

One area of the proposal screaming for such considerations is the expansive, proposed investment in electric vehicles and renewable energy. The products required — from EV batteries to solar panels — contain precious and finite metals, and (by association) value. 

How we build these products today — not the mention the regulatory system and infrastructure within which they’ll be decommissioned —  will discern how successfully we can recycle, reuse and reclaim value tomorrow. In solar modules alone, end-of-life planning could mean the difference between a projected $60 million market for recovered materials or a million tons of e-waste by 2030. 

Foresight ensures social equity

Failing to plan for end-of-life management can have grave consequences on our communities. For proof, look no further than the deteriorating lead pipes in Flint, Michigan and the more than 500,000 children in the United States with elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream.

Being cognizant of how materials will degrade and selecting materials that are nontoxic will ensure they can be used again and again without harming our most vulnerable. 

I must admit, I’m hesitant to add to the cacophony of criticisms that Biden’s infrastructure plan has received. In many ways I find the bold, expansive proposal refreshing (and given the state of our politics, it’s likely to evolve dramatically before any yellow construction tape goes up.) But as the White House notes, it’s not just about fixing our infrastructure but “fixing it right … this is no time to build back to the way things were.” 

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