Watching the paint dry. Watching the grass grow. Watching rust form. Until I heard Jonathan Waldman speak, I would have lumped these three idioms together. On Tuesday, June 23, a packed MPC conference center listened to stories from Rust: The Longest War. Author Jonathan Waldman enumerated various battles on corrosion in the public and private sectors that amount to one of America’s costliest ongoing wars. Rust costs America $400 billion per year—more than all other natural disasters combined. And we are losing the fight against it.
At MPC we focus a lot on the effects of rust and corrosion on our region’s infrastructure. Through our Accelerate Illinois initiative, we highlight the need to maintain our current infrastructure assets—and that requires cold hard cash. With more than 10 percent of bridges deemed structurally deficient, and our federal and state leaders unable to enact a capital spending plan, this is indeed one of the region’s critical issues. And it isn’t just corrosion that’s the problem, though that’s a big part of it. Have you ever had to pay for car repairs after a nasty run-in with a pothole? It’s not cheap.
From slow trains to crumbling bridges, though, rust is a major issue. In his book, Waldman revealed the great challenges corrosion engineers face in our nation as they battle this silent and insidious enemy. Let’s take the concept of galvanization, for instance.
According to one engineer in the book, the cost of corrosion to our country is equivalent to building 562 Willis Towers every year. That same engineer pointed out that galvanizing steel makes it last longer. The problem, according to Waldman, is that galvanized steel is a very “Soviet” gray that doesn’t really appeal to Americans. But wait! Galvanizing may take a little longer and cost a little more, but once it cools it can be painted. This creates a double layer of protection called a “duplex” that makes the steel last twice as long. Unfortunately, as one cynical observer in the room pointed out, American society today would “rather build really cheap stuff and scrimp on maintenance and then throw it away than build a little better stuff and maintain it and have it forever.”
Rust costs America $400 billion per year—more than all other natural disasters combined.
In other words, our infrastructure pains aren’t just fiscal. They’re also cultural, which could wind up being the bigger issue. Right now, we’d rather cross our fingers going under the rusty bridge than pay a little extra to fix it.
It isn’t just bridges that rust, though, and Waldman covers more than infrastructure in his book. He spends an entire chapter on the “most over-engineered item in the world, an aluminum can.” Surprisingly, a great deal of thought goes into the design and construction of the average beverage container to prevent corrosion—and possible “explosion.” If a little aluminum can takes that much engineering, think about our transportation systems!
Rust concludes by pointing to the irony that the United States spends 3 percent of our gross domestic product on corrosion mitigation, yet invests less than 2 percent of it in infrastructure. We will lose the battle as long as the public sector fails to take a long-term view on infrastructure spending and maintenance!