The road to a circular, sustainable world requires a lot of innovation along the way. Crucial to this is finding alternative materials to produce the array of tools and items we use every day. We need to not only enable, but actively promote new breakthrough innovations that can make a real impact.
From toothbrushes via houses to solar panels, the science of different materials has been, and will continue to be, a fundamental aspect in the next chapter of our sustainable development. This is what's shaping everything from our everyday items, to how we produce energy and even explore new worlds.
Sustainable practices are necessary if we want our future planet to at least slightly resemble the one we’ve been living on. It means we have to be smarter with how we use natural resources and raw materials.
Being the material geeks that we are, we thought we’d take a look at some interesting examples of the most sustainable materials available to us now, and the potential of what’s possible.
First of all: How do we define what is sustainable?
To be considered sustainable, a product or service should exhibit a reduced environmental impact spanning over its entire life-cycle. From the extraction of raw material through to production, usage, disposal and finally its proneness for reuse. The material should provide environmental, social and economic benefits while protecting public health and the environment over that life-cycle as well.
That’s a big task.
Remember, just because something is natural doesn’t mean using it to make something is sustainable. Sustainable living, design and products all require conscious thought and reassessment of action and reaction; the effects on local and global stakeholders.
Bamboo, the super-versatile plant
Bamboo is listed in the Guinness world records as the fastest growing plant on earth. It can grow up to three feet per day and can be re-harvested year on year once it matures.
A lot of preparation and thought goes into cultivating and harvesting bamboo. This takes skill and years of training. It requires knowledge of area weather patterns, an understanding of the bamboo lifecycle, and an on-sight familiarity with individual plants on the ground.
It is important to emphasise that when gathered incorrectly, swaths of healthy bamboo plants can be killed and land ruined.
When harvested correctly though, it is a great natural resource. Bamboo uses less water, produces 30% more oxygen, and requires no chemicals, pesticides or fertilisers. This makes it an excellent alternative to conventional woods as bamboo is actually a type of grass.
It can be used for a multitude of different things including construction, furniture, food (not just for pandas!), bicycles and even clothing. For example, we’ve recently made it into toilet paper.
The bioplastic revolution
As we have grown to know over the decades, the properties of plastics is incredibly useful. The way we produce and how we recycle plastics can go a long way towards reducing its negative impact.
Conventionally, plastics are made from fossil fuels, requiring their extraction and refinement. To make matters worse, after all the energy and resources that went into making that plastic, every year a huge amount of it is simply thrown away. In the US alone, 25 million tons of plastic are tossed in landfills.
This harmful material made from things like crude oil needs to be replaced with an environmentally friendlier option. Now, we can use different materials to produce plastics that are environmentally less impactful. Bioplastics are one such alternative.
Bioplastics are made from living alternatives such as corn, sugarcane, hemp or flax and can be industrially composted after use, creating a more sustainable lifecycle overall. Our own mobile cases are made from bioplastics that comes from flax waste grown in Sweden.
The wonder of stone paper
Stone Paper is exactly what it sounds like: paper made from crushed stone rather than from wood-pulp, in a process that is vastly better for the environment than the production of traditional paper.
Besides, Stone Paper has a number of other benefits compared with traditional wood-pulp paper: it’s durable and tear-resistant, it has no grain (resulting in a smooth writing experience), and it can withstand water, grease and dirt.
If you want to deep-dive into the details of the production, you can read up on your stone-paper skills here.
The metals of it all
Metals can be sustainable. Aluminum, for example, is abundant within the earth’s crust, but even better it can be recycled infinitely, thereby using less energy and producing fewer emissions. Today, about 75 percent of all aluminum produced in history, nearly a billion tons, is still in use.
Also, metals such as cobalt, lithium, and nickel are prevalent in low carbon industries such as wind, solar and energy storage, leading some to comment that they’re the new oil. How humanity manages this shift from one resource to another remains to be seen.
What about building materials?
You might have read our article last week on sustainable cities. Naturally, it's not only city planning that needs to be sustainable, but also the city development and its architecture.
From the imposing expression of brutalism to the flowing curves of modernism, concrete has been used abundantly in the past to build our towns and cities, making it the most widely used substance on the planet after water.
Its environmental impact is pretty devastating though, the industry produces 4-8% of the world’s CO2 and sucks up a tenth of the industrial water used.
Like with plastic, the solutions could come from biological alternatives. France, for example, requires all its new public buildings to be developed using at least 50% wood.
Another promising alternative is using bricks made from fungi. This may sound a little strange, but the mycelium in roots can be moulded into bricks that are relatively stronger than concrete, and much more environmentally friendly to produce. The same material can also be used in insulation and packaging.
Bending the laws of physics
Metamaterials are really cool. Right on the cutting edge, some of these are pretty out there with unimaginable properties. By changing the structure of elements to give them capabilities such as invisibility (yep!), we can make things smaller, more efficient, and less reliant on natural resources.
For example, plantlike energy harvesting devices could be made with a special class of metamaterials, known as negative-index. Additionally, metamaterials could also replace a lot of the industrial uses of regular metals.
Exploring our potential
As well as using less, making the conscious decision to purchase items made from sustainable materials is one of the ways we as individuals can save the planet. As more research is carried out, the range and overall sustainability of materials will increase. We’re only beginning to tap into the potential of what’s possible, so watch this space!