What makes resources sustainable can change with time and technology. Let’s also face the fact that we have imperfect knowledge; we learn by doing. What one generation thought was an inexhaustible resource can become scarce for the next.
To be considered sustainable, a product or service should exhibit a reduced environmental impact considered over its entire life-cycle - from the raw material through to production, use, and disposal. It should provide social and economic benefits over that life-cycle also.
That’s a big ask.
For one thing, planning for, and working towards, long term goals is harder than quick, short term solutions. Second, people exhibit greedy tendencies. We’re not alone. Most animals on the planet share these shortcomings - dogs hoard balls, squirrels acorns, etc. The problem lies in humanity’s ability to amplify these natural tendencies using tools and technology and very little and/or very imperfect forethought.
Sustainable practices are necessary if we want to continue to inhabit a planet that resembles the one we’ve been living on. It means we have to be smarter with how we use natural resources and raw materials.
Just because something is natural doesn’t mean using it to make something is sustainable. Sustainable living/design/products require conscious thought and reassessment of action and reaction; the effects on local and global stakeholders. Here are some sustainable material examples.
When harvested correctly, bamboo is a great natural resource. A lot of preparation and thought goes into cultivating and harvesting bamboo. Harvesting 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. When gathered incorrectly, swaths of healthy bamboo plants can be killed and land ruined.
But, if grown correctly, bamboo one of the most sustainable materials we know. It is the fast growing plant on earth, can be re-harvested again and again once mature, uses minimal water, doesn't require pesticides or fertilisers, and also absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide whilst pumping out oxygen.
It's also extremely versatile, and products can be made from various parts of the plant. For example, plates can be made from the protective covering found on young bamboo plants, called the sheath. Harvesting the sheath is as easy as picking it off the ground where it usually falls. It’s then cleaned, boiled, and molded into shape.
Similarly, it is as if nature created it specifically for the purpose of slurping up a thick smoothie through a bamboo straw, a nature-friendly alternative to plastic straws. It can also be crafted into the perfect picnic accompaniment, reusable bamboo cutlery.
Other uses for bamboo include building construction, textile manufacturing and toilet paper.
As much as we would like to get plastics out of our lives, it is too useful a material to abandon entirely. How we produce, recycles and dispose of plastics can go a long way towards reducing its negative impact.
The raw material for all packaging plastics is ethylene, which is derived from either natural gas or crude oil. Both sources are not renewable. Producing and refining ethylene requires massive amounts of energy which could be better used elsewhere or - even better - not at all.
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. New methods for recycling plastic are being developed and coming online.
For example, PureCycle has been able to transform waste carpet into ultra-pure recycled polypropylene. But let’s face it, this isn’t nearly enough to solve our plastic problem. In addition to recycling the plastic we already have, new plastics need to come from someplace other than fossil fuels.
Origin Materials in Canada that has found a way to make plastic bottles using sawdust - a much more sustainable material when compared with petroleum or natural gas. Their technology makes carbon-negative, 100% plant-based PET - a type of plastic used in everything from clothing to cars. This plastic is more sustainable in that doesn't use fossil fuels. However, it still needs to be collected and recycled properly and it isn't biodegradable.
For plastic to be sustainable it needs to be both biodegradable and certain applications - like one use wrapping - and using fossil resources to produce it needs to end.
Metals can be sustainable. Look at aluminium. It is an infinitely recyclable material. Today, about 75 percent of all aluminium produced in history, nearly a billion tons, is still in use. It also takes up to 95 percent less energy to recycle than to produce primary aluminium, which also limits emissions, including greenhouse gases.
The steel industry has been actively recycling for more than 150 years, not out of any sense of environmental stewardship but because it makes economic sense. It costs less money to recycle steel than to mine ore and process it into new steel. And since steel does not lose any of its inherent physical properties during the recycling process, and has drastically reduced energy and material requirements compared with refinement from iron ore, using and recycling steel properly is a more sustainable practice.
Stone paper is a recent innovation developed as a more sustainable alternative to traditional wood-pulp paper. Leftover limestone or marble from local industry is converted into paper in a clean process that uses no water or chemicals and runs on solar.
So, on a production basis alone, a stone paper notebook is miles ahead ecologically speaking when you consider no water, acid, bleach or optical brighteners are used. This means nothing can spoil the water or poison the environment. Also, trees stay in the ground where they belong.
As we mentioned at the top, our current levels of consumption are unsustainable. We need to transition to a world where waste is designed out the process, where products can be reused to returned safely to nature. This is called circularity or a circular economy. You can read more about this here. Using materials like those above are crucial to this transition.