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 extraction of raw material through to production, use, and disposal. It also should provide environmental, social and economic benefits while protecting public health and the environment over that life-cycle as well.
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.
In modern times this power has been dialed past the breaking point, resulting in massive and widespread changes to the planet and catastrophic impacts on other plant and animal species that live here.
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.
Remember, 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.
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.
Bamboo is very versatile as well. 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. Products derived from this material have a minimal carbon footprint and when disposed of have no negative impact on local environments.
Bamboo can also be transformed into strong and durable fabrics. One example is lyocell. It is produced in a closed-loop industrial process that chemically transforms the plant fiber into a Rayon-like material that remains biodegradable. The production process has a minimal impact on the environment and recovers or decomposes all solvents and emissions produced. It still requires chemicals and energy, but bamboo plants require far less water to grow than other sources, and conventional viscose Rayon is a chemical-laden open-loop process that is harsh on the environment and consumes energy during production and even during dyeing. Lyocell is a big - and more sustainable - improvement.
As much as we would like to get plastics out of our lives, it is too useful a material to abandon entirely. The way we make and how we recycle 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.
The stone paper products we sell, although partly made from plastic, are on balance more environmentally friendly than their counterparts made from traditional materials, like pulp-based paper.
For example, 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 an environment. And since no trees are used, animals aren’t forcefully evicted from their homes, landscapes aren’t denuded of trees, and in general, the process is just much cleaner.
It does take energy to transport our stone paper products but we climate compensate all the shipping and transportation-related emissions. So instead of cutting trees down, we’re planting them instead.
Stone paper also isn’t a good substitute for every paper application. For example, it is not suitable for facial tissues or toilet paper.
Metals can be sustainable. Look at aluminum. It is an infinitely recyclable material. Today, about 75 percent of all aluminum 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 aluminum, 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.
Using what we already have in responsible ways, like properly recycling and not sequestering in landfills, is much better than having to mine raw materials and expend all that time and energy just to produce what we already possess. Using and looking for sustainable materials and resources is something that we should all demand and push industry to pursue.
It is important enough that it bears repeating: 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.