Material Whirl

Material Whirl

Take a piece of coppiced ash, grown a few miles away. Bend it into shape using steam generated from burning the sawdust, dab a bit of linseed oil or beeswax on it, and you can really enjoy sitting in a beautiful chair. A good chair. A wood chair.

But, taken out of context, no material is "good." Not even wood -- its impact can vary wildly, depending on where you get it and what you do to it. For a worst case, take a piece of old-growth timber, kiln dry it using fossil fuel, ship it a few thousand miles by lorry, pressure inject it with copper, chrome and arsenic -- every bit as bad as it sounds -- and turn it into a picnic table for the kids to eat off. Sadly, I am not making this up.

That's why it really gets me pulling my hair out to hear some of the things design students say all too frequently about their materials choice. "My product is sustainable now, I made it out of bioplastic." Aaaarrrggh! Sorry if I sound like a record stuck in a groove, but it's not just the material that makes for sustainable design, I keep telling them. It's the process, the product system and the way the material is used that makes the difference.

Take that bioplastic, for example. Plastic made out of corn or potato starch -- it sounds like an environmental panacea. The raw material grows in the fields, it's renewable, and it can be composted back to useful soil. But that's only part of its story. What if it was made from GM crops, produced in a big chemical factory, and then shipped long distances -- as it probably was?

Lifecycle analyses have been done which show that bioplastic is better overall than, say a polyethylene equivalent. But there are still a lot of impacts to consider -- which vary, importantly, from manufacturer to manufacturer. Has our design student chosen the best supplier -- or even thought about that side of things?

The last thing I'd want to do is crush their good intentions under the weight of such objections. They're not meant to be obstacles to a sustainable choice -- but they do have to be part of the decision about what material is best.

The same goes for following the product cycle through to end of life. It's no good having a compostable raw material, for instance, and then not composting it. What a waste, for it to end up rotting down in landfill, with no scope to form useful soil. There are good ways to improve on that -- with appropriate product systems. It might mean linking up with councils on "compost-OK" labeling, so users know when they can dispose of something in their garden compost waste collection. In other cases it might mean sending end-of-life products back to the manufacturer; the business of "reverse logistics" is set to grow massively.

Then there's our tendency to take biodegradable raw materials, and stop them biodegrading. By tanning leather, or putting preservatives into wood, you can take them out of the cycle almost entirely. The search for solutions here might lead to something like "switchable" preservatives. It's surely not beyond the wit of science to come up with treatments which can control the action of micro-organisms during the useful life of a product -- but which can then be switched off. That would let the material rot down straight away, not linger for decades in landfill.

Interestingly enough, if you take anyone off the street and ask them to rank a list of materials from best to worst for the environment, they'll do a pretty good job in about 4 minutes. They'll put sand and wood at the top, and gold and anything "poly" at the bottom. People still hate the idea of plastics, mostly because "they don't rot down," although actually they have a wide range of environmental performance and shouldn't really all be lumped together.

But there are a few things that most people will get wrong. They are generally surprised to be told that it takes the same amount of energy to make a ton of paper as it does to make a ton of steel. And gold, while it has -- rightly -- gained notoriety because of the pollution and human cost of its extraction, does at least score pretty highly on recycling. Not much gold ends up in landfill.

Various scientific establishments have put time and effort into scoring different types of materials for sustainability [see box right] Trouble is, they all have slightly different answers. For all that, by combining common sense with enough sophistication about patterns of manufacture and use, a materials focus might yet be the answer for sustainable design.

And it could be made a lot simpler for designers. It would still be down to them to specify the right material -- with the right complementary finishes, avoiding the glues, flame retardants, paints and so on that can muck up recyclability. But then they could just get on with what they do best: creating attractive, stylish, functional products.

To make this feasible, there'd need to be a certified supplier network. This could start on a very small scale, but if it had a consistent supply of the best eco-performing plywood, aluminum, steel, glass and textiles, for example, then it would support a whole range of design disciplines.

An "eco-materials" label for instant sustainability cred? Pragmatically, it may be that materials-based labeling does have its place. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label for wood, arguably the most successful eco-label, is one of the few materials based ones. We're really talking here about something equivalent to a "Metals, Plywood & Textile Stewardship Council" but with slightly more specific controls on how the materials are used -- eliminating the situation where it is possible to sell an FSC-labeled product, for example, that uses nasty or even toxic varnishes and paints.

Never forgetting that what you do with the material makes a difference, it is actually the case that a huge range of products -- like furniture, kitchenware and so on -- do have quite standard processing and manufacturing procedures that are already fairly well optimized. So, if we could only make it easy to add a good material choice (and recyclability) to the design brief, we could expect to see the manufacturers turning out a lot more sustainable products than they do now.

From here it's not such an unreasonable step to start thinking about the unreasonable -- but vital -- concept of the 100% Sustainable Product, using materials that are not just less bad, but totally good.

The mention of 100% ecological sustainability may cause apoplexy in many environmentalists. The world is too complex, they say -- but 100% is possible. There are even many different solutions. The most attractive, to my mind, is for industrial systems to adopt the protocols of material flow used by nature, and, where desirable, to integrate natural and manmade ecosystems.

I summarize the protocols of nature in three words -- cyclic, solar and safe. That's cyclic as in materials continually reused, solar as in being powered by the sun, and safe as in nothing toxic goes where it shouldn't. Industry has already been adopting these protocols to some extent, and most environmental legislation is derived from them.

As for integrating natural and manmade ecosystems, industry does already form an ecosystem of sorts -- a set of interacting flows of materials and energy. It's not yet a particularly good one, though, as it's not self-sustaining, with open input and output loops. With better integration, the outputs from industry should become food for natural systems. At the moment they are poison rather than food. But with care and vision, the global industrial system can be redesigned to be 100% cyclic, solar and safe.

The Natural Step (TNS)'s framework for steering business operations in a sustainable direction also relies on some quite simple fundamental "system conditions" for a sustainable society. TNS has addressed the materials dilemma according to these principles [see box right], which stipulate that nature should not be subjected to systematic increases in concentrations of substances extracted from the earth's crust, or concentrations of substances produced by society -- or to degradation by physical means.

100% sustainable materials aren't pie in the sky, they're fast coming into our grasp. So what about setting an amazing yet approachable goal, a daunting yet achievable objective? What about making 100% of products 100% sustainable by the year 2100?

That's a big challenge when we don't even have one product that is 100% sustainable -- out of something like 100 million product types in the world. But unless we start thinking about where we want to go, we will end up where we are headed .

Edwin Datschefski helps people figure out how to make their products more sustainable, and publishes a free online guide.

This column has been reprinted courtesy of Green Futures magazine. It was first printed in the September/October edition of that publication.