For some reason, sustainability is a challenging concept to grapple with. It can often lead to cognitive dissonance, which most of us try and avoid under normal circumstances.
However, the Sustainability of materials refers to their ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In the context of environmental sustainability, this means using resources in a way that minimizes negative impacts on the environment, reduces waste, and promotes long-term ecological balance. Sustainable materials are those that are sourced, manufactured, used, and disposed of in a manner that supports environmental, social, and economic well-being. While it can be difficult to measure a product by whether it lived up to the effort required to create it, there are methods of measuring a product's overall impact on the environment. Life Cycle Assessments provide a snapshot of a given product and estimate the resources required to attain it through data analytics.
When discussing the sustainability of materials, several factors come into play:
Main Sustainability Factors
Renewability: Sustainable materials often come from renewable resources that can be replenished naturally over time. This ensures that the resource is not depleted and can continue to be available for future generations. Examples of renewable materials include bamboo, cork, and responsibly harvested wood. Fruits and vegetables are technically renewable resources, but food waste is a separate issue, even though it can be equated to inefficiency, discussed below.
Energy and Resource Efficiency: Sustainable materials require less energy and fewer resources to produce, ship, deliver, operate, or exist; thus reducing their overall impact on the environment. Materials that are energy-intensive to manufacture, extract, or process tend to be less sustainable. For example, aluminum and steel production are known for their high energy requirements and significant greenhouse gas emissions because a great deal of earth must be moved for a moderately small amount of raw materials. Food production involves great human effort and time, and wasting the product means all of that effort was wasted, even if it was paid for. On the flip side, once mined, recycled metal can be very sustainable as opposed to newly mined materials because it's much easier to access. With that said technology to recycle waste must make leaps and bounds shortly if we are to make a sustainable transition.
Biodegradability and Recyclability: Materials that can easily biodegrade or be recycled at the end of their life cycle help reduce waste and prevent the accumulation of materials in landfills or the environment. Materials like organic cotton, bioplastics, and certain types of paper can be more sustainable due to their biodegradable or recyclable nature. However, we must be careful that the waste stream makes its complete journey to a place where it can be composted or biodegraded. In many cases, this gives people an excuse to throw trash out the window where it ends up in bodies of water causing imbalances of all sorts. Biodegradable and compostable doesn't mean that it belongs in the lake or ocean. Biodegradable materials like those discussed below are growing in popularity.
Toxicity and Health Impacts: Sustainable materials should be non-toxic and safe for both human health and the environment. Harmful chemicals in materials can have adverse effects during production, use, and disposal. Some materials like Asbestos (mentioned below) and certain chemical-laden plastics are examples of materials that pose health risks and are considered less sustainable. For instance, Tetrachloroethylene is a common dry-cleaning chemical that is both carcinogenic and soluble in water. These "Chlorinated solvents" can easily get into the groundwater table and pollute drinking water or even entire watersheds. Many dry cleaners have made the switch to more sustainable options that still perform well but don't come with dangerous side effects.
Social and Ethical Considerations: Sustainability also encompasses material production's social and ethical aspects. Sustainable materials should be produced under fair labor conditions, and their extraction should not contribute to human rights abuses or the displacement of communities. For instance, conflict minerals such as certain metals used in electronics are associated with ethical concerns. Furthermore, chipsets and the tiny components on them can often contain small amounts of substances that ship from all over the world to be put together into something that will be shipped all over the world again. The transit costs can be hugely environmentally damaging when incorrectly managed.
The LAST on the list should be Financial potential because otherwise, the profit is at the loss of someone else.
Here is a list of some of the -
Most Sustainable Materials:
Bamboo: Bamboo is a rapidly renewable resource that grows quickly and requires minimal pesticides or fertilizers. It can be used for various applications, including construction, furniture, and textiles. As a species in the same family as grass, the woody stalks and papery-like leaves of bamboo can be used for an array of things we haven't even thought of just yet.
Cork: Cork is harvested from the bark of cork oak trees, which regrow their bark over time. The extraction process is sustainable and does not harm the trees, making it a renewable material used in flooring, insulation, and stoppers for wine bottles. Cork can be used for thousands of things from baseballs to baseboards.
Recycled Materials: Utilizing recycled materials, such as recycled plastic or recycled metals, reduces the demand for virgin resources and minimizes waste. These materials can be used in a wide range of products. unfortunately, the processing and the equipment required to process certain types of materials, especially consumer metals and construction waste, can be energy intensive. It underlines the need and importance of renewable energy-powered recycling plants.
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán via Pexels
Hemp: Hemp is a fast-growing crop that requires little water and no herbicides or pesticides. It can be used to produce textiles, bioplastics, and construction materials. This material could be considered a miracle by some. Modern medicines still often don't compete with the potential benefits of CBD, which can be derived from cannabis/hemp.
Reclaimed Wood: Reclaimed wood comes from salvaging old structures or wood products, reducing the need for new timber and preventing waste. Although somewhat labor intensive, this process is by far less energy intensive than harvesting from a tree. Trees take often a minimum of 5 to 10 years to grow to a commercial size, and often longer. taking a board from an old home, cutting the bad stuff, and reusing the board is much more sustainable.
Contrary to the dominant public behavior at the time, here are some of the -
Least Sustainable Materials:
Virgin Plastics: Virgin plastics are derived from fossil fuels and are not biodegradable, leading to persistent pollution and harm to wildlife. Single-use plastic items are particularly unsustainable, especially considering their average "useful life". Consider a plastic stirring straw for coffee. How long did you use that for? 5 seconds?
Non-Sustainable Timber: Timber from unsustainable logging practices can lead to deforestation and habitat loss, affecting biodiversity and ecosystems.
Asbestos: Asbestos, while banned in many countries, still exists in older buildings and poses significant health risks when its fibers become airborne.
Non-Recyclable or Composite Materials: Materials that are challenging or impossible to recycle, such as certain types of laminated plastics, pose disposal challenges and contribute to landfill waste. many materials like computers are extremely difficult to recycle as a result of chipset advancements.
Certain Metals and Mining Practices: Metals like aluminum, which require significant energy in their production, and mining practices that harm the environment and local communities can be less sustainable.
Overall though, the sustainability of materials is a complex and critical aspect of addressing environmental and social challenges. By choosing to give a product a second life, you have ensured that things are not needlessly produced. Through thoughtful purchases and actions, we can ensure that our lifestyle doesn't become opulent at the expense of others.
While we may have a lot of work to do to resolve existing problems, using sustainable materials reduces resource depletion, waste generation, and environmental harm while promoting a healthier and more responsible approach to production and consumption. Governments, industries, and consumers all drive the shift towards more sustainable materials and practices.
Thanks for reading!