Chapter 4 — Living in a Material World:
Rethinking the Building Blocks of Tomorrow
It’s quite simple: the more materials we extract, the fewer are left. Today, we use more materials than the planet can sustainably offer, which means that the supply of raw materials is associated with increasing risks — tied to factors such as price volatility, availability and import
Researchers and a new generation of innovative companies are bringing solutions and inspiring materials to the market that could rebalance things in the future.
Those emerging materials, whether biologically engineered or reclaimed from waste, represent environmentally friendly alternatives to our current supply. The building blocks of design are being rethought.
Biodegradable objects: Back to nature
Humans are the only species on Earth that produces waste.
Everywhere else in nature a material that has served its purpose — be it from a plant or an animal — decomposes and transforms into nutrients that can be used as building blocks for new plants and animals.
Most man-made products, however, don’t work this way.
Future archaeologists would discover one massive dumpsite after another filled with plastic and metal objects, electronics, synthetic textiles and other waste materials of our time.
If the twentieth century was the century of physics, the twenty-first century could be the century of biology. Biological technologies are advancing rapidly, and several companies are starting to add principles of nature to the way they design products. Here are some examples of companies utilising the principle of biodegradation into their products:
We would never inherit a toothbrush from our parents, but still most toothbrushes are made from a material that lasts 12 generations before it degrades.
Plastic has become the workhorse material of the modern economy, because of its unmatched functionality and low cost. We use it to make everything from single-use cups to fast-food containers to toilet brushes.
Bogobrush has introduced a biodegradable toothbrush that you can throw on your compost pile after it has worn out. It is made of plant-based bioplastic that will safely return to nature.
Kuskoa Bi is a 100 percent bioplastic chair made by Jean Louis Iratzoki for Alki. The goal was to create a comfortable chair without using traditional, environmentally polluting materials.
Made of polymers similar to plastic, bioplastic is made from 100 percent plant-based renewable resources such as corn starch, sugarcane and beets.
Fully recyclable, it doesn’t leave a heavy footprint on the planet and is biodegradable.
Waste as a resource: Good from bad
Most of the materials we use can actually be mined from what we have already disposed of. A growing number of forward-thinking companies and designers are taking “recycling” to another level.
They have embraced the idea of stepping away from mining the planet of its depleting resources, and have instead found ways of mining our waste to recreate the raw material they need.
Whether for environmental reasons or because it has already become cheaper to do so for some materials, it is more than just recycling. It is about designing products in different ways, and designing supply chains that can support more ecological industries. And we have plenty of materials, if we can figure out how to harness those resources at larger scales.
Piñatex by Ananas Anam is a sustainable alternative to leather made from pineapple leaf fibres. Piñatex fibres are the by-product of the pineapple harvest, which means no extra land, water, fertilisers or pesticides are required to produce the raw material.
Given the extensive environmental and ethical concerns about cattle farming and leather tanning, there is an enormous opening in the market for alternative materials, which to date have tended to be filled by plastics and synthetic textiles.
With Piñatex, Ananas Anam aims to create closed-loop processes in which natural waste serves as an input, with a positive environmental and social impact.
Solid Textile Board
Solid Textile Board is a high-density material made from end-of-life textiles and cut-offs from Kvadrat.
The board is designed to replace or even add to existing material offerings and to prolong the lifespan of textile resources by using materials that would otherwise be thrown out.
Adidas has teamed up with environmental organisation Parley for the Oceans to transform the oceans’ plastic waste into running shoes.
Each pair of shoes contains the plastic of 11 bottles.
Magic mushrooms: A natural alternative
Even if we recycled 100 percent of today’s waste, given our projected population growth, we would still need to extract the same amount of finite materials in the next decade. We are forced to find new types of more sustainable materials.
One of the most promising hopes in the sustainability field is artificial biosynthesis, a process whereby living organisms, such as bacteria, fungi or plants, are used to create fuels, chemicals and other materials.
Mushroom “roots” — better known as mycelium — may prove to be crucial for mankind. Indeed, mycelium could become one of the innovative building blocks of tomorrow. It is an attractive alternative to current materials because mushrooms are fast growing, high performing and cost competitive, while the material is energy efficient, rapidly renewable and 100 percent organic, and can be stronger than concrete.
Moreover, mycelium-based materials are fully compostable and can be freely disposed in nature, easily breaking down into nutrients that in turn offer new life for materials.
Researchers, startups and large companies are exploring how mycelium can become the design and building material of tomorrow, potentially replacing everything from cups and containers at fast-food restaurants to leather goods, packaging, furniture, tableware and maybe even entire buildings.
Ecovative is a company pioneering mycelium technology, by growing high-performance, award-winning biomaterials out of mushrooms. The materials are safe, healthy and certified sustainable.
Ecovative helped build the winning entry for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program in 2014. The Tower was designed by David Benjamin, principal of The Living, using low-value farm-crop waste, which was packed into moulds and injected with mycelium.
This created light-weight, low-cost organic bricks that grew in five days, with no waste, no input of energy and no carbon emissions. The resulting pavilion was entirely compostable.
Ecovative has also developed an insulation material that outperforms traditional fibreglass. It can be injected between an interior and an exterior wall, where it will grow silently in the dark and become so strong that the wall will need no internal metal or wooden studs to support it.
If that weren’t enough, mycelium is also water-resistant, mould-resistant and fire-resistant. It can even be engineered to repel or destroy invasive pests such as carpenter ants, fire ants and termites.
LET’S BREAK IT DOWN:
- Mushroom “roots” are made of mycelium, a fungus that wraps itself extremely tightly around anything that gets in its way.
- Inject it into any crop waste, such as rice husks or corn stalks, and it quickly digests any available lignin and anything else left over.
- The outcome is a strong, novel material that is high-performing, cost-competitive and 100 percent biodegradable.
- Mycelium grows underground in the absence of light, which means it requires no external energy source to work its magic.
IMAGINE: Exploring the brave new world of design and manufacturing,
is a SPACE10 publication investigating manufacturing in the digital age, materials of tomorrow and circular economies.
Read the next part:
Expert view: Embedded sustainability with Nanette Weisdal
IMAGINE is also available as a free download. Grab your own copy here.