Understanding the Problem
Since 1970 the world population has grown more than 2 times, global resources use has more than tripled and global material demand per capita grew from 7.4 tons to 12.2 in 2017. Material productivity started to decline around 2000 and has stagnated in recent years.
In the near term sustainable development is threatened, not only by the depletion of non-renewable resources but also by over-exploitation of renewable resources and the life-cycle impacts or externalities associated with material extraction, transport, and utilization.
It is important to find sustainable solutions for the way economies use material resources, as it will determine to a significant extent what environmental pressures are being generated. Carbon and material intensive economic growth, rising social and environmental inequalities, and an increasingly unstable climate are undermining our ability to produce shared prosperity.
Globally, the construction, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure assets defined broadly as transport, power, telecommunication, water, and buildings, represent approximately 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, while fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes add up to 65% of greenhouse gas emissions, mostly driven by economic and population growth. The built environment consumes 42.4 billion tonnes of materials every year and by 2050, the European building stock will have grown by 13% and the China building stock by a whopping extra 135%. As an example, it requires over 2 tons of raw material for each square meter of housing built, the energy used to make materials to build a house is equivalent to a third of the energy consumption of the average home during 50 years and the waste generated by construction and demolition is over one ton per inhabitant per year.
The usual construction materials, such as steel, concrete, asbestos, certain kinds of paint and varnishes, elements of radon gas, uranium, lead, and mercury, contaminate the environment and can cause illness, mainly due to the high consumption of energy and raw materials associated with their mining and extraction, production, treatment, transport, and installation processes.
The Circularity Gap 2019 report shows how from 84.4 Gt extracted resources, 62.9Gt are disposed, meaning our economy is dominantly linear. The transformation of the construction industry could have a huge impact on the environment and statistics of the Circularity Gaps. The industry could start rethinking the materials used in the construction and renovation of infrastructure, looking forward to using waste as a resource.
Sustainable materials, what does it mean?
As stated before, it is key for our society to incorporate circular thinking in the economy. Not only to reduce the environmental hazard but as a potential way for our society to increase prosperity while decreasing demands on raw materials and minimizing negative externalities.
As I refer to sustainability, I am looking into materials that are built taking into account the whole product life cycle that begins with production and ends with the disposal. Sustainable practices look at each step in the cycle and seek to avoid negative environmental consequences. For example, carefully managed tree cutting for wood production allows the forest to grow new trees at a rate that can keep up with the need for wood materials.
At the end of a product’s life, the materials it’s made of are sustainable through recycling or repurposing, or if they decompose in a way that’s friendly to the environment. Therefore, the innovation in construction materials and products has to play a key role in the conversion to a more sustainable materials economy. The final goal of entrepreneurs, scientists, and researchers should be to create high-performance materials that are less toxic than current materials (or non-toxic at all) and that can be produced with lower energy inputs and in less threatening environments. New technologies offer a new opportunity for renewable materials and bio processed materials to succeed in the market, as well as the increasing demand for sustainable products and new regulations facilitating innovation.
Environmentally-friendly materials or green building materials:
Environmentally-friendly or green building materials are those in which, for their production, placing, and maintenance, actions of low environmental impact have been performed. They have to be durable, reusable, or recyclable, include recyclable materials in their composition and have to be from resources of the area where the building activity will take place (local materials). Also, these materials have to be natural and must not be spoilt by cold, heat, or humidity. Examples of green building materials are soil, adobe, wood, cork, bamboo, straw, sawdust.
Wood-based options offer a sustainable alternative that reduces the carbon footprint of the materials. The natural, simple, and effective carbon-capture technology come from sustainably harvested wood that can reduce carbon emissions by replacing carbon-intensive materials with wood-based options. The implementation of wood-based engineered construction materials in different construction applications for residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. Innovation comes from the recent widespread use of these materials in combination, pioneering the development of mass timber buildings around the world. For example, a study in New Zealand shows that a 17% increase in wood usage in the building industry could result in a 20% reduction in carbon emissions from the manufacture of all building materials. The reduction in emissions is mainly a result of using wood in place of brick and aluminum.
- Timber: Timber is the material with the lowest environmental impact on its production and life cycle. It has to be certified by the FSC so that we can be sure about its sustainable production and origin. Since 2019, mass timber has gained a lot of traction in the construction industry and is becoming the new construction standard. CLT products, first used as an alternative construction system in North America in 2012, are leading the adoption of and widespread mass timber products. North America CLT market size reached $80 million in 2019 and it is expected to reach a value of $228 million by 2025, with a CAGR 2020–2025 of 33.5%
Sustainable tech materials and products
These materials have to be highly durable and can incorporate different technologies, such as reducing energy utilization, capturing C02 while removing pollution, etc. They are used when, in the long term, they have a lower environmental cost than the natural materials.
Examples come from materials based on reuse of wastes that are generated in other sectors for the production of building materials, another example are the materials based on recycling products as manufacturing concrete with recycled tire rubbers, using the mud from sewage plants for making bricks. Some materials that have traction are:
- Plant-based plastic: A major innovation in the field has been the creation of plant-based or bio-based plastic. Nowadays, everyone has daily interaction with plastic. It is the most used material of the modern economy, due to their combination of unrivaled properties and low cost. Their use has increased twenty-fold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. However, the plastics industry as a whole is highly reliant on finite stocks of oil and gas, which make up more than 90% of its feedstock.
- Ferrock: A material looking forward to replacing concrete. It uses a wide range of recycled materials, such as steel dust, to create a building material that resembles concrete but is even stronger. Besides, this innovative material absorbs and seals carbon dioxide as part of the drying and hardening procedure. Therefore, this new material is carbon neutral. In contrast to this innovative alternative, Cement emitted 900kg of CO2 for every 1000kg produced, and it is responsible for around 5% of the world’s overall CO2 emissions.
- Timbercrete: Timbercrete is a blend of sawmill waste, cement, sand, binders, and a non-toxic deflocculating additive, which is cured using the renewable resources of sun and wind into a unique building block. The material has many environmental benefits, as it is the only panel/Pavel that stores carbon gas. Timbercrete is an environmental alternative for traditional clay fired bricks.
Innovators in the field face many challenges as regulation and requirements for buildings are set based on traditional materials. The long bureaucratic processes to get approvals and certifications in the field increases the cost of production and the time to market of these products. Another big challenge is to quickly scale volume and distribution, as construction is a low margin industry, many new products can not compete on price with traditional materials on price and convenience.
In order to have a more sustainable construction process, everyone that participates in the construction industry must pay attention to sustainable indicators and take steps towards a better way to build our world. In the next section, I will show a few examples of innovative startups in the field.
Innovative startups in the field
The early-stage venture founded by Joe Luttwak (CEO) and Elaine Chow in 2014, it is based in San Francisco, California. Lingrove manufactures high-performance natural fiber composites from plant-based fibers and resins using a proprietary process and adaptable platform. Its line of veneer and panel products is called Ekoa, which is sold B2B to manufacturers in the commercial interiors, transportation, and construction space.
The company has patented its technology for making natural fiber structural panels and materials and is currently developing its continuous sheet production capacity, aiming for initial production of 5,000 ft/day by the end of 2018 and scaling to 10,000 ft/day in early 2019.
Ekoa surfaces and structures are sustainable, as it sequesters 1.4 ton CO2 from cultivation to factory gate, converting the product into a carbon-negative alternative.
Lingrove competes with other wood veneer producers and laminate, however, Lingrove’s technology is the only one that produces a carbon-negative solution.
- Chip[s] Board
An early-stage startup based in the UK Founded by Rowan Minkley and Robert Nicoll. Chip[s] Board is an innovative biomaterial company that turns food waste — from potatoes to coffee grounds — into biodegradable bioplastic composites.
All materials developed by Chip[s] Board are durable, recyclable, and biodegradable. They contain no toxic chemicals and have been designed specifically to create a stronger circular economy for materials. The company’s flagship product is Parblex™ Plastics. They are translucent pure or fiber-reinforced bioplastics with incredible surface finish and durability for fashion and interior design.
This innovative idea for a new building material is free of toxic resins and chemicals and is formaldehyde-free. If we throw it out the same way we do MDF, it doesn’t have the same negative impact on the environment.
- Origin Materials
Series- A startup founded by John Bisell (CEO), Ryan Smith, Casey McGrath, and Kristin Matsumura in 2008. The team is based in Sacramento, California. Origin Materials developed a proprietary technology that replaces petroleum with cheap, renewable feedstock (sawdust, wood chips, and other forms of biomass). HTC is being developed for applications in several markets including tire filler, carbon black, agriculture, and activated carbon.
There are no direct competitors in the space. Available technologies have been only able to make 30% renewable PET bottles. There are similar companies developing biomass products or solutions, or even developing bio-based plastic alternatives, but none of them from wood sources.
The company has a focus on sustainably harvested wood. Agricultural and wood residues also make for good options. On their website, they state their commitment to a sustainable process, since non-food (“gen-2”) plant-based feedstocks don’t compete with food production, it’s a triple-win for companies, people, and the environment.
The startup’s customers include Nestlé Waters, Danone, and PepsiCo.
- Smartlam North America
Company founded by Casey Malmquist and Joe Andrew in 2010 in Montana. Smartlam manufactures cross-laminated timber (CLT) products for use in a variety of applications and provides a range of mass timber building solutions. The production and distribution started in 2016 and currently has two operational facilities in Montana and Alabama with a combined capacity of 6 million cubic feet of annual CLT production. The company is planning for three additional CLT manufacturing facilities by 2022 strategically located in the Northeast, West Coast, and Southeast, with a combined capacity to produce more than 17.2 cubic feet of annual CLT.
As CLT is made from trees, it is renewable and sustainable in nature and helps in storing carbon from the environment. The manufacture, transportation, and assembly of CLT also require lesser energy as compared to concrete, bricks, mortar, etc.
The company is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council, the top sustainability certification standards in the engineered wood products industry. Smartlam sources sustainably harvest wood for its manufacturing processes from regional forest vendors within 200 miles of its zero-waste production plant.
- Moxy Oid Technology Management
Canadian Series-A startup founded by Robert Bedard (CEO) and Allan Heywood in 2011. The company developed a proprietary technology that converts wood fibers and agricultural residues into high-performance building products, through a low-cost and low-energy process. Moxy Oid is at a pivotal point, shifting from $22.5 million in R&D to an operating profitable company by commencing manufacturing of its market entry product, CERLOS Siding/Cladding.
CERLOS is new, engineered wood products utilizing 100% natural ingredients that can be farmed. The products are fire, insects/bird/rodent, rot and mold resistant, water and all-weather stable, and resilient to environmental hazards. The company has a low energy manufacturing process that is environmentally responsible, sustainable, and produces no waste.
The primary ingredient is Lignocellulose fiber, which is basically the cells of all living plants. The fiber can come from straw, corn stalks, or other agricultural waste. The other ingredients are non-toxic minerals and non-toxic liquid. The products are an alternative fiber cement by addressing their shortcomings. We will follow our siding product with roof tiles that can look like slate or cedar shake at a fraction of the cost.
The company intends to manufacture highly marketable building products and is expecting to reach annual sales of USD$643 million by the seventh year of operation. The company plans to introduce CERLOS into the marketplace using product types that will be familiar to architects and builders so that they will initially understand ways in which the material can be used in preference to current choices. But CERLOS is as much a substitute for natural wood, as it is for engineered wood, fiber and Portland cement, MgO/Mag, and gypsum boards, plastics, or other composites.
Investors in the field
The global deep tech VC investment is larger than $5bn, however, sustainable materials are still a small percentage of the VCs and Accelerators portfolios. Nonetheless, there is an attractive untapped market to commercialize and scale sustainable materials that have caught the attention of some accelerators and VCs. Some examples are presented in the following list:
VC fund specialized in prototype-stage deep tech startups, investing in about 150 startups per year and with AUM $650M. They have investments in San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, Taipei, and Shenzhen.
IndieBio is SOSV’s science accelerator program based in San Francisco. The main program length is 4 months, each team receives $250,000 in seed funding, lab and co-working space, dedicated mentorship, and become part of a huge network of IndieBio alumni, investors, biotech entrepreneurs, investors, press, corporate partners. Lingrove is part of the IndieBio portfolio.
- Environmental Business Cluster
A cleantech incubator located in Silicon Valley, it provides commercialization support and facilities for emerging clean energy and environmental technology companies.
- Lux Capital
VC fund based in San Francisco. It invests in seed- and early-stage ventures across multiple sectors, including 3D printing; machine learning; artificial intelligence; synthetic biology; genomics; new materials; etc. The fund invests in mission-driven entrepreneurs at any stage from $50,000 to $50M.
- Data Collective
Venture Capital firm investing in entrepreneurs solving for society’s big challenges. Data Collective’s leaders have been investing for two decades, with over 150 companies still going strong and 40 material exits to date for entrepreneurs and investors. The investment belongs to different segments: Applied AI, Computational Biology, Computational Care, Cybersecurity, Geospatial, Transformation, Smart Agriculture, etc.
- Oxford Science Innovation (OSI)
In partnership with the University of Oxford, OSI invests in fundamental technology companies. The fund size is £600M from a diverse group of over 70 institutional investors and private shareholders.
What is next?
Many interesting innovations are not yet in the commercialization phase but could have a promising future if the unit economics can compete with traditional materials.
Some interesting trends are short-life bio-based plastic from different sourcing as fish residuals and food residuals, providing plastic with home-compostable properties. Replacement of glass by transparent wood, innovation by Swedish researchers that turned wood into a material that is 85 percent transparent by compressing strips of wood veneer and replacing lignin with a polymer. It can be an eco-friendly alternative to glass and plastic. Incorporation of the hydrogel in building constructions by architects from The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona is leading the way in reducing the use of air conditioning. The architects are placing hydrogel bubbles in between ceramic panels that can be installed into existing walls.
Universities and private-public partnerships between cities and universities are the main providers of funds and play an important role in the advance of this industry. In this report, I have featured only a few of the startups and companies that are working towards more sustainable construction practices and a circular design. However, there are many more innovations to replace Steel, Glass, Plastic, and Cement in order to have a 100% sustainable construction process.
The economy has a long way to close the Circularity Gap, however, promoting innovation and supporting moonshot ideas by more traditional investors can accelerate the trend and increase sustainability in the design and construction process. With encouragement from governments and consumers, new ways to build and furnish homes with a green mentality at the core might stop being just dreams and become a reality.
UNEP 2019, UNEP Resource Efficiency 2020+
OECD (2012), “Preface”, in Sustainable Materials Management: Making Better Use of Resources, OECD Publishing, Paris.
Christian Déséglise and Delfina Lopez Freijido, Financing Sustainable Infrastructure at Scale
Circularity Gap Report, 2019
What Is the Meaning of Sustainable Materials? — Bizfluent, reviewed June 2020
Buchanan, Andrew Wood-based building materials and atmospheric carbon emissions
Imarc Group, North America Cross-Laminated Timber Market: Industry Trends, Share, Size, Growth, Opportunity and Forecast 2020–2025
Rouch, Duncan. (2019). Plastic future: How to reduce the increasing environmental footprint of plastic packaging.
Chapter 15, Materials Matter: Toward a Sustainable Materials Policy, By Ken Geiser, The MIT Press
7 Sustainable Construction Materials, reviewed June 9th, 2020
The New Plastics Economy Rethinking the future of plastics, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Sustainable building materials, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Make it durable. Make it desirable — Per Grankvist, reviewed June 9th, 2020
‘Sustainable’ Lego: plastics from plants won’t solve a pollution crisis, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Lingrove, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Chip[s] Board®, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Moxy OID, reviewed June 9th, 2020
SmartLam North America — The Mass Timber Solutions Company, reviewed June 9th, 2020
8 sustainable innovations in construction materials, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Ferrock: A Stronger, Greener Alternative to Concrete? reviewed June 9th, 2020
Timbercrete, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Organically Changing The Building Materials Industry, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Deep Tech Trends, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Smart green VCs you should know — ECOSUMMIT — Accelerating smart green startups, reviewed June 9th, 2020
Six Sustainable Building Materials of the Future, reviewed June 9th, 2020