Future Materials and ‘Being Good’

Striving for certification of carbon neutral and sustainable materials that minimise our ecological impact is leading to a lack of innovation and ignorance about how materials fit into the wider system. Everything we consume, from biscuits to brake pads, is part of this. Dr. Michael Braungart – one of the founders of Cradle to Cradle (C2C) – argues that a new approach to the design of materials, products and systems is drastically needed.

We have all been told countless times to reduce our ecological footprint in order to save the earth. But what does this involve? For example, if you cook your pasta to be extra ´al dente´ then you can save 20% of the total energy that would have otherwise been required. When faced with the decision of taking the elevator versus taking the stairs, an average-sized, vegetarian woman can actually save five times more energy by taking the elevator given the amount of energy required to produce one calorie of human energy. It would seem to follow then that if you want to minimise your impact on the environment, you should take the elevator rather than the stairs and eat half-cooked pasta. And herein lies a conceptual problem in striving to reduce one’s footprint. Braungart explains that it really shouldn’t be about minimising one’s footprint but rather making it a beneficial footprint!

Braungart believes that notions of minimising our ecological impact stem from a romanticism for the idea of Mother Earth that causes guilt. A trending notion is that humans have overpopulated the earth, becoming a plague that needs to be limited. Al Gore is a proponent of this idea. But Braungart argues there is no need to romanticise nature, because nature is destructive itself. For example, many natural materials, such as fine dust and particulate matter, are far more harmful than passive secondhand smoke. Cancers and mould certainly destroy things but are not necessarily bad – in the larger scheme of things – because nature is using them as agents in cleaning things up. Humans are likewise natives to this planet and part of the system. Instead of aiming to be ´less bad´ we should be aiming to be good.

The idea of being less bad also appears in the concept of carbon neutrality. The Euro zone currently has a goal to be ‘carbon neutral’ in 2050, which in many ways is complete nonsense as you can only be carbon neutral if you don’t exist. A tree for instance creates both carbon and oxygen. It is therefore carbon positive. There are 600 million trees in the Amazon and not a single one is climate neutral. Rather than striving for carbon neutrality, says Braungart, we should instead strive to be carbon positive. A baby typically uses around 7500 diapers growing up but the contents of these diapers could grow 150 trees. Babies in that sense could be seen as being carbon positive. A building with a green roof or green walls for instance can create both carbon and oxygen and become carbon positive. Rather than merely striving to minimise the environmental impact of a new building it can instead be thought of as a tree and a city in turn like forest, each with a place in nature, responsibly consuming and generating the energy that keeps our planet going.

Our current systems of production are linear rather than cyclical. We take materials, make other materials and products from them, and then break them when they become superfluous to us – thereby consigning them to their grave. Take, make, break. They aren’t returned into a system of any kind. Each year, 35 million plastic flip-flops are discarded into the ocean. But these flip-flops are not designed to go into the biological system or the biosphere. As a result, fish are filled with plastic materials that can’t be absorbed back into the system and have nowhere else to go. The asbestos previously used in brake pads has now been replaced with antimony trisulfide (Sb2S3) which, unlike a naturally occurring material such as asbestos, is unable to incorporate itself back into the biosphere at the end of its useful life.

Instead, new materials and products should be designed to go into a biological or technical cycle, say Braungart. In the C2C model, biological materials can be disposed of in any natural environment and decomposed into the soil, providing food for small life forms.

Technical materials – such as metals, fibres and dyes – should be non-toxic, non-harmful synthetic materials that can be used in continuous cycles as the same product without losing their integrity or quality. These materials can be used over and over again instead of being ‘down-cycled’ into lesser products, which ultimately leads to them becoming waste.

Nonsensical and contradictory terms such as carbon neutral often work their way into the criteria for certification. The materials of the future will fit in the global systems of the future. It is the responsibility of the producers and innovators of the future to critically consider the place of materials within biological or technical cycles, rather than to disguise the materials’ function behind certification constructs or catch-all phrases such as carbon neutral. And rather than seeking to limit their impact on the environment, future materials will instead be innovative, so that they positively contribute to our biosphere. These are the materials that will create a better future for ourselves, our children and those in the distant future.