Radical Matter: materials for a sustainable future

Global warming, plastic soup, deforestation and resource depletion, with all the doom and gloom in the news, it is clear that we can no longer turn a blind eye to where our materials come from. Fortunately, there are many designers and artists who use available resources to make new, innovative materials. The book ‘Radical Matter: Rethinking materials for a sustainable future’ by Kate Franklin and Caroline Till of FranklinTill Studio makes clear that we have to move away from our current ‘take-make-waste’ model when it comes to products and materials, and describes many projects in which artists and designers use surprising materials that show that a sustainable world is possible.

In order not to destroy the world, we need to move to a circular economy, which means that waste is not waste, but a resource. The only things allowed to be discarded are biodegradable materials, and even those might have a new use.

From waste to raw material
Waste is present in every sector, from fashion to furniture. Cut-offs from denim or leather, for instance, can be reused if combined with bioresin or glue, while sawdust and newspapers also offer many possibilities. Plastic, of course, is also a material that has to be recycled so that it won’t end up in our environment. Various initiatives shred and melt down plastic, or use to PET bottles join various parts of furniture.

Natural materials
Natural materials are an obvious step in the right direction, as they come from renewable resources and biodegrade. People have used natural materials for centuries – think wool, wood, hemp, leather, etc. – but in a time with an insatiable appetite for more products, designers are turning to more unlikely resources, including pine needles, seaweed, and corn.

While we can shape materials ourselves, for instance by mixing them with (bio)resin and moulding them, we can also let the materials do the work for us. Mycelium is an example of this, as it can grow into any desired shape, from packaging material to textile to construction pieces.

Then there are natural materials that we rather not think about, for instance poo and human hair. Still, even these materials can be useful, for instance to make ceramics and fabric (cow dung) or rope (human hair).

Mining future materials
With our actual mines starting to be depleted, we are now turning to urban mining, reusing materials from, for instance, demolished buildings, like bricks. How and what will we mine in the future? Probably lots of plastic, which has been and still is spilling into the environment. Initiatives like The Ocean Cleanup and Plastic Whale are already fishing plastic from the sea and canals, which can be turned into products again.

Not just plastic can be mined, however. Soot and air pollution can also be turned into dye, ink or even rings.

We’re also starting to see synthetic and natural materials starting to blend in nature. There are natural stones turning up, in which plastic can be found. How can we use those in design?

“It’s time to turn the cycle from take-make-waste to make-waste-make.” – Franklin & Till, Radical Matter