To make anything, you need to use materials. Cars, buildings, the laptop I’m writing on, and the clothes you are wearing are all made from material resources. But not all materials are created equal. Some materials are more harmful to the environment, challenging to source, and difficult to dispose of than others so the materials we choose to use and the strategies to process, recycle, and dispose of are important.
There are thousands of material resources humans use to produce commodities. These raw materials are so important that the European Commission made a list of 30 critical raw materials. The list was created by accounting for the economic importance of the material (adjusting for the feasibility of alternatives) and the risk of limited supply. Some of these materials you may be familiar with, some you may not, but they are on this list because they are essential to modern industry and not easily replaced by known alternatives. Due to their finite availability and the difficulty to replace, special care must be taken to extract, utilize, and repurpose with utmost consciousness.
While critical raw materials are not easily replaced, some materials that are commonly used materials, such as plastic, have readily available alternatives that aren’t being used to their full potential. Critical raw materials that cannot be so easily recycled or replaced must be approached with a circular mentality, by carefully managing its use, ensuring maximum lifespan, and securing safe disposal.
Transitioning to Alternatives
One of the most talked-about materials with viable alternatives is plastic. Plastic is an incredibly cheap and versatile material that is flexible, durable, and lightweight. Plastic enables vehicles to consume less fuel by making them lighter and plays an essential role in manufacturing medical equipment. The problem with plastic is its destructive impact on the environment stemming from the overuse and inadequate waste processing. Plastic is a petroleum product that relies on destructive resource extraction. Once the product has reached the end of its lifecycle, it can only be recycled a few times since the material gets weaker with each cycle. Once the plastic can no longer be recycled, if it even gets recycled, it goes into landfills and takes anywhere from 10-1000 years to decompose.
Plastic has been essential for technology and product advancement – for example, using plastic to build cars allows them to be lighter and therefore use less fuel. But plastic has been overutilized and has facilitated single-use, throw-away habits. Regardless of whether the material is biodegradable or not, the energy-intensive process of producing and disposing of these short-lived products has a huge impact on the environment.
Anyone who has tried to go plastic-free can testify to how difficult it is. The overuse of plastic in single-use and disposable items has led to serious environmental problems, which is getting attention and driving alternatives to be developed. Biodegradable and compostable plastic made from corn starch, eggshells, seaweed, and other materials are slowly making their way into the market. But these biodegradable plastics are presenting their own problems. Without the proper industrial composting facilities and education to prevent contamination in conventional plastic recycling plants, we cannot successfully transition to less impactful materials.
The plastic dilemma reflects a recurring problem with transitioning to sustainable materials. But what about those materials which don’t have alternatives? Many precious metals that are used to make essential products, such as lithium-ion batteries, don’t have compostable plant-based alternatives. So they must be approached with a circular design mentality.
Circular design takes into account the entire lifecycle of different materials and how they can be used most efficiently. It considers how products are built, what materials are used, and how they can be repurposed into new uses when they reach the end of use. By applying principles of circular design and economics we can ensure that the products which rely on scarce materials are utilized to their full potential. This means extraction must be managed to ensure that we are not overproducing products dependent on critical raw materials, research into upcycling and recycling potential must be conducted, and companies must be incentivized to build modular products with the longest possible life cycle.
Products are currently being made in a mindset of resource abundance and little regard for the environmental and social impacts of the materials used. On one hand, essential products that enable our society to function depend on limited resources with which there are no alternatives. On the other hand, we have over-utilized materials with readily available alternatives, which simply lack the scale and infrastructure to compete and enable a throw-away culture.
To make material usage more sustainable, we must explore a wide range of alternative biodegradable materials, redesign the way we build things, and ensure proper education and disposal processes for these products. Ultimately, we must transform our approach to materials and eliminate the single-use mentality.