Every year, researchers create new and more exciting sustainable materials that can help save our planet. In pursuit of plastic alternatives, what are these materials made of? Here are some of the latest sustainable materials being used in 2023.
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What makes a material sustainable?
For the purposes of this article, we’re talking about materials that can replace plastics or offset carbon emissions while being used to create or build products. That means sustainable materials are often renewable, meaning if you use them you can grow new materials to use again quickly.
Related: PlasticFree locates sustainable materials for designers
Sustainable materials also should be natural when possible, to avoid creating new chemical pollution. And speaking of pollution, sustainable materials also should be non-toxic to people as well as the planet. When looking at sustainable materials, it’s also important to remember that materials such as fabrics and papers are often treated with harsh chemicals, so it’s important to ask how a material was produced before declaring it sustainable.
Top sustainable building materials
1. Cross-laminated timber
Wood is a limited resource, but faster-growing trees and plants can make building materials that are sustainable. Even old-growth timber can be sustainably harvested by letting the trees grow to their natural lifespan and avoiding harmful practices like clear-cutting that decimate an ecosystem all at once.
Cross-laminated timber is a particular form of wood used in sustainably built homes and commercial buildings. Timber is glued together in a way that makes the wood strong for use as support beams and similar structures. By working with smaller pieces of wood this way, builders can create large timber structures without sacrificing large timber.
Wood can be used to build everything from buildings to small home décor items and furniture. As such, we shouldn’t cast it aside as one of earth’s most successful building materials for homes. We just have to find sustainable forms of wood. If you’re sourcing sustainable wood for a project, make sure that it is ethically and sustainably harvested (organically grown, no chemicals used in growing or processing, minimal water waste, etc.). Also, make sure that it’s a renewable fast-growing wood source and that your project can minimize cutting waste or transport costs by sourcing local wood or material that is pre-cut for your project.
Bamboo is a popular building material these days because it is so easy to grow quickly in many locations around the world. Growing fastest in the tropics of Southeast Asia where it is native, this natural product can be turned into everything from building support timbers to flooring and decorative room divider screens.
Bamboo is particularly sustainable because cultivation needs no pesticides, and because it naturally regrows from cut stumps repeatedly and doesn’t need to be re-sown every growth cycle. This unique grass-like plant is actually the fastest growing plant on the planet! Even beating out kudzu vine, which is good because we imagine you can’t make much out of a growth of kudzu vines.
The down side to bamboo is that when used to make fabrics and clothing, the fibers are run through extremely harsh chemicals to make them soft enough for flexible products. If you are picking bamboo in fabric form, look for sustainable versions like Tencel that are made without chemical processing.
Have you seen ads for coconut dishes recently? That’s because this unique material is now being used as a sustainable building product for dishes, small home furnishings and more. Coconut can be used in scouring pads for your kitchen, or coconut fibers can be used to strengthen building blocks similar to concrete cinder blocks.
Coconut can be used without any waste left over, which makes it an up-cyclable zero waste product. Another benefit of coconut as a building material is that it can be made into building material without using glue, which minimizes toxins. Coconut, like bamboo, is fully biodegradable so it can be used for products that might need to break down over time without harming the environment.
4. Recycled plastic materials
Recycled plastics are now being used to make automobile seats and recycled jewelry. Fabric made from recycled plastics is a popular way to reuse waste from landfills and clean up ocean plastic. Sometimes, plastics can be reused without processing them in between, such as in the use of plastic beads used for flotation, insulation and cushion filling.
Materials made from plastics will boast of their percentage of recycled plastic contents. Just be careful around this material if you are using recycled plastics in a new form that requires care around pollution and chemical leaching. We have seen reusable lunch baggies made from plastics not intended for reuse. Make sure that if you shop for recycled plastic fabrics in raw form or as finished clothing or shoes that you are checking third-party verification of ingredients, especially if you have plastic or petroleum allergies.
Bio-plastics are a newer category of material now commonly used in disposable single-use plastic products. Bio-plastics are still plastic, but they’re made from new types of plastic sourced from plants like corn, rather than from oil. Usually, these plastics have a delayed biodegradability, meaning you can use your item as long as you want, but when you throw it away the product will break down in the landfill over the course of months or years. This doesn’t get much press these days, but honestly bio-plastics can save the planet from the bulk of problems related to plastic pollution and landfill waste, simply by being long-term biodegradable and non-toxic.
Bio-plastics are also made from sugar cane, beetroot, coffee grounds, corn silk and many similar plants. It is best to avoid using plastic products where possible, especially single use. But in the event you need single-use plastic products, just opt for biodegradable bio-plastics to save a ton of waste over time.
6. Sustainable concrete
It might surprise you to learn how unsustainable concrete can be, when its more natural cousin adobe, or mud bricks, are sourced in a similar way. Concrete goes through a lot of processing and transport, plus it’s very water-intensive. Many companies are now creating alternatives to concrete in the form of 3D-printed filament or building blocks. It looks just like traditional concrete, but the carbon emissions are significantly reduced. And, most sustainable concrete building materials are sourced from partially recycled materials, making the product more helpful to the planet.
Concrete blocks normally require some strengthening bolstering filler such as coconut fibers or recycled plastic pieces. The material for these blocks can even be sourced on site for your construction project, if you have the means to make the bricks! Some construction projects on historical sites or building locations with lots of renovation waste have started using waste from the demo project on site to build the bricks for new buildings at the same location.
It’s a new day for architecture and product design, with all these sustainable products available. Check out our other articles on sustainable building materials. You’ll be amazed how many options you really have, no matter your project specs.
Via Mindset Eco
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