Common practices for material production and use, especially in the centuries following the advent of the Industrial age, have involved the extraction of raw materials and a discard of the same after they have been depleted. The irresponsible methods of disposal are responsible for a myriad of problems facing society, more so with regards to the pollution and destruction of vital natural resources--an unsustainable trend. The use of sustainable materials is seen as the only way to reverse these unsustainable practices.
What is a Sustainable Material?
A sustainable material is any material that can be put to effective use in the present without compromising its availability for use by latter generations. A sustainable material’s use is within the brackets of a sustainable system, which in turn refers to practices that benefit and replenish the well-being of humans and the general environment. It is this sustainability that is seen to be the key to ensuring a productive survival for the human population and an accommodating Earth.
It is indeed very difficult to fully describe what a sustainable material is. Perhaps the best way of doing so is by looking at them as the materials whose use achieves environmental benefits unlike other conventional materials. Sustainable materials share some general characteristics including a natural abundance, an ease of extraction with respect to amounts of energy used and an ease of recycling.
Many sustainable materials currently in use share the aforementioned attributes and based on this, two general classes can be itemized: i. Materials significantly of plant origin; these include products from wood, natural fibers and polymers. ii. Materials that are produced using waste products as raw materials; these are typically the products of recycled matter.
Dematerialization as Key
Dematerialization refers to an informed reduction of the amount of materials that go into making a product such that the quality of the same will remain uncompromised. By doing this, it is possible to reduce the amount and flow of raw materials into the industrial cycle. Some of the strategies by which this can be done include the development of organic chemicals, increased recycling, and embracing out-of-industry good practices like increased product repair and upgrading.
Sustainable Materials Economy
Two approaches, dematerialization and detoxification, have been identified as a means to helping achieve and uphold a sustainable materials economy.
Achieving a sustainable materials economy via detoxification includes the systematic phasing-out and substitution of toxic chemicals and pollutants. This should be done simultaneously with the development of novel materials whose use is complementary to the sustained health of humans and the general ecosystem.