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It seems like the world is made of plastic. Unless you’re consciously avoiding fossil fuel products and non-renewable materials, it’s easy to rely on them to keep life running smoothly. And that’s okay! But it’s always worthwhile to try to incorporate more sustainable materials into your daily habits and routines. After all, if you’re a consumer, small changes on a daily basis can add up.
Nonetheless, the most impactful environmental initiatives often happen during the production process. As such, when businesses choose eco-friendly materials to build their products with, everyone wins. And we’ve compiled all the facts necessary to make those sustainable choices—both small-scale and sweeping—all the more easier.
In this post, we’ll explain what the most sustainable materials are—and define what makes a material sustainable in the first place. Here’s your guide to finding the best sustainable material for your needs.
The Most Sustainable Materials and Their Many Uses
First, let’s get practical and look at four standout materials that benefit the environment. We’ll mention this throughout the article, but keep in mind that all materials can be rendered significantly less sustainable through production, refining, and shipping processes a vendor might use to get the material to you in a certain state. If they’re not opting to use sustainable resources whenever possible, there’s a chance your efforts could go to waste.
Especially if you’re looking for raw materials for large-scale production, you should always vet vendors for sustainable practices to make sure you understand the true environmental impact of a material.
Those externalities aside, there are a few materials that are sustainable due to the very nature of how the Earth produces them. These materials are ideal for mitigating the overall environmental impact of a given product—and can set up sustainable foundations for the rest of the production process.
Cork is more than just a stopper for wine bottles. In fact, cork is arguably one of the most sustainable materials you can work with or purchase. Unlike wood, which requires cutting down a tree to obtain, cork is harvested from trees that remain rooted in the ground and often live for hundreds of years. Even better: A harvested cork tree sequesters three to five times more carbon than an unharvested cork tree. As a result, cork is a far more renewable alternative to wood, plastic, and even cotton.
Those looking for sustainable raw materials for building homes should consider cork—it’s a sturdy material for insulation, walls, flooring, and even ceilings. Cork can also act as a sustainable base for a number of lifestyle products. Cork yoga gear, wallets, and shoe soles are extremely easy to find these days. Finally, cork is also a go-to option for creating sustainable packaging—especially if you’re looking for an eco-friendly material that provides a bit of cushion for more fragile products.
That said, one downside to cork is it’s not easily recyclable for most consumers in the US. So, if you’re hoping to use cork for packaging or any other single-use good, that’s just something to keep in mind while weighing your options for sustainable materials. Given all the benefits of cork, it’s possible that the upsides will outweigh this one downside.
Another sustainable material is bamboo. In contrast to your average tree, which can take up to 30 years to become full size, a bamboo plant can grow to its fullest in just three months. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but considering the speed with which the world consumes packaging, building materials, home goods, and textiles, quick-growing bamboo is a much smarter option than that tree you forgot to plant.
Bamboo’s quick growth means the bamboo growing industry can take up less land while harvesting more raw material—not only because of a much quicker turnover, but also because of the stalks’ dizzying heights and their slim shape.
Bamboo isn’t just sustainable—it’s also versatile. More and more construction materials are being derived from bamboo due to its sturdiness and availability. Plus, bamboo alternatives to paper or plastic single-use products—like disposable plasticware and paper plates—are available in droves as consumers look for more sustainable options to these conveniences. Many sustainable textiles are being produced from bamboo, as well, so bamboo-based clothing and home goods are mainstream options these days.
As a reminder, bamboo, despite its inherent environmental benefits, can only be as good as the harvest and shipping practices of the provider you’re buying it from. Like any material that’s sustainable by nature, bamboo can still come from a provider that uses harmful chemicals, carbon-emitting shipping, or processing that requires huge amounts of fossil fuel energy. If you decide to go with bamboo because it’s sustainable, be sure to do your research on your provider’s production practices to ensure you’re actually making the most eco-friendly choice possible.
Another sustainable material, hemp only just became an unregulated material with the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill because it’s so often conflated with marijuana plants. Hemp is a durable natural resource that grows across many climates, is naturally pest-resistant, and grows in tightly spaced formations. Thanks to these features, it’s an ideal plant for pesticide-free harvesting. Hemp can also be pulped with fewer chemicals, so it’s an easy sustainable alternative for treated wood. When blended with lime binder, hemp can create a sustainable construction material called “hempcrete.” It also creates ideal packaging in the form of burlap-like textiles, bioplastic, and twine. Overall, hemp can do a lot while impacting the environment much less than traditional raw materials.
Anything that’s recycled—and recyclable
As mentioned, most materials are really only as sustainable as the providers that get them to you. Aside from the above materials, which naturally provide environmental benefits through the way they always grow in nature, materials will generally become sustainable through how they’re developed and reused. As a result, some of the most eco-friendly materials you can seek out are recycled and easily recycled. If you need to produce or purchase something with a specific material, like glass or concrete, then the most sustainable option is sourcing recycled or reclaimed batches of that particular material.
If you need to make or buy a single-use product, then it’s especially important that you seek out materials that are easy for the average consumer to recycle. Though most materials are recyclable if you have the right resources, most people are only likely to recycle materials that they can toss in their recycling bin. So, if you’re looking for materials for packaging, disposable goods, or similarly short-lived products, look for sustainable materials that also adhere to typical home recycling guidelines.
What Makes a Material Sustainable?
You’ll probably find yourself in a situation where you need to use your own know-how to evaluate whether a specific material is sustainable. You might be in the store weighing your options for a specific purchase, or you might be at the drafting table trying to decide what material to use for a renovation project. Either way, you should consider these criteria:
How renewable is it?
Though the word “renewable” is often tossed around in discussions of environmental consciousness, it actually means something very specific—and it’s crucial for determining how sustainable a given material is.
Many materials, like wood and plastic, require significant time and resources to create and are non-renewable as a result. On the other hand, more renewable materials are easy to renew because they regrow quickly and need fewer resources to replenish. Renewable materials are low-maintenance by nature, and that means they save more water, land, and air for the rest of the planet.
Does it reduce greenhouse gases?
Many of the most sustainable materials sequester large amounts of carbon while they grow. Check to see where a given material is sourced from—ideally, that material will start as a plant that naturally offsets carbon through its growing process.
How much water does it require?
Despite the benefits of their natural carbon offsets, plants often require a lot of water to grow the raw materials that we harvest from them. This is especially true if these plants are being harvested outside of their native climates. As a result, not all plant-based materials are created equal. Hardy plants that can flourish without huge amounts of water are more sustainable options than delicate plants farmed outside of their naturally humid climates.
How much land does it require?
Similarly, certain materials need massive swaths of land to be developed at scale. And that’s not just the case for plants that grow in soil. For instance, plastics and other fossil fuel products require processing plants and mining. Leather and wool require grazing space. Regardless of the reasons why a material requires land, that land is almost always diverted from natural ecosystems to provide space for production. So, the less land a given material needs to develop, the smaller the footprint—both literally and figuratively—it will have on the environment.
How does its secondary production and transportation impact the environment?
It’s worth re-emphasizing: A raw material is only as sustainable as its production and transportation. Even the most sustainable raw material can have an adverse effect on the environment if it’s sent through a rigamarole of chemical-heavy processing and global shipping. The most sustainable materials are often the ones that are closest to you—and the ones that require the fewest steps to their final state.
Is it recyclable?
The sourcing, production, and shipping are only half of a product’s lifecycle. If you’re choosing which material to develop a product with, you should also think about the impacts each material will have after a customer is done with your product. Same goes if you yourself are the customer.
Namely, you should be purchasing or producing products made from materials that are easily recyclable whenever possible—and this is especially true if you’re purchasing or producing a single-use product. If you’re purchasing a product, make sure it adheres to your local recycling restrictions (or that you’re willing to seek out specialty recycling services if it doesn’t). If you’re producing a product for widespread consumption, try to seek out a sustainable material that is also recyclable even with the most limited public recycling programs.
All that said, if you’re a purveyor and you have to choose between a truly sustainable material and a recyclable fossil fuel product, choose to work with the sustainable material. After all, you can’t control whether or not a consumer actually recycles your product, and the recycling process itself requires energy and resources. If you’re looking for materials to produce something, and you’re dedicated to limiting the environmental impact of your product, then the raw materials you start with are the most straightforward way to control that impact.
- Environmental and economic impacts of the cork stoppers market
- Why 100% Cork? Good for the Environment
- Environmental impacts of bamboo-based construction materials representing global production diversity
- Bamboo – impact on pandas and environment – World Wildlife Fund
- The Farm Bill, hemp legalization and the status of CBD: An explainer
- Industrial Hemp: A Win-Win For The Economy And The Environment
- Hemp | Description, Products, Seeds, Fiber, & Uses