A material dilemma

The fall and rise of plastics? Dr Mark Everard, director of science at The Natural Step; Duncan Bowdler, trade liaison manager for the Co-operative Group (CWS); and Mark Shayler, environmental manager, Asda Stores, looks again at the 'flawed concept of green materials'.

In business, we need to evaluate the most appropriate materials for our products, packaging, construction, transportation, office equipment and consumables, and other needs. Some of our decisions may be based upon received wisdom about the 'right stuff for the job'. Some will be without any thought whatsoever. Other decisions will be influenced by technical performance, quality, finance, regulatory or other requirements, and the perception of the market, retailers, and rating agencies that form profiles for investors. Furthermore, the environmental and social impacts arising along material supply chains will be germane, as will be those beyond end-of-life, unless they are fully recycled (and even here we have to consider energy and material inputs to the recycling process). We should, therefore, be factoring fully into the decision-making process these sustainable development considerations, which include the potential accumulation of chemical pollutants, impacts upon natural systems, and wastage of resources that might be more equitably shared.

Scientific realities
It is easy to make rapid judgements about 'good' and 'bad' materials, and to be smug about one's progress with sustainable development. It is quite another matter to be secure in the knowledge that one's decisions are demonstrably more sustainable, founded on the scientific realities of the world in which we live. Though doubtless based upon the best of intentions, with very rare exceptions these claims and decisions are at best over-simplistic. At worst, they are completely fatuous. And, by overwhelming majority, they are not backed up by a shred of evidence that the replacements are more sustainable.

Firstly, let's consider the flawed concept of 'green materials'. Wood, for example. Wood in a tree is fully sustainable, derived from natural productive systems and ultimately breaking down through complex processes such that its constituent chemicals are fully reintegrated into the living forest together with its embodied solar energy. It is part of nature, with no net accumulation of waste nor harmful impacts. Wood in a door frame can be a wholly different matter. If sourced from an old-growth forest, it represents huge damage to natural ecosystems. Even timber accredited as coming from 'sustainably' managed forests is far from neutral if we take account of soil erosion, chemical and energy inputs in growth and harvesting, implications for the rural economy, etc. If we preserve the timber, have we taken into account the sustainability implications of that preservative? And, if not, what about the maintenance requirements of that wood - for example the two-yearly painting cycle for exterior window frames - throughout its useful life? And if, at end-of-life, the timber is merely deposited in the nearest landfill site, screws and all, it still represents a waste of a natural resource which will neither yield further benefits to society nor return unpolluted to be reintegrated by natural systems.

In today's world, it would be surprising if even the 'greenest' choice were not far from sustainable if we take into account source, maintenance and fate. And possibly - just possibly - the least 'green' of materials that one could conceive could be the most sustainable in the longer term if its inherent properties lend it to efficient reuse by society with little or no release of that material into natural systems. Copper is a great example of a material which, even in today's unsustainable world, has an economic value, set of regulatory drivers and innate chemical properties which mean that much is now recovered and returned for reuse in meeting society's needs, with reduced disposal, accumulation in ecosystems and demand for virgin resource. The key point is that it is not the materials themselves that are 'green', be they wood, plastic, paper, or aluminium. True sustainability can only be assessed across the complete life cycle.

'Transmaterialisation' - the substitution of one material with another - is all the buzz in sustainable development thinking. Progressive elimination of highly toxic substances (cadmium, mercury, DDT, etc) is welcome. However, ill-informed substitution can be a major impediment to dealing with fundamental issues. The acid test as to the basis upon which substitution decisions are made is that those who have considered in detail the end-goal of sustainability will have undertaken a careful evaluation of the chosen substitute material. They will have based that judgement upon a detailed analysis of the one material versus the other, utilising sustainability principles and applying them across the whole life cycle. Hindsight suggests that many commercial decisions to phase out materials have, to date, been made without adequate consideration of the relative sustainability of alternatives, if indeed alternatives have been considered at all. Such phase-outs may yield PR benefits, but may in truth be just a veneer of sustainability. This can at once ignore the fundamental issue as well as run the risk of investment in tomorrow's 'problem' material.

Unbounded scope
Increasingly, the production of crops for energy, chemical feedstocks, pharmaceuticals, fibre, dyes and other substances is being perceived as a more sustainable way forwards. (Let us not also forget here that oil, coal and gas are ultimately biologically produced). Whilst it would be difficult to disagree with the mantra that 'nature is best', it is an abstraction to suggest that all materials derived from farmed crops are so. A biologically-based economy may be inherently more sustainable than a fossil fuel-based one - although this assumption has yet to be rigorously tested - but it will certainly be a long-term goal that requires huge innovation in sustainable farming methods.

Of one thing we can be sure: sustainable development is unavoidable as we struggle to deal with the 'freedom to operate' granted by public and customer opinion, higher charges and smaller opportunities for waste disposal, and the wide range of other ways that sustainability pressures will manifest. The flip-side of this coin is that there will exist in the coming years almost unbounded scope for new technologies, a rethinking of the way we select materials, and new economic opportunities that will open up via the sustainability agenda.

There are some facets of the material needs of a more sustainable world that we can predict. Pressures to make more with less, and to avoid the progressive accumulation of pollutants in nature, as well as issues of equity will inevitably drive us towards cyclic use of resources to increase social benefits per unit raw resource. This will require an infrastructure to collect, sort and recycle materials, and those materials whose inherent chemical and physical properties aid recycling through as many cycles as possible will surely find growing favour.

Although it may be heresy to suggest it in the current climate of opinion, perhaps today's 'pariah' materials - for example the thermoplastics - will fulfill these needs rather better than many 'natural' alternatives? Whatever the truth of the matter, we must surely suspend our prejudices in the short term whilst we re-evaluate objectively for the long term. What we need, in short, is a 'level playing field' for all materials based upon rigorous and scientifically-founded sustainability evaluation across their whole life cycles, critically taking into account end-of-life.

Leaders are needed to broker the partnerships required between local authorities, waste companies, manufacturers and consumers to deliver the cyclic material reuse systems that will tackle systematically the problems now being addressed in isolation by each sector. It will also be critical to spread awareness to other sectors of society influencing material choices. These include those formulating for technical performance and quality, financial decision-makers who need to take account of the full life cycle of materials, and the perception of markets, retailers and investors. Strong government and political leadership on sustainable development would also help enormously.

In addition to tackling the strategic challenges, business has to face tough choices based upon what is currently available whilst also satisfying shareholders. There is a difficult balance to achieve in decision-making between the often conflicting immediate pressures and those of the longer term, in which yesterday's approaches to greenness - 'just say no' to material A and 'just say yes' to material B - just wont wash. Today's choice will have to be made on the basis of pragmatism and profitability, but not without the foresight to avoid investment in tomorrow's environmental, health, liability and reputation problems.

This circle is squared by thinking at the life cycle scale, beyond the narrow confines of immediate applications, and based upon objective assessments about the capacity of materials for cyclic use that avoids wastage and pollution problems. Business will also have to think long-term about the partnerships and infrastructure necessary to achieve longer-term sustainability goals with respect to material usage, with its associated economic benefits. From evaluation of this strategic path towards sustainability, necessarily involving a range of partners in the life cycle, one can then identify which pragmatic decisions today also represent 'stepping stones' towards the sustainable ideal, and not an investment in tomorrow's problems.

Business will increasingly need to factor sustainable development into material choice. The ideals of the long term may just not be available or affordable in the marketplace of today's far-from-sustainable world, but that is no reason not to reap the benefits of making strategic decisions that put us on the road to that end-goal.


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