Waste is a pressing global issue with far-reaching consequences for human health, the economy, and the environment. Improper waste management practices, such as disposal in landfills or open burning, can lead to water and air pollution, posing risks to human well-being and increasing the incidence of waterborne and respiratory diseases. In 2019, more than 4 million deaths were caused by outdoor air pollution.
The economic impact of waste is significant, as inefficient waste management systems incur high costs for collection, transportation, and infrastructure development. Moreover, the environmental effects of waste include habitat destruction, soil degradation, and contributions to climate change. Addressing the waste problem is crucial for a low-carbon future, requiring effective waste management strategies and a shift towards recycling, reuse, and responsible disposal practices.
Our current production and consumption patterns, heavily reliant on finite resources and characterized by excessive waste generation, are no longer sustainable. It is crucial to shift towards a more sustainable and circular economy that emphasizes reducing waste, reusing materials, and recycling resources. This transition is essential for preserving our environment and natural resources.
The traditional "take-make-waste" model is no longer sustainable because it relies on the extraction of finite resources, which are being depleted at an alarming rate. This model also produces significant waste, polluting the environment and contributing to climate change.
This model relies heavily on the extraction of finite resources from the Earth, such as minerals, fossil fuels, and timber. As the global population grows, the demand for these resources increases, leading to their depletion. Once these resources are extracted and used in products, they are often discarded after a relatively short period, resulting in a significant loss of value and the need for continuous extraction.
The linear model generates a vast amount of waste and pollution. Many products are designed with a limited lifespan, intentionally or unintentionally, leading to a throwaway culture.
This results in enormous waste in landfills or incinerators, polluting the environment and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The model fails to capture the economic value of materials through reuse, recycling, and remanufacturing.
The linear economic model generates a vast amount of waste and pollution.
The good news is that there are alternatives to the traditional "take-make-waste" model. These alternatives, known as circular economy models, focus on reducing waste, reusing materials, and recycling products. This approach emphasizes designing products for durability, optimizing resource use, and implementing effective waste management systems.
Three categories of materials lie at the center of this material revolution — durable materials, second-life materials, and vanishing materials.
Centennial materials, also known as long-lasting or durable materials, are substances that are designed or naturally possess exceptional longevity and durability. These materials are intended to have a significantly extended lifespan compared to conventional materials, reducing the need for frequent replacements and minimizing waste generation. These materials play a vital role in the transition towards a more sustainable and circular economy. The longer you use them, the longer you keep them from becoming another heap of waste.
For example, stainless steel is a corrosion-resistant material that offers exceptional durability and longevity. It is widely used in various industries, including construction, automotive, and household appliances. Stainless steel is highly resistant to rust, stains, and heat, making it suitable for applications where longevity and hygiene are critical, such as kitchen equipment and medical instruments. Outokumpu makes stainless steel that’s both durable and sustainable. The steel has a low carbon footprint.
Hardwoods like oak, teak, and mahogany are known for their long-lasting quality in furniture, flooring, and building structures. Their ability to endure for generations means less need for replacements, reducing the demand for natural resources.
Clay and adobe are natural materials that have been used in construction for centuries and can last for generations. Their long lifespan reduces the need for replacements, and they're interesting environmentally because they don’t require energy-intensive processing. Additionally, they can often be recycled or returned to the earth, which minimizes waste.
A house built with adobe
Second-life materials, also known as reclaimed or upcycled materials, refer to materials that are given a new life or purpose after their initial use or intended lifespan. Instead of being discarded as waste, these materials are repurposed, refurbished, or transformed into new products or materials. Second-life materials are critical components of the circular economy by reducing resource consumption, minimizing waste, and promoting sustainable and low-carbon practices.
Reclaimed wood, sourced from old buildings, barns, or other structures repurposed for various applications, is a good example of second-life materials. This wood can be used to create furniture, flooring, wall paneling, and architectural elements. By reusing reclaimed wood, valuable timber resources are preserved. West Elm is a furniture retailer that offers a variety of reclaimed wood products, including tables, chairs, beds, and more.
House decorations made from reclaimed wood
Plastic materials, such as bottles, containers, and packaging, can be recycled and transformed into new products. Recycled plastic is commonly used to create items like outdoor furniture, plastic lumber, or new plastic containers. By recycling and using recycled plastic, the demand for virgin plastic is reduced, conserving resources and mitigating plastic pollution. For example, Adidas teamed up with Parley for the Oceans to turn plastic ocean waste into sneakers and sportswear.
Plastic and wood aren’t the only second-life materials; look around you, and you’ll find them. From refurbished electronics to reused cardboard and packaging materials, many materials can get a second life instead of ending up in landfills.
💡Check out our list of top suppliers of upcycled materials here
Vanishing materials might sound like a concept out of fantasy books. But they are a reality that we need to tap into to ensure that we build a sustainable and low-carbon future. These materials can easily disappear or biodegrade over time, leaving behind little to no trace. Vanishing materials hold great promise. They offer an alternative to conventional materials that persist in landfills for centuries, contributing to the ever-growing waste problem.
Traditional plastics take hundreds of years to decompose. However, biodegradable plastics are designed to break down more rapidly under specific environmental conditions. These materials can be derived from renewable sources such as plant starches or synthesized from biodegradable polymers. Biodegradable plastic products, like food packaging, bags, or utensils, can be composted or naturally degraded, reducing plastic pollution and the burden on landfills.
Biodegradable plastics are designed to break down more rapidly under specific environmental conditions.
Dissolvable packaging materials are designed to disappear when in contact with water or other specific substances. For instance, water-soluble films made from materials like polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) or starch can be used for single-use packaging applications, such as laundry detergent pods or soluble sachets for agricultural chemicals. These materials dissolve during use, eliminating the need for disposal or recycling. Vanishing materials are also used for temporary implants or devices that gradually break down in the body. Osteopore uses use bioresorbable polymers in their implants.
As we witness a material revolution taking shape, fueled by the growing eco-consciousness of people, it becomes imperative for brands to align themselves with this shift. The recognition of the environmental challenges we face and the urgency to adopt sustainable practices have driven a demand for innovative materials that reduce waste, promote circularity, and minimize environmental impact.
The concepts of durable materials, recycled/upcycled materials, and vanishing materials offer a pathway toward a more sustainable and low-carbon future by reducing resource consumption and waste generation. Brands that embrace this revolution and prioritize sustainability not only contribute to a healthier planet but also resonate with the values of increasingly conscious consumers.
💡Check out tocco’s marketplace to source for more than 1000 low-carbon and regenerative materials here
How to (really) end the single-use plastic epidemic? | tocco. (n.d.). https://tocco.earth/article/alternatives-to-single-use-plastics/
Morgan, C. (2020). How Adidas is turning plastic ocean waste into sneakers and sportswear. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/adidas-sneakers-plastic-bottles-ocean-waste-recycle-pollution-2019-8?r=US&IR=T
Statista. (2023, February 6).
Global deaths due to air pollution 2019, by type. https://www.statista.com/statistics/512148/air-pollution-deaths-globally-by-type/
Never miss out on the latest sustainable & regenerative materials!
We collaborate with brands, entrepreneurs, innovative suppliers and legends