A Future without Oil

Sustainable Materials and their Potential

form 225
March/April 2009


Birkhäuser (Basel)

Given that resources like oil are becoming increasingly scarce and prices have risen, the demand for alternative materials is growing. Currently bioplastics are breaking into the market in a big way. On the other hand materials can be saved if they are used in closed cycles. An overview of sustainable materials.

The sustainable use of materials was recently the primary theme of the first nutec congress in Frankfurt, where the preconditions for unscrupulous consumption and natural disposal were discussed. “Cradle to cradle” is one of the solution approaches for more sustainability and stands for a paradigm change: Ideally products are composed of components which are suitable for circulating in biological and technical cycles.

To allow for the creation of a technical cycle, demands on products must be described in such a way that after use they can be easily separated into their components and returned to the natural material cycles. Here, attention must be paid to avoiding the use of chemical aids and environmentally damaging additives in production, assembly and disassembly. Among the first successful product examples are office chairs by Steelcase, which can be disassembled in a few movements, and wooden architecture by Thoma, which consists entirely of wood – neither glue nor chemical substances are used and joins are made using wood plugs.

The biological cycle describes the production, use, disposal and retrieval of a material in a biological way. “Garbage is nutrition” according to the catchy idea which is especially applicable to plastics. New polymers which are not based on crude oil but on renewable raw materials are in demand. Foils made of potato starch (Bioplast), packaging made of corn starch (NaturWorks), insulation plates out of cellulose (Isoflex), foams made of castor oil (Elastogran) or algae-based substances (VPZ) are the most vivid examples of a new way of working with materials and the increasing environmental responsibility of industrial nations.

The issue has now also become interesting for chemical giants, as predicted growth rates for biopolymers are gigantic. Almost every week they launch new, more sustainable materials on the market. And manufacturers of technical semi-finished plastic products, such as Ecogehr, have also recently established product lines based on bioplastics.


image source: Natureworks