Sustainable Materials: An Introduction

People are starting to realize that industrial materials such as petroleum-based plastics, cotton and synthetic textiles and plantation-farmed rubber are destructive to our environment. Not that the processes used to make these materials was ever environmentally-friendly, but the scale to which production of these materials has grown to has cast them in a harsh light. People are looking for alternatives.

Sustainable materials seem like a solution. Produced using less energy-intensive production processes, or sourced from natural resources that are less scarce, sustainable materials are being used in construction of sustainably-designed buildings, in the clothing we buy, or in the next generation of sustainable cars.

Let’s take a look at some of these materials.

“Natural Materials”
To clarify something quickly, “natural materials” often refer to materials that are whole plants or simple derivatives thereof. Such as bamboo, or the ingredients used to make cob for building: clay, sand and straw. These designations are subjective anyway. What one may deem “sustainable” may not meet the standard of someone else.

Sustainable Materials

Recycled Rubber

Rubber comes from trees. Originally rubber was sourced from large, South American plantations. It was the quintessential colonial crop and its discovery led to manifold industrial uses, most notably coming in the formr of tires. The traditional manner of producing rubber, separating rubber from the latex that trees secrete when cut, was deemed inefficient and synthetic rubber was created.

Recycled rubber is rubber that has already been produced, which would normally sit in landfills. As it is extremely flammable, landfill tire fires are difficult to extinguish. Recycled rubber re-purposes the rubber from the waste-stream. Recycled rubber has found use in athletic facilities, such as running tracks, as an additive to asphalt and in composting municipal sewage waste. It is also used in building: mixed with concrete, it adds to a structure’s thermal gain and sound-dampening capacities.


Bamboo is a rapidly-reproducing grass that has been used in construction for centuries. It has replaced lumber in sustainable-building projects and could effectively replace wood as a widely-used building material. Bamboo needs no outside inputs, such as fertilizer, once established and its rapid growth rate means that it is more “renewable” than other popular materials.


Hemp has such potential, but remains outlawed in the US. A versatile textile (and food) crop, hemp’s relation to marijuana has caused it to be banned. However, while genetically related and virtually identical, the two plants are different. The hemp plant contains effectively no THC, the chemical compound that makes marijuana intoxicating.

Before the dominance of cotton in textile-making and wood-pulp in making paper, hemp was used in both applications.

Hemp can be grown more sustainably than either commercial cotton or wood and its uses are seemingly limitless. It may find application as petrochemical scarcity increases, as it can be used to make biofuels and synthesized industrial textiles. -MIKE KLEPFER

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