Material Monday Sustainable Series Insight: Lifecycle to Terminology

Material Monday Sustainable Series Insight: Lifecycle to Terminology

Posted 20 May 2019 by Katie Kubrak

Nelson Mandela is recognised for stating that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. This is not only true in reference to the social injustice but also with regards to the environmental issues we face today. Only through education and understanding of materials and associated terminology we can truly make an informed change with our CMF selection, production, products, spaces, brands and many more.

The list of catchy expressions and phrases used by marketeers is ever increasing, so how can we make sense of it all, sieve through bollocks and find meaningful information? Acknowledging this widespread struggle, this Material Monday we decided to share an insight to approach towards vocabulary often associated with “being eco”, “being sustainable” and “being environmentally friendly”.

Surely you have heard words like recyclable, non-recyclable, biodegradable, compostable, biomaterial, vegan material, organic material, renewable material, non-renewable material. And that’s not even all terms that are floating around these days. So how can we develop an approach that will allow us to make sense of it all? Even if a new term comes to light, a term we haven’t heard before. How do we find out what it means for the sustainability of our actions?

Key to this approach is quite simple in fact – lifecycle. If we approach every material by understanding its lifecycle, we will quickly be able to define how its ABC will translate into the sustainability of our creative output. But what makes up a lifecycle?

Lifecycle of every CMF element always begins with raw material, which is later processed in manufacturing to be finally shaped into a defined form and function in the production process. Meaning of its designated role is further defined by the duration of consumer use, which will always end lifecycle at the point of disposal. With clear understanding of these four pillars you will always be able to easily identify what material you are dealing with. This will further translate into clear outline of fundamental differences between perhaps a selection of CMF you are considering. All of that will enable you as a designer to make an environmentally informed choice for the sustainable story of your brand.

Working with this framework, you can also take this a step deeper if you are struggling to get clear view. This means, that once you have key facts on the material’s lifecycle you can begin to break it down into type and end of life. Type will always be defined by the raw material, manufacturing & production, while end of life will help us to define disposal. In terms of disposal, it is very important to understand that each disposal requires specific processing.

In this notion, we would like to point out that recycling is the process of converting used materials into something new, keeping products away from a landfill. Materials such as plastic (e.g. PET), metal (e.g. aluminum) or glass (e.g. clear) are recyclable. Unlike plastics, some metals can be recycled indefinitely. To exemplify, 70% of aluminum used today comes from early 20th century production.

Biodegradable means that it can be broken down naturally by microorganism such as bacteria, fungi under certain conditions. There however is no specification as to the length of the break down time. Waste such as a banana skin will take 1-3 years to biodegrade in the environment with release of no harmful toxins. Alas it’s vital to ask yourself as a designer if we want our surrounding to be littered with these and how sustainable would that be? As the same time, plastic may too biodegrade yet it can pollute the environment with toxins and hazardous particles as exemplified by the 6 gyres crisis. Furthermore, process of biodegradation needs to happen under specific industrial conditions. Therefore, a plastic manufactured to be biodegradable, will only serve its useful characteristic if it is processed by a tailored end of life stream.

Composting is a controlled process that usually happens in an industrial composting facility. It is important to note that compostable products are not suitable for home composing unless the product has been certified as ‘Home Compostable’. Upscaling this process to an industrial capacity decreases processing time and therefore allows nutrients to be returned to soil quicker. Problem with latter is that currently, there is very little infrastructure (in comparison to recycling) in order to tailor to such waste. In result, majority of benefits are lost when these are disposed to landfill or even worst – disposed in nature under false understanding of ‘compostable’. Lastly, compostable and biodegradable plastics are not currently recyclable and can contaminate the recycling process if they are placed into a standard recycling bin. To that effect, as a graphic designer for label (etc.) make sure you use correct end of life symbols.

To conclude, designing for sustainable future of your product, space and brand means that you need to understand material lifecycle and ensuring you are educated on the environmental regulations, environmental standards, environmental labels and environmental certifications, which are the tools to success. It also means you need to consider the impact of a product or service on people and the environment throughout entire design process, i.e. ideation, CMF, design, production, use and disposal.

If there are elements in this puzzle that get you scratching your head, please don’t be a stranger and get in touch with us. We educate ourselves here on daily basis with newest developments to be able to help you with this expertise!