Green, sustainable materials -- some made out of shrimp shells, silk, and plant trash -- are being used for consumer packaging, shipping, and plastic bag replacements.
In fact, those are the largest applications for bioplastics, which are usually created in a process chain from ethanol to polymer that closely parallels the process for creating their petrochemical equivalents. Today durable-grade bioplastics are blended with petro-based plastics and incorporated into PCs. Engineering-grade bioplastics are being used in extreme, under-hood automotive applications.
Click the image below to start a slideshow highlighting the innovative ways green materials are being used:
Recycled plastic bottles and other waste plastic destined for landfills can be transformed into weight-bearing structural materials for heavy-load bridges, such as this one in Scotland,
shown supporting heavy equipment during its construction. (Source: Axion International)
Very cool presentation, Ann. Really gives you a sense of the varied mix of products and packaging that is now able to take advantage of these green materials. It also shows that going green from a materials standpoint doesn't have to dramatically alter the look or feel of the product--it's almost transparent from a visual perspective, which could be a benefit for companies concerned about dramatically altering their goods.
What this slideshow brings to light is the fact that "green" is not a technology per se. Rather, it's a way of looking at design, from prototyping through to recycling, to figure out the most environmentally friendly way of doing things. However, as I've said before, the reason green is taking off is simply because now, with the rising price of oil, it's finally cost effective.
Thanks, Beth. I agree: Except for the mushroom packaging, the green materials are mostly transparent to the user. Maybe that camouflage-like effect is one reason why so many of us don't realize that they're already here in so many different products we use every day.
I think there are two reasons green materials and approaches are taking off. Alex is right: the cost differential--in the sense of price of materials--is making these alternatives a no-brainer. But my research showed that the price differential swings back and forth between plus and minus depending on the ups and downs of the price of oil. The second major reason is consumer demand, which has been a longer-term factor.
I think given the choice and without having to pay more, consumers will demand more environmentally friendly materials. I know I've started in small ways, buying recycled paper products and greener household cleaners. We recently had to have some insulation work done and specifically sought out a green resource. If the greener materials are readily accessible, look somewhat "normal," and perform in the way we as consumers expect them to perform, why not seek out something that's more earth friendly?
I think it's kind of a no brainer that people will ask for greener when there's no cost involved. I think the challenge is to get the cost as low as possible so that consumers will actually decide to pay a little extra for green.
Often the government ends up jumping in to "encourage" the developement of green technology by giving cost incentives. I'm not a big fan of government involvement in subsidizing things. I do have to give them credit because I do like the idea of promoting green technologies.
The willingness of consumers to pay a bit more for at least some green alternatives is increasing, while the price differentials come down. As I've pointed out several places, the Freedonia Group analyst I interviewed for an upcoming March feature feature made it clear that, at least for bioplastics, consumer demand for sustainable solutions is what's driving innovation. It's consumers who are willing to pay a price premium for ecological plastic bag replacements or EVs, for instance, not aerospace engineers who care if their aircraft components are made of green materials. So lumping everything together in a single discussion is somewhat misleading.
For me, the most amazing of the green material application is still the load-bearing bridge members in Scotland. As soon as these materials get the mechanical properties that are needed, and there 's little or no cost penalty, use by engineers will really take off.
I agree, Chuck. I think with all of the research being done and based on the recent reports Ann has written on biomimickry, with companies taking a page from Mother Nature to enhance the structural integrity and mechanical properties of their biomaterials projects, we're only at the beginning of all the progress to be made.
Beth, I have also changed a lot of habits over the years, starting in the 1970s, such as recycling and water conservation. The latter has been relatively easy to do since I live in a drought-prone state and rationing has sometimes been mandated. More recently, I've changed what I buy, as better products have been available, especially recycled paper products that don't cost much more, and I also buy as little plastic as possible. For example, there are lots of bamboo alternatives to wood and plastic now. I also stopped buying commercial household cleaners except for Bon Ami, and mostly use baking soda and vinegar. It takes a little more elbow grease, but it's way cheaper and easier on the environment.
I agree, Ann. I've changed a lot of my habits over the years as well. It's not difficult, just a matter of getting into a new habit. I'm able to recycle most of the waste in my household. A lot of what can be recycled can go into the compost. I'm down to taking the non-recycled materials out to the street about once a month.
If I composted, we'd probably have our household waste down as far as yours, Rob. My excuse is living in the redwoods--no vegetable gardens here. The question is, will your garbage company pick up only once a month and give you a lower rate? Ours doesn't. I bet none of them do. They need to get with the program and start offering another rate structure level for reduced waste households like yours.
Well, I'm on a neighborhood street. The trash just come by once a week (two different trucks) for both at-the-curb recycling pickup as well as the trash for the landfill. I have recycling every week, even if I don't have landfill trash.
Rob, that sounds like my garbage company's schedule. My question is, can you pay a lower fee for fewer pickups than once a week? For example, if you only set out garbage twice a month for pickup instead of every week, do they have a lower price tier for that?
I ask because a couple years ago our garbage company gave a lower tier price option, not for fewer garbage pickups, but smaller garbage containers, since so many people were recycling so much that the regular can size was too big. Of course, they go the other way--you can pay an extra fee for an extra pickup--but not down. I wish they would also size down price according to pickup frequency.
That's interesting that recycling has made a big enough difference that the waste folks have noted the change. It's picking up here, but it still looks like only about a third of my neighbors are putting much out on the street. You folks in California are way ahead on this.
Rob, we are ahead on recycling out here, as well as on energy savings via methods like turning down the thermostat and going solar. We should be, but probably aren't, on water conservation, considering that most of the state is considered part of the dry Great Basin geographic area.
I would have to say that Cost will be the big driver. Currently the reason so many companies are using green materials is due to the hype about saving the planet. As this mentality dies out then so will the gains from using green materials (mostly marketing). Then the only way for this to be viable would be at no cost penalty.
Ervin, I've been thinking the same thing myself. Left to their own devices, most companies will pay a minimal penalty at most to go green. If government mandate don't force the situation (as they now are in automotive) struggling companies simply won't do it.
And in the case of something that will benefit all of us in the long run, occasionally the government needs to step in and provide the initial motivation to begin looking at a technology. Green in this case. But as compaies embrace the idea and continue to develop the technology, within a few years, hopefully, the technology will in fact be a more efficient way to make profits in a way that doesn't hurt the environment.
jimiller, I'm with you on that thought. The Europeans are way ahead of us in several green tech departments, and much of the related research has been funded by governments, in partnership with commercial entities and universities.
Chuck, I'm with you on the recycled plastic bridge materials. I still find them mind-boggling, so much so that I've told friends and acquaintances about it and they're amazed, too. This whole subject of green materials is as much fun to discover and report as news was in the whiz-bang days of Silicon Valley.
As long as the materials used is transparent to the customer, I am sure that most consumers will continue to back products that use green materials. With the backing specially among younger people, this emphasis is here to stay and will only continue to grow. Great report, Ann
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