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Mindful materials

With a recent study finding that human-made materials now outweigh the total mass of Earth’s living biomass, designers are becoming increasingly aware of how the products they design can impact the planet.

And that this impact can be either positive or negative if due consideration is given to how raw ingredients are sourced, and how they can ultimately be reused, recycled or returned to nature once the product reaches the end of its life. The focus is now on the entire lifecycle of a product.

Material designers are developing and gradually assimilating alternatives into the mainstream to replace the more polluting mainstays such as plastic, concrete and leather and we’ve brought together a selection of emerging and innovative materials that champion this long-term, sustainable approach:

Concrete substitutes

Sea Stone_NewTab22

Image: newtab-22

Concrete is the most widely used construction material in the world and its production is singularly responsible for eight per cent of global CO2 emissions every year. In a bid to mitigate this, material researchers have developed a range of different alternatives.

London studio Newtab-22 have used waste seashells salvaged from the seafood and aquaculture industries to develop a sustainable material that resembles concrete. Named Sea Stone, the material is made by grinding down shells that are destined for landfill before combining them with natural, non-toxic binders resulting in a terrazzo-like aesthetic. According to Newtab-22, Sea Stone could become a sustainable alternative to concrete in the design of small-scale products as the two materials share similar properties – both are rich in calcium carbonate – a compound that is used to make concrete’s key ingredient cement.

Developed by students from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, Finite uses a new binder to help effectively bind together traditionally unusable desert sand (its grains are too smooth and fine to bind together) into structures. Finite can be formed into sand structures that have the same strength as traditional housing bricks and even residential concrete. It is environmentally friendly, with less than half the carbon footprint of concrete and thanks to its material properties, Finite can be easily reused and then remoulded for multiple lifecycle uses

Central Saint Martins graduates Brigitte Kock and Irene Roca Moracia created “bio-concrete” tiles from invasive species to encourage their removal and help to regenerate local biodiversity. The material for the tiles is made from Japanese knotweed and shells from American signal crayfish. These are among the non-native species that are causing the most ecological and economic damage in the UK.  Rather than just mitigating concrete’s negative environmental impact, they set out to create a substitute that is actively beneficial “a regenerative material” combining them using a recipe based on the volcanic ash concrete developed by the ancient Romans.


Latex_Beanie Sofa_NeaStudio

Image: nea studio

Latex is a natural material, which is derived from the titular, milky white sap of the rubber tree in a process called tapping. This involves scoring its bark rather than felling the whole tree, meaning the material is rapidly renewable.

Thanks to its environmental credentials, designers are increasingly using the material as a sustainable alternative to animal and petroleum-based materials. In the furniture industry, designers are combining it with natural aggregates to replace upholstery foam, which is made from polyurethane plastic and cannot be recycled.

Designer Nina Edwards Anker mixed latex with lentil beans to pad out her Beanie Sofa. Entirely of natural materials, the Beanie Sofa is a comfortable textile covered sofa whose seat is comprised of one long bean bag. Its soft structure is filled with organic latex and lentil beans, which support the natural curves and movements of the body.

Mycelium leather

Bolt Threads_Mylo

Image: Bolt Threads

As the fashion industry looks to replace animal leather and its synthetic substitutes, a number of high-profile brands have hedged their bets on alternatives made from mycelium – the root-like structure that fungi use to grow.

It is championed by material solutions company, Bolt Threads, a consortium of iconic companies – adidas, Kering, lululemon, and Stella McCartney – who invent and scale cutting-edge materials that put us on a path towards a more sustainable future.

For billions of years, mycelium has grown beneath our feet and served as ecological connective tissue. A sprawling, infinitely renewable, interlaced web, it threads through soil, plant bodies, and along river beds to break down organic matter and provide nutrients to plants and trees. It brings sustenance to all living species and is the literal world wide web.

Bolt Threads developed Mylo by engineering mycelium into a material that is certified bio-based, meaning it’s made from predominantly renewable ingredients that can be found in nature. Soft, supple, and less harmful to the planet – Mylo is a sustainable alternative to leather. It emits fewer greenhouse gases and consumes fewer natural resources in its production than the manufacture of plastic leather and the rearing of livestock, which is responsible for 14 per cent of all greenhouse emissions from human activity.

And it is a material already gaining traction – Hermès reimagined its Victoria shopper bag in Mylo, British designer Stella McCartney has used it to create a two-piece outfit and Adidas has revealed a mycelium version of its classic Stan Smith trainers, as companies jump at the chance to scale up the material for mass-production and make it commercially available.


Tom Dixon_Cork

Image: Tom Dixon

Cork, which is derived from the outer bark of the cork oak, is becoming increasingly popular among designers because it is compostable, recyclable and can be stripped from the tree without cutting it down, allowing the plant to continue capturing carbon. For every ton of cork produced, cork oak forests capture an estimated 73 tons of CO2, making the material effectively carbon negative.

2019 saw Jasper Morrison make a series of limited edition furniture items from cork block leftover from wine-bottle cork-stopper production to champion the material’s remarkable functionality as well as its unique atmospheric qualities. In the same year, architects Brimet Silva and Ana Fonseca of Digitalab developed a method of turning cork into a thin thread that can be used in the manufacture of furniture, lighting, textiles and accessories. Called CO-RK, the thread offers a sustainable, non-fibrous alternative to materials like plastic.

More recently, in 2020, Tom Dixon charred the material to create his “sound absorbent, fireproof, water-resistant” Cork collection with a rich, deep brown colour reminiscent of rosewood.

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Categories:Interiors & Lifestyle