H Sustainable Materials

The next revolution for manufacturing: sustainable materials

Where manufacturing once had the cultural connotation of progress and prosperity it is now perceived as one of the world’s greatest polluters and contributors to global warming—a harsh reminder of humanity’s relentless pursuit of progress and production.  

One fifth of global carbon emissions come from manufacturing and production, and these industries consume about 54% of the world’s energy sources. On-site combustion of fossil fuels for heat and power, non-energy use of fossil fuels, and chemical processes used to produce materials like steel and iron are also sources of significant emissions.  

Yet, the environmental impact goes beyond energy use, water use and toxic emissions that may enter the environment as a direct result of manufacturing. Manufacturers make products. Each product has its own product carbon footprint based on what it is made from, how much energy was required to produce it, the emissions associated with transporting it, and ultimately, where that item ends its life after use—in most cases, discarded in a landfill or incinerated.  

A solution with full consensus—a circular economy   

The Ellen MacAruthur Foundation contends that 80% of the environmental impact of a product is determined in the design stage, including the materials used in products. The wrong material choice can significantly increase a product’s carbon footprint. As such, manufacturers must begin designing products to be part of the circular economy…designing products with the end in mind. If the intended outcome is creating a product that can be recycled, or looped back into the production cycle, manufacturers must start with materials used at the top of the supply chain. This will dictate if and how the resulting product can be further upcycled, recycled or recovered for future use within a circular economy.  

Consider what most people think of as waste. People look at what they discard after use—uneaten food, takeout containers, dirty diapers, a used tissue, plastic packaging. They see trash. But, every item in this trash pile took energy and resources to create. Items that most consider waste still carry very real potential for value if we view waste as a material opportunity—the waste-to-material opportunity.  

Waste-to-material must go beyond today’s limited recycling approaches, which assume that waste must be discarded, and that only plastics, metals and cardboard can be recycled. By looking at waste from a lifecycle perspective, we learn that waste can and should serve as a feedstock for advanced materials. Everything we use can be transformed into something new. It’s about applying the solutions and technologies currently available to us, particularly in the manufacturing industry, to make this happen in a way that is both cost effective and easy to implement. 

Effective innovation within existing manufacturing systems 

Change is rarely easy. When working across businesses and suppliers, there is a duality—wanting to change for the better, while contending with powerful human psychology and behavior. This duality of intellectually and emotionally wanting to make sustainable changes comes up against human nature, which wants to stay the same. Those sustainability solutions that have adopted this duality are flourishing because they are compatible with the emotional desire to change, while fitting in with human behavior. 

In the case of manufacturing, making the decision to harness renewable energy, utilize climate-positive materials or implementing circular supply chains is the path forward. By implementing solutions that facilitate a circular economy into current infrastructures and approaches to production, manufacturers can influence the direction of their industry and move toward actualizing the goals of a circular economy. 

Whether developing novel materials made from waste or creating systems to maximize energy and resource efficiencies, the greatest change will be ushered by innovators that take into account how circular solutions will integrate into existing manufacturing frameworks. By lowering the barrier for adoption, innovators will help manufacturers transform this engine of industry into an engine of sustainable change. Similarly, manufacturers who embrace available circular solutions with an eye on new innovations coming to the market will become the most resilient in the long term.  

The Industrial Revolution was a turning point in human history, enabling us to advance society, culture and human life. We are now at the inflection point of the next revolution—the Sustainability Revolution. Manufacturing can catalyze these changes rapidly, and once again have a global impact on society, culture, and human and planetary health. And manufacturers can do so while continuing to achieve their business objectives. 

About the Author

Jack “Tato” Bigio

Co-CEO & co-founder of UBQ Materials