All I Want for the Holidays Are Biomaterials – Here’s Why You Should Too
The holiday season is a flurry of food, travel, gifts and time spent with loved ones. It's a joyful time of coming together to celebrate the conclusion of one year and the promise of the next.
But for many, it's hard not to feel a little bit guilty about all this consumption. The trash bins overflowing with discarded packaging and wrapping paper. More leftover treats than we can possibly eat. The much-anticipated new toys and other gifts replacing older, yet often still usable, items. It all adds up.
In my role as the director of DuPont's biomaterials business, I am fortunate to work with a team of creative and dedicated people who think about these issues all year, not just at the holidays. And we have some good news to report: we've already commercialized many high performance, sustainable solutions for apparel and carpet fibers and are on the cusp of applying groundbreaking technology in other sectors as well. Plants are at the heart of all this innovation - and the building blocks we derive from nature to create materials that can replace traditional fossil resource-based products. These breakthroughs will help to make many aspects of the holiday season - and any other time of the year - more sustainable.
One of the most important takeaways messages I took from the panel is that there won’t be one single solution or even one type of solution to making the economy more circular.
I was honored to be part of a panel recently at The Economist's Future of Materials Summit on this very topic. Moderated by the magazine's science editor, Geoffrey Carr, the panel included representatives from materials manufacturers and NGOs from the U.S. and Europe, including Karen Hanghoj, CEO of EIT Raw Materials; Egil Hogna, executive vice president, extruded solutions at Hydro; and Carl de Maré, vice president and head of technology strategy at ArcelorMittal.
It was interesting for me to hear views from across the industry about how we can move towards a truly circular economy where the materials we need are sourced responsibly, used efficiently and then re-used at the end of life of the product. One of the most important messages I took from the panel is that there won't be one single solution or even one type of solution to making the economy more circular.
First, in any and all applications, we should be looking to reduce the amount of materials that we need to use when designing a given application or product in the first place.
Second, we should consider what happens at the end of the life of a product. It is critical to design the original product with disassembly and re-use or recycling in mind.
The materials choices we make during the design of a product have a big role to play. Two of my colleagues on the panel represented the steel and aluminum industries. Both industries have focused extensively in recent decades on increasing the re-use of these metals and their alloys to greatly reduce and eventually replace the need for mining of virgin ore. I was fascinated to learn that almost 90% of the steel made today comes from recycled sources.
In fact, products made with materials like steel and aluminum that have a high energy content - and thus a high inherent value - will lend themselves best to recycling at the end of their useful lives because there is a strong economic incentive to collect and re-use these high-value materials.
On the other end of the spectrum, low-cost polymers used in disposable applications - like certain types of packaging or consumer applications - have less incentives for recycling, and thus may need to be designed to be inherently biodegradable.
High-value polymers are likely to fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Depending on the requirements of the application and the value and technological ease of recycling the material, sometimes recycling or re-use will be best, and sometimes it will be best to design biodegradability into the product.
Finally, we must also ensure that the processes we use to make materials have a much better environmental profile than the processes used to make the materials that they replace. For example, DuPont's Sorona® polymer often replaces Nylon 6 in carpets. Careful life cycle analyses certified by outside organizations show that making Sorona uses 30% less energy and releases 63% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than producing Nylon 6.
This full picture is something that many regulators, particularly in the E.U., are already beginning to think about with the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which requires manufacturers and brands to build end-of-life solutions into their products. Emerging technologies, particularly those that are biodegradable, have an important role to play in meeting those commitments.
Deliberate and thoughtful design clearly plays an increasingly important role in how the entire supply chain - from materials makers like me and the other panelists, all the way to holiday gift givers - makes our decisions.
I believe that in the very near future, these technologies and practices will be so seamlessly integrated that many more of the things we buy will be seamlessly sustainable - giving us the gift of peace of mind during the holidays, and on every other day of the year.