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Sustainability

A quick guide to: producing lower emission alternative materials

As we move towards a more sustainable future, businesses are looking to produce functional materials that are kinder to the planet. Here, we look at some examples of low-emission alternatives.

A few earth-friendly materials many are starting to produce:
  • bamboo
  • green concrete
  • plant-based foam
  • hemp
  • reclaimed wood

Some industries have evolved into high carbon emitters during decades of growth and are now looking for ways to produce materials more sustainably. 

Only a combination of actions will help businesses reduce emissions, so as well as exploring options for low carbon materials, businesses can look at becoming part of the circular economy and reducing energy use. An electric vehicle is only better for the environment if it’s manufactured using sustainable materials, and powered by clean, renewable energy, for example.

Here, we list some examples of products with potentially lower carbon footprints that companies in some key sectors might consider using. However, research into low carbon products is ongoing and they may not be relevant for every business. It’s best to seek further information and support from sustainability experts before adopting new products.

Construction

Green concrete

Concrete is the most widely used construction material in the world, but it is also one of the most polluting, with its manufacture causing an estimated 8% of all CO2 emitted by humans, according to a 2018 report by think tank Chatham House. But new developments mean more sustainable concrete can be manufactured by replacing the cement content with other substances like fly ash, silica fume, recycled glass and even paper, and also by using recycled water. Alongside recycled steel and reclaimed wood, demand for green concrete is rising. However, it remains a higher priced alternative to traditional concrete, therefore businesses must be willing to make the financial commitment required to make the switch.

Bamboo

Bamboo’s fast growth rate makes the grass one of the world’s most efficient carbon storage systems. It is so strong that some researchers believe bamboo composites could one day replace steel as the structural reinforcement material of choice in buildings – a shift that would drastically reduce the carbon debt of the construction industry, asserted the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in 2018. 

Plant-based foam

Polyurethane rigid foam is used widely in construction for its heat- and sound-insulating properties. However, the manufacture and disposal of traditional polyurethane foam has a heavy environmental impact. Plant-based bio foams use plant or vegetable oil as their source material instead of fossil fuels, meaning a much lower energy requirement for their production. Carbon is actually absorbed from the atmosphere during the plant-growing process and bio foam can be composted at the end of its life cycle.

Textiles

Hemp

Hemp fabric has been around for centuries, and is prized for its softness, durability and strength. Now the textiles industry is increasingly seeing hemp as a sustainable alternative to cotton. Unlike cotton, hemp requires very few chemicals and less water and soil to grow successfully. And because the hemp plant is thin and tall, it produces three times the amount of material as cotton from the same acreage. 

Organic cotton

Cotton covers 2.4% of the world’s cultivated land but uses 5% to 10% of the world’s pesticides, according to research carried out in 2019 by the International Cotton Advisory Committee. It also has a significant environmental impact due to the large volumes of water required for cultivation. Organic cotton plants are produced with little or no pesticides or fertilisers and less water, making organic cotton far more sustainable. Large companies like Nike and M&S have already integrated organic cotton into their supply chains.

Recycled polyester

Polyester is a widely used fabric that is comfortable, dries quickly and retains its shape. But virgin polyester has a high environmental cost. Recycled polyester is mostly manufactured from discarded plastic bottles, so it utilises waste, reduces manufacturing emissions and curbs our dependence on fossil fuels. Some companies are also looking to recycle ocean plastic and old polyester garments.

Food and drink

Plant-based protein

The production of nuts, beans and other plant-based protein sources have far lower harmful emissions when compared with animal-based foods. As a result, more and more environmentally conscious consumers are switching to a plant-rich diet. Nuts and beans can be substituted for a variety of dairy products – like almond or soy milk to replace cow’s milk. 

Bioplastic food packaging

The manufacture and disposal of plastic food packaging is a global problem, but bioplastics have the potential to address some of the most notable challenges posed by conventional plastics. Bioplastics are a diverse family of materials, some are made from biomass, such as plants, trees or animals, and some are now even being designed from food waste. This means they can reduce our reliance on fossil fuel-based plastic production. Since bioplastics can be compostable, they can reduce the need for landfills. 

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