Business

The next frontier in innovation: It’s a material world

Image Credit: siftnz/Flickr

This sponsored post is produced in conjunction with Ford.

Material science majors, rejoice! Now is your time to shine. As people become more aware of how humans interact with the planet, it’s becoming clear exactly how much we consume in material goods. Considering that materials count as everything that makes up our tangible environment — it’s mind boggling to figure how much this is. Poptech Labs pegs it as 46,000 pounds of materials per person per year. The impact on the environment goes without saying.

As a result, major organizations and brands — from real estate developers to apparel makers to automotive companies — are moving toward a more sustainable materials strategy. More than ever, consumers are focused on how their actions affect the planet and others around them. So companies need to be able to prove that their awareness of these issues is evolving at the same rate. The big push today? Figuring out how to repurpose products and materials to not only give them longer lives, but also to create bold, innovative new options for customers.

Creative Conversion

It turns out The Graduate is still right. The single most important word in today’s materials renaissance is still plastics. Derived from the world’s dwindling supply of petroleum, plastics present both a unique problem and potential for material scientists. The problem is that plastic is needed for almost everything.

The potential? Plastics can be forged out of a lot of different things. Plastic can even be made out of carbon deposits captured in factory smokestacks — talk about innovative sustainability. And of course there are many people working on forging plastic products out of corn. In fact, many plastic items that used to go in the recycling actually belong in the compost bin — especially if you happen to be at a Google office.

Unusual Suspects

The other major trend in materials is using substances for unlikely purposes. Examples of this include ceramic cloth — fabric literally knit from tiny ceramic fibers that allows it to insulate against extreme temperatures. Seaweed is being harvested and balled for sustainable insulation as well. Coconut wood composites have proven to be harder and less vulnerable to humidity than oak for flooring and furniture; and fungi can be grown into strong foam structures.

To give designers a leg up in thinking through and choosing their materials, Nike released an app last month that rates the relative sustainability and other qualities of materials that could be used. Called “Making,” it scores textiles based on economic, environmental, and social impact. This arms designers with the information and leeway to mix and match their own unusual combinations of materials to create something unique and conscientious.

Putting It All Together

One brand that has united both of these material trends — mixing and matching and creative recycling — is Ford, proving that even the largest brands can start to adapt their strategies. For the last several years, the company has been pushing to integrate more sustainable and recyclable materials into its vehicles, including innovative plastics — and even plant-based and edible goods.

When it says recyclable plastic, Ford really means it. In the 2013 Ford Focus, the driver seat is made out of about 40 recycled plastic bottles. When the car goes into global production, the company says it will be able to recycle enough plastic bottles to create 1.5 million yards of seat fabric every year. That’s 852 miles of plastic bottles not junking up landfills. In some Ford models, these seats also employ soy-based cushions.

But this isn’t where the company has stopped. Waste from coconut processing is being used to create bioplastic car parts that used to be exclusively petroleum. Ford has even experimented with taking retired U.S. currency (that’s right, dollar bills), mixing it with resin, and molding it into other interior parts. It may sound like a hodge podge, but figuring out how to build brand new things out of what we already have at our disposal will probably be the future. Plus, who doesn’t want to claim that their car is literally made out of money?


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