In order to curb the worst effects of climate change, there’s no doubt that we need more sustainable manufacturing and material recovery practices to take root in the world. There’s a lot of value to be found in taking a non-traditional approach to materials and using rapidly renewable crops, manufacturing byproducts, waste, and other items that seem to be plentiful — and, in many cases, which would otherwise head for the landfill.
I love discovering the creative ways innovative companies are taking the lead on designing products for the circular economy. While bamboo has become a mainstream material for all kinds of things, and corn is quickly becoming a mainstream bioplastic — albeit with its own set of benefits and problems — there are a few up-and-coming areas that manufacturers have their eye on for the next big renewable resource.
Here are a few that have intrigued me lately:
1. Avocado-pit cutlery
A chemical engineer, seeing the success with corn being used to make bioplastic, developed a similar material using the pits of avocados. His company, Biofase (which, it should come as no surprise, is based in Mexico), uses the pits of avocados to make disposable straws and cutlery! The great thing about this innovation is that the cutlery will biodegrade without the need for high-temperature industrial composters, which is required for most bioplastics to be composted.
2. Flax straw phone case
When flax is grown as a crop, the straw remaining when the seeds are harvested is usually burned in the fields. The company Open Mind Developments has combined this byproduct fiber with biopolymers to create an environmentally responsible plastic alternative. The company’s first use of the material is the Pela phone case, which is compostable even in a home composting bin! The company estimates that when their phone case is placed in a compost environment, it could break down into organic matter in as little as six months.
3. Coffee you can walk on
Anyone who has ever made coffee at home will know that after brewing a few pots, the amount of grounds left over really adds up. A Belgian company has discovered that the spent grounds, combined with a linseed-oil-based resin, can make a resilient and unique flooring surface. Flooring isn’t the only thing that’s being produced from coffee, though.
Another company is making dishwasher safe coffee travel mugs made out of coffee grounds! When you’re done with it, you can even return your used mug to the company and they’ll upcycle it into 3D printer filament for making more mugs.
4. Pineapple “leather”
Spanish leather goods designer Dr. Carmen Hijosa became disenchanted with the damaging environmental impact of leather production, and, worse, PVC leather alternatives. She found a renewable alternative in pineapple leaf fiber, a waste product from pineapple harvesting. The new nonwoven fabric has the fun name of Piñatex® and it’s already being used to make handbags, shoes, and apparel.
5. Hemp paper
Hemp has a controversial reputation, thanks to its close kinship to the marijuana plant, but the benefits of growing this non-drug plant are many. Hemp takes up less space to grow than many other crops, matures very quickly, and actually improves, rather than depletes, the quality of the soil!
You’re likely familiar with clothing made with hemp, but there are many other applications for this apparent wonder crop. In paper production, an acre of hemp can produce as much paper as 4 acres of trees, and hemp has a higher cellulose content, making it a less wasteful raw material. Hemp can also be used to make housing components like carpet and fiberboard.
As these unconventional types of materials catch on, let’s hope that even more entrepreneurs explore ways to use manufacturing byproducts and sustainable crops to bring on a more circular and sustainable economy.