In a context where the environmental impact of products is increasingly scrutinized, the choice of material used in their manufacturing is a major concern. But what makes a material eco-friendly?
To answer this question, it is necessary to analyze the entire life cycle of the product, from the production of the raw material to its end of life. Thus, various criteria must be considered to assess the environmental impact of a material, upstream, during, and downstream of its manufacturing.
In this article, we will explore these criteria to better understand what makes a material a more sustainable and eco-friendly option than others.
II. Upstream: Criteria for Assessing the Eco-Friendliness of a Material
First and foremost, upstream, the material must come from resources classified in one or more of the following categories:
Renewable resources are those that naturally regenerate and are not depleted by their exploitation. Recycled resources are those derived from waste recovery and valorization. Plant-based resources are derived from sustainable and environmentally friendly agricultural practices.
The “upstream” criterion is essential in determining whether a material is eco-friendly. Natural resources are limited, and their exploitation can have negative consequences on the environment, including deforestation, pollution, or climate change. Therefore, it is important to prioritize raw materials from renewable, recycled, or plant-based resources.
Renewable resources are those that naturally regenerate and are not depleted by their exploitation. This includes wood fibers, such as hardwood or bamboo, which can be used to make paper or wood products. Cellulosic fibers, such as cotton, linen, hemp, or jute, can also be used to manufacture textiles, bags, or packaging. Materials such as wool, leather, or silk, which are of animal origin, can also be considered renewable resources if produced sustainably and in an environmentally friendly manner.
Recycled resources are those derived from waste recovery and valorization. This includes recycled paper, which can be used to make new paper products, or recycled plastic, which can be used to manufacture bags or packaging. Waste valorization helps reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills or incinerated, thereby reducing the environmental impact of producing new raw materials.
Plant-based resources are derived from sustainable and environmentally friendly agricultural practices. This includes organic farming, which avoids the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and sustainable farming practices that preserve biodiversity and soil health. Raw materials from these crops include cellulosic fibers, bioplastics, or natural rubber.
In summary, the “upstream” criterion for determining whether a material is eco-friendly involves prioritizing renewable, recycled, or plant-based resources that preserve natural resources and reduce the environmental impact of production. Raw materials must be produced sustainably and in an environmentally friendly manner to ensure their long-term durability and quality.
III. During: Product Lifespan and Environmental Impact
Next, during the product’s lifespan, the material should enable the product to be reused for many years to offset its carbon footprint. Indeed, the more a product is reused, the less need there is to produce new raw materials to create a new one. Consequently, this reduces the environmental impact of material production.
The “during” criterion is equally important as the “upstream” criterion in determining whether a material is eco-friendly. A material may be derived from renewable, recycled, or plant-based resources, but if its use is not sustainable or if it is not reusable, its environmental impact can still be significant.
Thus, for a material to be considered eco-friendly “during” its use, it is crucial that the product’s design allows for prolonged reuse to offset its carbon footprint. This can take the form of durable and resilient products, such as canvas bags, glass containers, or stainless steel utensils. Disposable products, such as cardboard plates, plastic cutlery, or straws, are generally not considered eco-friendly “during” their use as they are intended for single-use.
It is also important to consider the durability of products and their packaging. For example, a product packaged in plastic may be durable and reusable, but if the packaging is non-recyclable or contributes to pollution, it affects the overall sustainability of the product.
Lastly, energy consumption and the use of chemicals during production can also impact the material’s durability. Production processes that consume a lot of energy or use toxic chemicals can have a significant environmental impact and are therefore not considered eco-friendly.
In summary, the “during” criterion for determining whether a material is eco-friendly involves prioritizing durable and resilient products that allow for prolonged and reusable use. It is also important to consider the durability of products and their packaging, as well as the environmental impact of production in terms of energy consumption and chemical use.
IV. Downstream: End of Life of the Material
Finally, downstream, the material should fall into one or more of these categories:
Biodegradable materials are those that can be broken down by microorganisms into simple elements without producing toxic residues. Compostable materials are those that can be degraded through a composting process into compost that can be used as soil amendment. Recyclable materials are those that can be collected, sorted, and transformed into new raw materials to manufacture new products.
The “downstream” criterion is also essential in determining whether a material is eco-friendly. Even if a material is derived from renewable, recycled, or plant-based resources and allows for sustainable use, if it is not biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable at the end of its life, its environmental impact can still be significant.
Thus, for a material to be considered eco-friendly “downstream,” it is important that it is biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable. Biodegradable materials naturally decompose in the environment without leaving harmful traces. Compostable materials can also be biodegradable but are designed to be composted in industrial facilities where they break down quickly. Recyclable materials, on the other hand, can be used to produce new products.
It is important to note that not all materials are compostable or recyclable in the same way. Some materials, such as plastic, may be recyclable but require strict separation of different types of plastic to be effectively recycled. Similarly, some compostable materials require specific conditions to decompose rapidly, which may not be feasible in all environments.
Finally, it is important to note that biodegradability, compostability, or recyclability are not universal criteria. The ability of a material to naturally decompose or be recycled often depends on the waste management system in place in the region or country where it is used.
In summary, the “downstream” criterion for determining whether a material is eco-friendly involves prioritizing biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable materials. It is important to consider the specific conditions required for the biodegradation, compostability, or recycling of each material, as well as the waste management systems in place in the region or country where it is used.
In summary, a material is considered eco-friendly if it is derived from renewable, recycled, or plant-based resources, allows for product reuse over many years, and is biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable at the end of its life.
These criteria help to reduce the environmental impact of raw material production and consumption by promoting more sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions.