Ecomaterials Lab: Mapping our way out of a mess

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.

As a society, we use too much…stuff. Stuff that is manufactured in increasingly dangerous ways. When we’re done with these (mostly) unneeded and toxic items, we throw them in landfills or they end up in our oceans. Not exactly a news flash, but still worth repeating. Like energy and climate change, the issue of materials sustainability is real and immediate. In 2010, PopTech initiated the Ecomaterials Innovation Lab, an all-star network of stakeholders focused on ways to bring next-generation sustainable materials innovation to scale. Below are some of our findings from the first meeting of the Lab last July (read the full report in "PDF form) as well as recommendations for how we might go forward toward a brighter materials future:

  • There’s a surprising lack of consensus about how to ‘get there’ – including where ‘there’ is. Unlike, say, the '350' goal: among climate change advocates (stabilizing carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million in the atmosphere), there is no equivalent “grand vision” for materials sustainability. There are no agreed upon definitions for the most basic terms (see “eco” and “green.”) A huge part of the problem is that success, like the terms used to describe it, is in the eye of the beholder.
  • The barrier is not innovation. It’s scale. There’s no lack of innovation; there’s a ‘crisis of opportunity.’ Many proof-of-concept sustainable materials and related processes show great promise. The challenge is finding ways for innovators to overcome the infrastructure, supply-chain, and regulatory advantages of more mature, but less ecologically benign, competitors.
  • Corporations are far ahead of governments; both are ahead of consumers. All have a role to play, but first they have to get on the same page. Despite a consistent barrage of 'green' messaging, consumers, by and large, are under-informed, susceptible to greenwashing, and ill-equipped to make a significant difference without the proper tools. The U.S. government, meanwhile, seems stuck in the last century. For instance, the EPA remains primarily focused on end-of-pipe issues such as toxicity and pollution control when what’s needed is a comprehensive set of policies that deal with all aspects of product life cycle – from extraction through manufacture and retail. Pioneering corporations are thus put in the unusual position of asking for more but better policies in order to level the field with established industrial players.

What can be done?

  • A process must be undertaken to create a vision of shared success. There must be a national conversation led by those stakeholders – scientists, activists, industrial and government representatives – in the best position to have the most significant and immediate impact.
  • We need detailed ‘roadmaps’ suggesting policies, incentives and investments to make green technologies economically competitive. The market will determine the fate of any new venture, but with so many next-generation materials streams coming from waste or plants, the potential for windfall profits is there.
  • If government and citizens lag in issue engagement, new forms of advocacy must be created to energize these constituencies. Sustainable materials advocacy must be recognized as a non-partisan, non-ideological struggle. We’re all in this together, and everyone wins when sustainability is recognized as both environmental and economic good sense.  

Image: Smiling Gardener

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