After centuries of using the earth's resources as if they were infinite, we are now as a species facing a difficult problem. How do we maintain our technologically-advanced lifestyles without draining the world of its resources? Over the last few years, some surprising new materials have emerged from the lab, and may point to a way for us to spare the earth without giving up our smartphones. Today we're looking at some of the most exciting developments in the field of sustainable materials, and singling out three of the most surprising innovations.
1: Crab Shell Clothing
The result of years of research by Swiss company Swicofil, Crabyon® is a soft, easily-dyed fabric that's perfect for all kinds of clothing applications. It's also made of crab shells, which are ground into powder and processed into a cloth which is hypoallergenic, and suitable for those with the most sensitive skin. Thanks to the process developed by Swicofil, even those with a shellfish allergy will be able to wear a crabshell T-shirt without fear.
The reason for Crabyon's success is that crab shells are made of chitin. This substance is tough, and extremely hard when in solid form, but it is also easily processed into a variety of materials with different properties. In addition to fabric, crab shell chitin is also being used to make sustainable contact lenses, surgical stitching, and research is even underway to allow it to be used as artificial human skin.
2: Ketchup Bottles Made of Tomatoes
This one might sound like an April Fools prank from the plastics industry, but, thanks to a process developed in partnership between Heinz and Ford, tomato skins and seeds are now being processed into a tough plastic-like material that's ideal for making ketchup bottles. At present, the tomato-plastic is used in Ford's cars, but thanks to a huge cross-company international partnership between Ford, Heinz, Nike and Procter & Gamble, this surprisingly sustainable material is set to replace plastics in a whole host of products.
While big business is usually seen as the bad guy when it comes to environmental responsibility, developments like these might just change the public view of multinationals. As environmental consciousness grows along with consumer demand for sustainable products, being on the right side of the ecological debate is fast becoming a necessary part of global business.
3: Sugar-Beet Powered Fridges
In the quest for new materials, one of the biggest success stories is the tale of the sugar-beet powered refrigerator. Sugar beet is a miraculous crop, storing up thousands of calories of energy which we recapture as sugar. But as well as the sugar, each beet also contains a highly sought-after variant of CO2 called eCO2. This naturally-occurring chemical can be used as an alternative to the dangerous chemicals which are often used to cool our food supplies. Now, thanks to Sainsbury's, eCO2 from sugar beet is fast becoming the cheapest and most sustainable solution to the problem of keeping things cool.
Sainsbury's teamed up with their sugar supplier to find ways to capture that precious eCO2, and the resulting technology has allowed the supermarket giant to cut their CO2 emissions by 30%. This success has spurred on other supermarkets and sugar manufacturers, and a range of eCO2 capture technologies are racing to market.
If you're not still reeling from the idea of tomato-plastic, and you'd like to read more about some of the strange and surprising developments in the world of sustainable materials, check out Rachel Post's article on the Guardian's Sustainable Business blog. Meanwhile we'll be back next week with more news from around the green scene.