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Materials Ecology I: Aluminium, cardboard and plastics

Updated: Apr 18

The material, as the link between the product and the ecosystems, generates the main environmental impacts that deteriorate the environment. But can some materials be considered sustainable and others unsustainable? Not if we do not first consider their entire life cycle: their use, manufacture, and disposal. Materials can be natural or synthetic, virgin or recycled, but their ecology depends more on their design than their composition. Is aluminum or plastic more ecological? Is cardboard a sustainable material? Are renewable materials the solution? It will depend on their function. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Materials often have a reputation that hides prejudices and half-truths. Some seem very environmentally friendly until their origin and manipulation reveal themselves. Others, on the other hand, have the reputation of being harmful to the environment when, in fact, they have unusual environmental qualities. As always, you have to get the big picture to know how to choose.

Let us digress to understand the concept of ecology. Ecology is not just about living things. Ecology is the world around us, the world we live in, the world we are part of, and the world we design.

All the materials that surround us, in one way or another, are based on natural matter. With greater or lesser transformation, they ultimately come from nature and therefore all materials have their ecology.

Image 1. The relationship between the geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere gives rise to life, in the biosphere. At the same time, life influences all planetary relationships. Ecology is the science that studies the different relationships and interdependencies that occur in ecosystems. Source: OiKo Design Office

The term ecology was coined in 1869 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who defined it as "the study of the interdependence and interaction between living organisms - animals and plants - and their environment - inorganic beings". Thus, humans relate to our environment and design materials to formalize the products we need to satisfy different needs, whether for survival or emotional development. To design is to choose and plan, and all designs are based in one way or another on the materials that support them.

In all approaches to selecting more environmentally friendly materials, there is a priority aspect: the product's origin. When faced with two objects made from the same material, such as wood, there is little a priori difference, or two aluminum shelves or two plastic lamps. They appear to be the same but have nothing to do with each other. Products imported from countries with less ecological security generally inflict severe environmental damage due to uncontrolled exploitation, dumping, or consumption of dirtier energies. Therefore, the first environmental consideration is to avoid products of dubious reputation, prioritizing local products and Good Design in capital letters. It is not always difficult to discern the best option.

Image 2. Data on the environmental impact of intercontinental manufacturing and transport, specifically from China to Spain.

Let us turn to material considerations.

Bad plastic?

Plastics can become a major waste problem if they are dispersed in the environment, and one of the great catastrophes of our time is when they reach the sea and pollute every corner of the Earth. But are they always an unsustainable option? Fortunately, this is not the case, and plastics also offer great ecological advantages, such as CO₂ emissions prevention. Plastic materials, even if they come from petroleum, with their use, reduce the global demand for fuels.

Due to its lightness and low processing temperature, it requires less energy to manufacture and transport compared to most alternative materials.

In the packaging sector, for example, according to the latest EuropePlastic study, the use of plastics has come to reduce indirect emissions by at least 30% due to the reduction of 27 million tons of crude oil per year. Likewise, in construction, the insulation improvements offered by synthetic materials allow energy savings at a competitive price, which also translates into lower consumption of fossil fuels and emissions.

ImImage 3. The comparative graph between phenolic, a composite material based on cellulose sheets impregnated with high-pressure and temperature-pressed resins, and aluminum, a recyclable alternative, where the low CO₂ impact of the plastic material is demonstrated even without being recyclable. Source: OiKo Design Office

Good aluminum?

Are aluminum products greener because they are recyclable? And are plastic products more polluting because they are chemical? Most of the metal is virgin, and mining involves serious environmental problems. However, recycling can compensate for up to 90% of the impacts. Is that enough? From our point of view, no. That does not mean aluminum is not an excellent material for certain applications.

Aluminum is not ecological solely because it is recyclable, as it also has environmental impacts and a reality that cannot be ignored, along with its amazing properties of resistance to the outside, lightness, and, why not, beauty.

At the level of CO₂ emissions, we can give an example:

Image 4. Jorge Pensi’s Toledo chair in aluminum and polypropylene.

For example, the Toledo chair, by Jorge Pensi for Resol, made of aluminum, which by our calculations, emits between 100 and 150 kg of CO₂ depending on whether the material is virgin or recycled, could be an example, since it has also been manufactured in plastic materials. The Toledo Air, made of polypropylene, is half as light as the original and with a carbon footprint of around 10 kg of CO₂ shows how its impact does not reach a tenth. It can always be argued that the resistance of a metal is superior to that of a plastic, but we think that you could "throw" 10 Toledo chairs of polypropylene and still have an environmental revenue. In terms of recyclability, we would indeed have more difficulties, but the versatility and efficiency of plastics means that they must be taken into account for their environmental potential.

What about the cardboard?

In recent years, the concept of sustainable design has been associated with cardboard manufacturing products as a basis, based on the premise that society wants maximum rotation, so a low-impact and durable material is ideal. If we compare a simple cardboard stool with a classic like the Stool 60 chair by Alvar Aalto, made of laminated wood, we see that cardboard has only half the impact of the latter. Now, how many cardboard units are needed compared to a conventional plywood stool? Many, sure.

Image 5. Cardboard stool and laminated wood Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto.


Indeed, material selection in product design and development plays a crucial role in the environmental impact that objects generate. It can be simplistic to assume that some materials are inherently more sustainable than others, as the ecology of a material is determined by a variety of factors specific to each product typology. In addition, it is essential to assess the design and functionality of the product, as efficient design can reduce the amount of material required and extend the product's life, which in turn can offset any initial environmental impact. No single solution or classification of materials is universally sustainable, as each material has its environmental advantages and disadvantages depending on the application for which it has been selected and the industrial processes employed. Sometimes, natural resource exploitation conditions are more important than the material itself. Choosing greener materials involves a holistic approach that takes into account all aspects of the product's life cycle and its interaction with the natural environment. This requires questioning conventional perceptions about the ecological virtues of certain materials and adopting a more critical and reflective mindset in the design and manufacturing process.



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