Published by the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center
Somehow, orb spiders turn digested insects into gossamer strands two to three times stronger than steel. Somehow, trees turn sugar and water into a strong, precisely engineered composite of unsurpassed efficiency. Somehow, shellfish produce amazingly persistent adhesives that work underwater. And all without high-temperature combustion or hazardous chemicals.
NATURE'S MATERIALS: Living things can produce as well as teach. Bio-based products could become leading sources of materials and chemicals now derived primarily from petroleum, including plastics, coatings, lubricants, solvents and adhesives - if cost and technical barriers can be overcome. Lignocellulosic materials could provide cheap, abundant feedstocks, if cost-effective technologies can be developed to break down tissues and extract fermentable sugars, the National Research Council report said.
Bio-based products may present economic advantages by avoiding liability for discharge of petroleum hydrocarbons into the environment. A soy-based lubricant, developed by International Lubricants, Inc. of Seattle, has been tested on rail lines in western Washington. Rail line lubricants are used to reduce friction and corrosion. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad has estimated that switching to soy-based lubricants could save the company more than $75 million annually in equipment replacement and fuel costs.
In a number of important sectors, bio-based products remain dominant. Wood is still the material of choice for construction lumber and paper. While those materials are not likely to disappear anytime soon, their form may change and in some cases they will give way to substitutes.
Following are articles exploring how natural materials, along with natural design, assembly and reuse principles, could influence the manufacturing of three pervasive elements of our culture - information storage, building materials, and cars.
It's Monday morning, Sept. 5, 2050 - Labor Day. It's still a holiday, even though the industrial work patterns that gave rise to it are as alien in the mid-21st century as the idea of receiving news on disposable paper. Imagine that, as you remember one of Grandpa's stories about his youth. Every afternoon, he would bundle up packets of day-old news, get on his bicycle and throw them onto people's yards. How bizarre, you muse as you sit down at the Net portal to see what's going on in the world. Oh-oh, not again. The portal is printing the sunrise news update in Swedish. You manually instruct it to wipe the reusable paper and reprint in English. Maybe it's time for the leasing company to take the portal back and send you a less buggy model. Next on the agenda: You contact a publishing house, hook up your book reader, and wait eagerly for download of the sci-fi novel that will help you relax later this evening. But first, there's that project downstairs.
Reusable paper? Downloadable books? The next thing you know, someone will predict the imminent advent of the paperless office.
While office paper may be with us for years to come, chances are better that other types of paper-based
information, such as catalogues, will give way to web sites and discs, says a 1999 analysis by the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions (http://www.cool-companies.org/ecom/index.cfm). Electronic media will enable the storage of vastly greater information with smaller quantities of
materials. Starting this fall, for example, seven dental schools will provide digital video discs (DVD)
containing every textbook, microscope slide, video and illustration that students will need for
four years of coursework. The Internet may turn the book business into a "just in time" industry. Books may be printed only on demand, or simply downloaded into e-book readers. (Find out more about e-books at
Paper EfficiencyWhile we wait for the day when we can carry around the Library of Congress in pocket-sized computers, humbler paper reduction and reuse techniques are available. A simple calculation in "Natural Capitalism," (http://www.naturalcapitalism.org, Chapter 9), estimates that 81 percent of tree harvest for paper production could be eliminated through steps such as greater use of e-mail, junk mail elimination, double-sided printing, and lighter paper. Simply reducing the basis weight of ATM receipt paper from 20 to 15 pounds shaved Bank of America costs by $500,000, for example.
Wood is not the only plant material that can be used for paper production. Kenaf, for example, is a fast-growing plant related to cotton. Pulping kenaf requires less energy and fewer chemicals than pulping wood. (Find out more about alternative paper fibers at http://www.rethinkpaper.org/toolbox/toolframe.cfm?pageName=pulplinks.)
On the horizon is reusable paper - a paper-like film that can be electronically written over and erased repeatedly. Lucent Technologies and Xerox are developing the technology. Reusable paper is embedded with balls that can be arranged electrically through Internet commands. Once arranged into a desired pattern of text and/or graphics, the balls stay put without a continuous power supply. To change the pattern, a new signal re-arranges the balls.
(Find out more at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, http://www.parc.xerox.com/dhl/projects/gyricon or Lucent Technologies, http://www.lucent.com/press/1099/991012.bla.html.)
Less Is More: 'Servicizing Products'
When products are thought of as platforms for providing solutions, rather than intrinsically
desirable bundles of "stuff," there are built-in incentives to deliver more service with less
throughput of materials and energy. An aspect of 'servicizing' is leasing of products, such as
floor coverings or copiers, for the services they provide, and takeback of worn products by the
vendor for remanufacturing and reuse. 'Servicizing' also is manifested as management services -
sale of chemical or energy management, rather than sale of gallons or kilowatt-hours. Find out
more from the Tellus Institute at http://www.tellus.org/
Ah yes, the "project" - putting in a downstairs playroom and deck. The home improvement service used web robots to analyze your specifications, measure out the types and exact quantities of materials needed, and arrange for Postal Service delivery on leased, reusable pallets. The service threw in a pea-sized "helper" disc wired with carbon nanotubes. Once you pop it into a reader, it will guide you through the project with narrated holographic images. Grandpa would have loved that. By his own admission, he was a terrible handyman. The helper disc will prevent waste of materials from construction mistakes. The helper disc includes an inventory of the delivered materials - foam-filled structural panels made of scrap wood bonded with a superglue that mimics the chemistry of mussel adhesives. Also, flooring that originated in a certified forest; deck planking made of an extruded, compostable plastic-wood composite; shelving fabricated from crop residue; and paint containing solvents produced through fermentation.
Lumber made from scrap wood and plastic bags? Glues based on R&D performed by shellfish? Whether these materials will be developed and commercialized widely is not known today. However, they're getting more attention as interest increases in "green" building technologies that reduce materials requirements, reuse wastes, and rely on adhesive and coating substitutes using biochemicals.
Wastes as Feedstocks
Composites are nature's trick for getting the most strength out of available materials, and wood is a leading example. More builders are using "engineered wood products" - composites and laminates that artfully use fiber once dismissed as unsuitable for construction. Engineered wood can be made of "urban wood" - shipping pallets, demolition materials and other discards. CanFibre Group Ltd., for example, makes medium-density fiberboard entirely out of urban wood waste without the use of urea formaldehyde adhesives. Fortra Fiber-Cement manufactures cement fiberboard siding, made of sand, cement and pulp mill waste. Both companies are subsidiaries of Kafus Industries, which is focused on marketing paper, building materials, and other commodities out of alternative, renewable materials.
Interest is growing in wood from "certified forests,"
which are managed more akin to natural forests. In the U.S., certified forests total about 4 million acres, about 1 percent of all timberland in the nation. One of the leading forest products companies
with certified woodland is the Portland-based Collins Companies, with 293,000 acres. The
Washington Department of Natural Resources is exploring certification for 1.1 million acres of
'Natural Systems' Agriculture
A natural approach to crop growing is being studied at The Land Institute in Kansas (http://www.landinstitute.org). The institute is experimenting with "perennial polyculture" as an alternative to the conventional practice of planting annual crops in monocultures. Under this approach, crop plants are sown together and act in concert as parts of a diverse prairie ecosystem. The spread of pests keyed to single species would be thwarted by plant diversity. Another plus is that soil would be enriched and conserved by the perennials and by avoiding annual plowing. A perennial wheat strain has been developed by Washington State University.
'We will witness a generalized substitution of computation for stuff ... Using arrays of sensors
and effectors, one could take a structure (say a bridge truss or aircraft spar) that in inert form
lacks the intrinsic structural strength to support a given load, and dynamically sense and align
its elements to yield the desired strength at a fraction of the weight of a traditional structure.'
Working on the project was strangely pleasurable. With ubiquitous intelligent systems handling so many routine chores these days, working with one's own hands is a rare treat. Now it's time for another throwback diversion - what Grandpa would have called a Sunday drive. You climb into the sleek car. The body is made of an advanced composite - a soy-based resin reinforced with carbon fibers and colored in the mold, eliminating the need for paint. The body was produced in a net shape fashion, eliminating trim waste. The windows have a thin insulation that was grown like a seashell - self-assembly of crystals on a protein-like film serving as a template. After engaging the electric drive train, you do the unthinkable - you turn off the navigation system and head for a back road, one of the few that hasn't yet been automated. That gives you an idea. You ask the Net portal to read aloud to you from "Blue Highways," a book about a journey down back roads written 68 years ago - when cars were inefficient steel boxes that ran on a complex brew of hydrocarbons called gasoline.
Cars made of soybeans and fibers? It may sound like chewing gum and baling wire, but advances in chemistry and clever designs may result in lighter, stronger composites that get more work out of fewer molecules, the trick used by nature for producing
strong materials. Plant-based materials, once a dominant feedstock in the days before petrochemicals,
may make a comeback as research turns up new ways of using plants to produce the fibers and resins that
go into composites.
Hey, Lighten Up
Steel has been the material of choice for building cars since the 1920s, but automakers are looking at incorporating larger amounts of lighter materials as a way to reduce vehicle weight and improve fuel efficiency. Through the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, DaimlerChrysler, GM and Ford are researching ways to reduce vehicle weights by 40 percent, with the goal of building safe, reliable vehicles with triple the fuel efficiency of today's vehicles. (Visit the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles and other research activities at the U.S. Council for Automotive Research, http://www.uscar.org.)
Lighter Bodies Permit Lighter Engines
Barriers to greater use of carbon fiber and other advanced composites are costs and huge tooling investments tied up in steel-based vehicle production. Another barrier is cycle times: steel parts can be stamped and welded faster than composite parts can be pre-formed and molded. An offsetting advantage for composites is that they can be molded into fewer, larger parts with more complex shapes.
Less Is More: Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology would mimic nature by constructing ceramic, polymer and composite products from the bottom up with microscopically small 'molecular machines' that arrange atoms precisely. Nanotechnology researchers say that molecular-scale control would enable fabrication of light, strong, programmable materials with fewer defects and less waste. Says Dr. Richard Merkle, a nanotechnology researcher formerly with Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center: 'As nanotechnology replaces existing manufacturing technologies, pollution from manufacturing plants will largely disappear.' To find out more, visit the Foresight Institute at http://www.foresight.org.
Soils for Salmon
Buildings and Productivity
Digital Dividends Conference
The BEST of Portland
PBT Report: Visualizing Zero
ROUNDTABLE REPORTS: Twice per year, the Pacific Northwest's technical assistance providers and P2 policymakers meet at regional roundtables to hear presentations and exchange ideas. Afterwards, the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center publishes detailed reports documenting the presentations and discussions. These reports are available on our web site at http://www.pprc.org/pprc/
WASTE INFORMATION NETWORK: PPRC is coordinating the activities of the Waste Information Network (WIN), which brings together assistance providers, businesses, trade associations, non-government organizations, and consultants in the Puget Sound area to exchange information about P2 and hazardous waste reduction. WIN has a new web site at http://www.pprc.org/win, where you can find news and a calendar of events. Features to be added in the near future will include a contacts directory, a Q&A network, and project adviser resource.
GEMSTARS ON LINE: The Idaho GEMStars program has gone on line, at http://www.idahogemstars.org. At this site, you'll find information about the benefits of GEMStars, the quarterly newsletter, and a signup form.
COMING SOON ... GREEN PURCHASING: The newest PPRC topical report will provide a brief summary about the benefits of green purchasing and a detailed compendium of resources. The report will be posted on PPRC's web site this summer.
POLLUTION PREVENTION Northwest
Editor & Designer: Jim DiPesoPollution Prevention Northwestis published bimonthly by the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center. To receive a free electronic subscription, link to the newsletter order form or contact the PPRC, 1326 Fifth Ave.,
Technical Editors: Madeline M. Sten
Web Version Format: Crispin Stutzman
Suite 650, Seattle, Washington 98101
Phone: 206-352-2050; Fax: 206-352-2049
About this Newsletter
Articles from this newsletter may be printed or distributed electronically only in their entirety with written permission from the PPRC. Please credit the author (if any), followed by "Pollution Prevention Northwest, Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center."
About the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center
The Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center (PPRC) is a nonprofit organization that is the region's leading source of high quality, unbiased pollution prevention information. PPRC works collaboratively with business, government and other sectors to promote environmental protection through pollution prevention. PPRC serves Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and also takes part in projects with benefits beyond the Northwest.
Financial support for PPRC is broad-based, with contributions from organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Northwest states, The Boeing Company, Intel Corporation and others. The PPRC accepts environmental settlement moneys to further its work on pollution prevention.
Significant in-kind support has been provided by organizations such as: Hewlett-Packard Company, Battelle/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Battelle Seattle Research Center, Microsoft Corporation, Ross & Associates Environmental Consulting, Ltd. and The Fluke Corporation.
Staff: Madeline M. Sten, Executive Director; Chris Wiley, Industry Outreach Lead; Jim DiPeso, Communications Director; Crispin Stutzman, Research Associate; Cathy Buller, Research Associate; Michelle Gaither, Research Associate; Mark Sten, Project Manager - Northwest Business Survey; Julius Dossen, Business Manager; Allison Greenberg, Administrative Assistant
Board of Directors: Richard Bach, President, Stoel Rives, Portland, Ore.; Joan Cloonan, Vice President, J.R. Simplot Company, Boise, Idaho; Kirk Thomson, Vice President, The Boeing Company, Seattle, Wash.; Dana Rasmussen, Secretary, Seattle, Wash.; William June, Treasurer, On Point Communications Strategists, Portland, Ore.; Rodney Brown, Marten & Brown, LLP, Seattle, Wash.; Charles Findley, U.S. EPA Region 10, Seattle, Wash; Scott Forrest, Forrest Paint Co., Eugene, Ore; Tom Korpalski, Hewlett-Packard, Boise, Idaho; Langdon Marsh, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Portland, Ore; Alan Schuyler, Phillips Alaska, Anchorage, Alaska; Jeff Allen, Oregon Environmental Council, Portland, Ore.
© 1999, Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center
phone: 206-352-2050, web: www.pprc.org