Safe and round: How healthier materials factor into a circular economy

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Did you know that the air inside of homes and offices is often more unhealthful than the air outdoors? This is due in large part to the chemicals — including but not limited to VOCs — in products, furniture, carpeting, paints, adhesives and the like. To me, this is staggering, but it’s easy to feel removed from broad facts such as this one.

Questionable contamination has been found in unassuming everyday items as well, such as Tupperware containers, cocktail stirrers and even children’s toys. These items are often made of black plastics recycled from consumer electronics and contain unexpected additives harmful to human health.

Of course, context is key. Bromine, for example, is added to a television’s plastic casing to prevent flammability, and similar ingredients are used to enhance performance such as durability or color in products. A TV doesn’t need to achieve a food-grade health standard. But the second life of black plastic offers a great example of an unfortunate outcome: when products are not designed for their next life, materials that may be appropriate for one application can end up where they don’t belong. And out of context, these materials can negatively affect human health.

The aim of a circular economy goes beyond simply keeping molecules in play. According to Emma Williams, acting head of communications at Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII), "Using materials that can be perpetually moved through continuous cycles of use and reuse is a key underpinning of the circular economy."

But if healthy materials were an easy fix, then product designers, manufacturers and engineers would already would be making these choices. Compounded by a widespread lack of ingredient transparency and concerns about intellectual property in product formulas, conventional, sometimes problematic material choices are predictable, cheap and widely available. However, C2CPII believes that making this shift and designing out harmful materials can be easier than designers might think.



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