About two years ago, the Jan van Eyck academy launched a website
called the Future Materials Bank. On their website they say the
following about the project: 'The Future Materials Bank is an archive of materials that supports
and promotes the transition towards ecologically conscious art and
design practices. By collecting information and samples from makers around the world,
the archive aims to inspire research and disseminate knowledge about
sustainable materials.' According to the FMB, usability is also an
important feature of the materials they gather, placing emphasis on ease
of use and transferability of rights.
According to the landing
page on the website of the Jan van Eyck academy, they further divide the
materials they collect into six categories: Glues and Polymers,
Pigments and Dyes, Bio-materials, Eco-synthetics, Textiles and Fibres,
Cleaning Materials. Why they chose for these categories is unclear, as
they don't really provide any kind of clear distinction between the
entries. Many fibres will be polymers, for example, and many cleaning
materials will be bio-materials. What exactly eco-synthetics are isn't
defined anywhere either.
Quickly scrolling through the 300+
entries then, I would propose five alternative categories where they can
be divided into: Old Materials, Specific Implementations, Bioplastics,
Incomplete Understandings and Marketing Tricks.
category, Old Materials, speaks for itself. Many of the 'future'
materials are in fact materials we have known for centuries, such as
egg-tempera, indigo, wool and silk. On a small scale, all these
materials have the properties the FMB aims for. Yet if there was only
small-scale production in the world, then the problems the FMB wishes to address
wouldn't be problems at all. On the current global scale, synthesis of
these products has solved considerable problems that would arise if
these old materials would be produced on the scale that the current
synthetic alternatives are. For example, the more effective production
of indigo and artificial fibres has created a global demand for jeans
and stockings that is not feasible using only the natural occurring
materials. By being less effective processes they often use more of
other resources like labour, space and energy. These are equally limited, but this is presently less visible because of the highly efficient processes mankind has developed over centuries.
These old materials are
sustainable on a small scale, but tend to lose that sustainability on a
large scale. As it is difficult or impossible to scale them up to the
volumes required in today's world, few of them can be seen as
sustainable beyond simple artistic vanity projects. A good example would
be animal glue, which is a perfectly good material listed in the Future
Materials Bank, but only is environmentally friendly if production is
kept small and/or without actively breeding and slaughtering animals for
this purpose. By the same logic the FMB uses in these cases,
ivory is a perfectly sustainable material, since elephants are a renewable
resource. That's clearly not the way they should be reasoning.
The second group, Specific Implementations, is very
large and consists of specific uses the artists and designers have
found for what tends to be rather general material descriptions. Despite
the primary assertion in FMB's policy that the listed materials should
have a high degree of usability, which is defined as 'how accessible and
transferable the knowledge required to work with a material is in
different contexts', these 'materials' are barely materials at all, but
rather a non-transferable particular use of a material that's already widely available.
An example is a project titled ReCoil. 'ReCoil is an
elliptical centrepiece dining table. It is made entirely of precious
reclaimed Hydrowood timber veneer offcuts.' So offcuts from industrial
veneer creation is the 'material' and the designer makes a large table
out of these thin, long off cuts. The adhesive that's necessary for this
transformation isn't specified, but the table is finished with 'resin'.
Now it might be me, but making a table out of thin sheets that have to
be doused in very likely toxic and harmful resin hardly seems like a
sustainable alternative. Especially considering the fact that such
offcuts are already used in a similar process that's more effective and
less polluting, namely the production of materials like fibreboard which
do end up having multiple different uses. The creator has thus not brought a
'future material', but rather a more polluting, yet beautiful,
alternative to current practices.
Another way that it can be seen
that many entries are simply Specific Implementations, rather than
materials of general use, is in the high degree of duplicate entries of
materials. Seventeen of the 315 entries have 'mycelium' as the principal
another eleven use paper pulp, ten more use eggshells and another nine
human hair. At least nine others describe bacteria in general wording.
That's more than 60 of the 315 'future materials', that are in fact only
The next big category is Bioplastics. And it is
true that bioplastics are important for the global future. Their
inclusion here is a bit odd, however, as the main problem that
bioplastics can solve is that they might make it easier for plastics to
be removed from the environment. This is only an issue in applications
like packaging, where the plastics are quickly and indiscriminately
thrown away. One of the main characteristics of plastics is that they
degrade very slowly. This makes them extremely long lasting and durable,
which is a plus, not a con, if they are in fact used for a long time.
This durability is only problematic once the plastic is discarded. I thus must
ask, who are these artists who are making work with the idea that it
will be thrown away shortly after their creation?
Is it then not better
to do the world a favour and keep that brilliant idea inside your head?
Understandings is a bit of a strange category, that should ultimately
have no presence in such a databank, but at the present time there are
quite a few, explicable, misconceptions and oversimplifications
floating around on the website.
Once again I will give a random
example that states that 'plastics like PET and PP are increasingly
recycled for high-grade applications but HDPE is mostly down-cycled.'
And so their supposed solution is to make 'yarns for closed-loop
textile products out of HDPE sourced from household waste'.
Despite the indignation of the authors, there are
valid chemical reasons why 'HDPE is mostly down-cycled'. HDPE gets its
characteristics from having a high degree of crystallinity, which means
that its long chains of molecules are (mostly) neatly arranged in rows.
This is in contrast with LDPE, where the chains of the same molecule
resemble something more along the lines of a bowl of spaghetti. As
recycling in practice means nothing more than taking this chain apart
and randomly putting it back together, it's easy to see why HDPE is less
recyclable as through pure chance you're far more likely to end up with
something that resembles a bowl of spaghetti than a number of neatly
At the same time, both PET and PP have a chemical
structure that requires their polymer chains to take on a more linear
form. As you might expect, such a linear chain is much more suitable for recycling and being spun into yarn than the tangled spaghetti or organised rows of
LDPE and HPDE.
It's not that it's impossible to make yarn out of
HPDE, it's that it's ineffective and thus somewhat wasteful compared to
other possible applications. Making yarn out of recycled HDPE is thus definitely not
something you would want to be doing on a large scale and that's a
chemical reality no amount of creativity is ever going to change.
this kind of misconceptions can be forgiven, there is another category
that is more fundamentally wicked and these are the Marketing Tricks.
There are a number of
products on the FMB's website that can only be classified as marketing
gimmicks with mildly to grossly misleading product information. I don't
want to promote any of these awful business practices, but one of them
is a solvent that is a 'citrus alternative to gum turpentine or white
spirit, used for thinning oil paint and cleaning brushes.' The 'citrus'
in this case is stated in the product information as 'Citrus Terpenes',
also known as lemonene. Lemonene is flammable, causes skin irritation,
can be deadly if droplets enter into the lungs and it is extremely
poisonous to aquatic organisms. While a small amount of lemonene is
present in the peel of citrus fruits, that doesn't mean that the pure product
is automatically healthy.
A further description at the FMB reads
that 'it does not contain any Aromatics or CFC's and it is
non-flammable, non-toxic and biodegradable with low VOC's'. All these
things are also true for regular turpentine, as turpentine is made up of
terpenes, which are cyclohexenes that are specifically non-aromatic and CFC's are only used in spray paints as an aerosoliser, so that the lack of CFC's is
irrelevant to this type of solvent.
Non-flammable in this context means that its flash point lies above 37,8ºC. This is thus technically correct, but please bear in mind that this is also true for jet fuel and diesel.
These kind of aliphatic hydrocarbons are generally considered biodegradable by definition. Gasoline
is considered biodegradable for similar reasons, but that doesn't mean
you should start dumping in forests.
'Low VOC's' is a legal term, which
in the United Kingdom means that it does in fact contain a significant amount of
VOC's, although less than 5%. Looking at the product data it says the
product has a boiling point of 190-280ºC and yet the 'liquid will
evaporate readily'. Such a wide range of boiling points indicates a
mixture with many different compounds and that despite it's >190ºC boiling point it will evaporate readily is an indication that it contains
quite a lot of components that have significantly lower boiling points. Those components are also known as VOC's.
It thus seems that the brief information
provided by the FMB's website does little to distinguish the product
from regular turpentine and also gives virtually no indication that its
considerably safer. A quick visit to the manufacturer's website
reinforces these suspicions.
Chemicals that are, or can be,
considered harmful are required to be accompanied by a Safety Data
Sheet (SDS), which provides information about the safety of a
product through standardised protocols. This allows for
accurate checking and comparison of potentially harmful products. The
manufacturer indicates that its product requires an SDS, but also state
that 'SDS are supplied ONLY
to Retailers and Distributors of our product.' This is borderline
illegal as it actively withholds information that they are required by law to
make readily available and the information which they do provide on
their website is clearly meant to downplay possible dangers. It is for
example repeatedly stated that their product falls in the safest category of
harmful materials, while it blatantly attempts to ignores the fact that this also means that it's
nevertheless considered a harmful material.
I've already said more
about this product than I have ever wanted to do, but it should be clear
that it is not the miracle solution the manufacturer claims it to be.
In all likelihood it is safer than turpentine, but only in the same way
that drinking nine glasses of wine will make you less drunk than drinking ten.
the least harmful alternative to turpentine and white spirit is acetone
or possibly ethanol. After all, there's a reason why they're widely
used as cleaning solvents in laboratories. Yet somehow I don't feel
like this would be the kind of sustainable material that the FMB would be willing
Overall I would thus argue that the Future Materials
Bank, in its current form, is somewhat incompetent and unable to attain
its goals. Some concepts are misrepresented and other
misleading information is not filtered out. In some cases such
misunderstandings are even actively promoted, while much of the
factually correct information is insignificant or irrelevant to their larger
goal of 'supporting and promoting the transition towards ecologically
conscious art and design practices'.
I more than welcome the idea of
creating such a databank of sustainable solutions, but as I've said many
times before on this blog, the road to hell is paved with good