Monday 15 May 2023

Future Materials Bank

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.

The first 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 constituent, another eleven use paper pulp, ten more use eggshells and another nine use 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 five materials.

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?

Incomplete 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 stacked rows.
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.

While 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 it 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.
Probably 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 to accept.

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 intentions.