Materials and Products

Materials and Products are an integral part of our everyday lives — from the buildings we build and occupy and the transport we use, to our food packaging, the cleaning products that we use and the clothes that we wear. This story looks at how conscious consumerism could be the most immediate response to our environmental crises of ocean pollution and depleting natural resources.

Natural resources are necessary to make any material or product. However, the global population has reached a point where natures ‘resource budget’ for materials and products is being over-exploited. In 2019, Earth Overshoot Day (the date that humanity’s demand for ecological resources exceeds what earth can regenerate in that year) was marked on 29 July, the earliest date ever.

This year, global lockdown measures and a slump in consumer spending have caused our global ecological footprint to slightly contract. Earth Overshoot Day is expected to be marked on 22 August 2020 — just three weeks later than in 2019.

One Planet Living encourages the use of materials from sustainable sources and promotes products and a sharing economy which help people to reduce consumption, so having a minimum environmental impact over the entire lifecycle. In simple terms, materials and products that:

  • have positive social and environmental benefits

Challenging overconsumption or unnecessary consumption is a fundamental aspect of sustainability
The above is self-explanatory — how to do more, with less. A good example is one company in Durban who went from having 11 labels on a product — down to just three, when it rationalized ‘do we need all these labels?’.

Companies need to think about end-of life solutions such as easy disassembly for recycling or upcycling and opportunities to possibly incorporate local and reclaimed content. I recently had a lampshade whose plastic inner had disintegrated but due to careful manufacture I was able to take it apart, insert a new card inner and reassemble it — the shade is good to go for another ten years.

One Planet Companies avoid materials which have a negative impact on the environment or are polluting, such as PVC (said lampshade again) and paints with high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). Consumer choice is important — for example, sustainably sourced timber in the wood products we buy (see FSC Accreditation system and Heart Eco for reclaimed timber) — we have the purchasing power and we must use it. The cons of composite materials which may be hard to recycle at end-of-life, must be considered.

One Planet Companies also consider the impact of the goods and services which are not only sold but bought for internal use (i.e. ‘goods not for resale’), including packaging, ensuring it is fit for purpose — i.e. that it is only used where it is needed and protects products, where it extends shelf life, is made from renewable and recyclable materials and uses the minimal amount of material to be effective. Yet another company in Durban started using maize starch packaging instead of polystyrene with the good news story to their customers that the packaging was compostable and biodegradable.

So, what can we do differently?
In my personal efforts towards becoming a more conscious consumer, I admittedly spend a fair amount of time mulling over where ingredients or materials come from, how products are packaged, how they are sold and how they can ultimately be repurposed or upcycled or reused.

While we as consumers are not always in control of what happens at the production level, we are in control of what we use and put back out there. Collectively, small behaviour changes can have a huge impact .

1. Choose natural or recyclable packaging — or none at all
In an age where almost everything is wrapped in plastic, it can be tricky to find natural alternatives. But things are definitely changing. Biodegradable products are no longer limited to just wood, cardboard or bamboo — and could the latter be just the post-COVID entrepreneurial farming opportunity that is needed in SA in our new paradigm shift? South Africans are making waves with innovative earth-friendly products. These days, there are plenty sustainable options for the household and workplace. Green Home and Ecopack offer 100% biodegradable food packaging made from plants and sugar cane waste.

The Green Times is a monthly green news digest which speaks to all things environmental including packaging. When buying fruit and veg (or anything at all, come to think of it), aim to buy that which has no packaging, or better still, support local farmers veg delivery schemes that were mentioned in our newsletter on Food. And if you are a company, challenge your suppliers. Do items need to be wrapped (e.g. in plastic)? Is it a necessity , ‘nice to have’ or what the world once thought necessary? Minimising waste is what is necessary now — these are the new thought processes we need to be taking.

If you are going to have to package something, explore all the options on biodegradable packaging and if it cannot be, ensure the packaging is at least recyclable. In this country, that means recycling categories 1,2, 4 and 5 only — and yet so much comes in category 7, presumably because it is cheaper. Be the change you want to see, manufacturers! Big retailers and corporate giants are on the wave fortunately — Woolworths plans to phase out plastic bags this year and Unilever plans to make all of its products biodegradable by 2030.

Also… have you heard of Biomimicry? It is an emerging discipline that looks to nature for solutions on sustainable materials. Some students are paving the way for these sustainable materials of the future. A University of Cape Town student unveiled the world’s first bio-brick made of loose sand and human urine — a process far less energy intensive which results in zero waste. A University of Sussex student in the UK has created a bioplastic from fish waste that breaks down in six weeks — now that is a circular economy. These innovations are fascinating and our bet is that this emerging discipline is soon going to be the way of the future for the development of new products.

2. Consider product sharing or rental initiatives
What seemed to be an emerging industry just last year — the rental economy is gaining momentum. With tightened budgets in the wake of COVID-19, sharing and rental options are likely to become the way forward for conscious consumers. Rental categories can include clothes, furniture, gaming, tools or technology.

Renting consumer goods are showing to be more of a pragmatic and temporary solution as they provide an item or service for a short time-frame and are much more budget friendly. In the clothing industry, global retailer H&M has begun trialing clothing rentals in its commitment to change the way fashion is consumed. Furniture company IKEA will begin to test a range of leasing offers this year in a bid to boost sustainability and appeal to the conscious consumer. Locally, you can rent equipment and tools from Coastal Hire and a range of tech-products from Superior Vision. In the next few months, we could definitely be seeing an uptick in the supply of rentals in S.A.

3. Buy local where you can
If there’s an option, always buy local. Locally made and locally sold products have a more positive social and environmental impact than imported products. They carry a reduced carbon footprint, stimulate the local economy and make it easier for consumers to trace the origins of materials and manufacturing processes. A range of lovely KZN products are certainly available on the food front, as mentioned in our Foodie newsletter.

Businesses that have retooled amid COVID19
On the brink of survival, businesses are having to reinvent themselves — resilience is all about being flexible and having the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity. In recent weeks, a recycling plant in Tanzania shifted its entire operation from paper recycling to the production of face shields. The plant, which used to export its waste to China and India, is now adjusting to the demand for PPE — using plastic bottles to make face shields.


In S.A., liquor companies are collaborating with santiser manufacturers to make hand sanitizer. Big industry players KWV, Distell and Oude Molen, collectively donated 200,000 litres of alcohol to assist government and NGOs with sanitiser production or ingredients.

One Planet Businesses and Schools
Also mentioned in our Zero Waste Newsletter, T&T BnB is a green B&B in Westville that is committed to the environment. Owner, Tracey, is constantly finding ways to reuse and reclaim materials for use around the garden. Leftover pipework was used at the B&B to create innovative maintenance free fencing and features, as pictured below:

Bhekameva Creche in Inanda is another good example of how reclaimed and recycled materials can be used to refurbish buildings on limited budget. Surplus super insulated panels were used to build the toilet building and recycled rubber from car tyres were used from Envirobuild, KwaZulu-Natal’s first manufacturer of eco-friendly rubber flooring for commercial, industrial and residential use. EnviroBuild has launched an extensive range of rubber paving and flooring products — don’t use anything other! — as it is estimated that there are 11 million waste tyres in SA landfills, with thousands more being added each year — we have the power to change this.

What’s Next
Things are changing in the midst of COVID19 — and it’s not just because supply chains have been disrupted, human behaviours are changing too. As the famous quote from Viktor Frankl says ‘when we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves’. Lockdown measures have forced us to live on less “stuff” — and that can be viewed as a positive thing. Challenging current consumption patterns is possible. And while we are navigating the new normal, we hope that the “Green Recovery” is a building block for future sustainable materials and products.



Part of the ‘One Planet Cities’ project, funded by KR Foundation, with five cities piloting an online platform to make sustainability action planning easy.

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One Planet Cities Durban

Part of the ‘One Planet Cities’ project, funded by KR Foundation, with five cities piloting an online platform to make sustainability action planning easy.