Andrew Dent is vice president in charge of library and materials research at Material ConneXion in New York City, a global consultancy with the world's largest subscription-based materials library (over 7,000 products) and database. Dent directs the selection of products and processes, and guides the implementation of research in consultancy projects for Material ConneXion clients.
Photo © Philip C. Friedman
We tour the NYC office of Material ConneXion and visit its sprawling library of materials. VP of research Andrew Dent explains the company's MEDIUM Material of the Year awards showcase.
View more Greensource videos
GreenSource: The Material ConneXion library has numerous sustainable wood products—cross-ply-bamboo panel boards, veneered wood flooring, wood-fiber construction panels, etc. How are manufacturers supporting claims that the products they submit are actually sustainable?
Andrew Dent: The obvious choice is to use one of the globally recognized certifications for the wood, such as FSC, PEFC, or SFI, with a general consensus that FSC has the most stringent requirements for approval. Some manufacturers are also conducting screening or full life-cycle assessments to further quantify the overall impact of their products. For veneered flooring, wood-fiber construction panels, and other bonded fibrous products, compliance with CARB regulations and other certifications that assess VOC content and specifically formaldehyde are a useful way of demonstrating lower impact.
How important is it to clients that the products they come in search of are environmentally friendly? Are sustainability credentials important to them? Do they want materials that are recycled, or do they want materials that are recyclable?
Clients are almost always interested in products that are environmentally friendly. They are, however, not willing to compromise on performance and do not like to pay significantly more for them. Yes, they see that products that are recyclable are a great way to demonstrate lower environmental impact, although this puts the onus on the end client to actively find ways to efficiently recycle the product after use, which may be years afterward and under the ownership of a different user.
The Material ConneXion library has more than 7,000 products. What trends do you see in product innovation in general? What has changed in the past 10 years that’s surprising, or how have client priorities evolved?
Materials that are renewable or have rapidly renewable resources as their base, such as biopolymers, natural-fiber-based composites, and new fabrics, are offering comparable properties to their synthetic counterparts. These material innovations had been achieved through better understanding of natural materials, and through knowledge of how to enhance their properties and make them more resistant to their environment. We understand the chemistry of our materials better. This means that we are more closely controlling their composition and, therefore, the potentially hazardous additives used in our products. Better regulation is forcing companies to remove these hazardous additives to give us lower toxicity, lower VOC, and more safely disposable materials.
We can do more with less. Simpler, more easily recyclable plastics can now be used in wider applications (they are stiffer, more heat-resistant, easier to manufacture, and more corrosion-resistant), allowing us to reduce the number of different plastics we use in applications, making sourcing, regulation, and ultimately recycling more widespread and more efficient.
Material ConneXion has partnered with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) and the Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency (EPEA) to become the only materials consultancy to promote Cradle to Cradle certification and product development. How did that come about, and how does it work?
We understand that there are a number of different ways in which a lower environmental impact can be achieved, but for anyone who has fully understood the Cradle to Cradle philosophy, it is the only really positive approach that actually improves overall sustainability the more you produce. Although it can require a fuller commitment than simple material substitution or using recycled content, ultimately Cradle to Cradle offers the best route to more complete sustainable production.
Since we are the world's largest innovative-materials library, it made sense that we would want to include the materials in our sample resource that are currently certified as Cradle to Cradle and make them searchable on our online database. Our relationship with MBDC and EPEA had developed through mutual understanding with both Bill [McDonough] and Michael [Braungart] that our goals were similar—the desire to promote globally this positive methodology and to show what types of materials had gained certification. Our relationship continues with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.