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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
The Forever Cost of Materials:
Considerations for Conscious Designers

By designing with the end in mind and considering durability, construction, recyclability and production, designers who create products with ‘lower-cost’ ingredients bring us one step closer to a circular economy.

We need to rethink the way we calculate the cost of materials.

In addition to a material’s monetary cost, there is also an environmental cost that considers resource extraction through disposal at the end of its useful life; and all aspects of production, use and maintenance in between.

Throughout the lifecycle of materials are all of these indirect, hidden costs — those linked to the reduction of resource availability, to the uncontrolled use of depleting fossil sources, to the pollution of air and water, and the dispersion and environmental impact of microplastics. All of which, in some way, can adversely affect the current and future state of the planet.

A conscious designer who wants to create products based on the principles of circularity — where materials are not only recycled, but also recyclable; where the life of the product is not only extended, but made almost infinite — needs to prioritize these indirect, nearly hidden environmental costs when selecting materials.

Selecting materials for conscious design

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To select materials with circularity in mind, a conscious designer will consider the longevity and impact of their product. They should ask themselves:

A product that is durable will last longer — requiring less maintenance and need for replacement. A product that is repairable and reusable, as well as easily dismantled and recycled, is less likely to end up in the landfill and more likely to find new or extended life.

The issue of releasing microplastics is a more recent consideration in terms of material cost. Designers must not only understand the environmental impact of microplastics, but also how the materials selected and production process used affect the release of microplastics.

Reducing the release of microplastics

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are typically fragments of larger plastic objects. Because microplastics are so small, they can significantly impact human health and the overall environment when released — even potentially entering our bloodstream, tissue and cells.

ISO recently released the new standard method: ISO 4484-2:2023. Aquafil, the National Research Council of Italy’s Institute of Intelligent Industrial Technologies and Systems for Advanced Manufacturing (STIIMA) and the Textile Commission of UNI CT 046 developed this methodology for the standard determination of microplastics released from textile sectors. Thanks to this methodology, it will be easier to identify and quantify the different effects of factors affecting the release of microplastics from textiles.

The method provides a way to measure the release of microplastics and demonstrates that materials that are more durable and resilient also happen to produce less microplastics.

With ISO 4484-2, it will be easier to determine how several variables can affect the creation and release of microplastics from the textile sector:

  • The type of fiber or yarn: A staple fiber is made of a set of fibers of limited length that are held together mechanically by twisting; and is more likely to fray and release microparticles than a bulk, continuous fiber — simply due to the construction.

  • The material that makes up the fiber: The chemical and mechanical characteristics of a fiber play a crucial role in its performance — some are more sturdy and better able to withstand mechanical stress, abrasion, wear and exposure to harsh environments before breaking.

  • The construction of the fabric: Products made without interruptions in the material are generally less likely to release their components, compared to those made from multiple pieces or types of yarn or thread.

  • The product’s reaction to maintenance: Some fibers are able to better endure mechanical stress from maintenance — such as washing — throughout their life cycle than others.

  • The wear and aging of a product: The breakdown into microparticles is usually associated with conditions of use and the specific exposure to chemical and environmental factors, which can act together to accelerate the deterioration process.

Making a cost-effective choice

Conscientious designers have the opportunity to reduce or even eliminate the “forever” cost of materials to our planet through one simple choice: the ingredients they use. By designing with the end in mind and considering durability, construction, recyclability and production, designers who create products with “lower-cost” ingredients bring us one step closer to a circular economy.