What are the Different Types of Sustainable Materials?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

In the entire concept of ecology, few terms cause more confusion than the description of objects, resources, or practices as “sustainable.” To some, sustainable materials are those which are renewable; for instance, crops that can be harvested but continually replanted and grown again. Others consider sustainable materials to be those which can be repeatedly reused through recycling. Although there is no universally agreed-upon definition for sustainability, most definitions include the concept that the material can be used at a rate that will allow future generations access to the same abundance of resources without causing ecological harm.

The renewable feature of crops causes some people to refer to them as sustainable, because they can be repeatedly grown and harvested.
The renewable feature of crops causes some people to refer to them as sustainable, because they can be repeatedly grown and harvested.

Fossil fuels are a clear example of a completely unsustainable resource. Although the Earth naturally produces fossil fuels as part of the breakdown of organic material, the rate at which humans consume the fuel means that the quantity is continually diminishing. Additionally, as the burning of fossil fuels adds polluting elements to the air, land, and sea, the use of this non-sustainable set of materials cannot be seen as having no impact on the environment.

While some plastics may be recyclable, they are not considered sustainable.
While some plastics may be recyclable, they are not considered sustainable.

Renewable materials can be, but are not always, sustainable materials. When corn is grown, it can be harvested and replanted using some of the harvested seeds. Theoretically, this cycle can continue endlessly, particularly if green practices are employed to offset damage to the local ecosystem. If the corn is refined into ethanol, the resulting product may be renewable, but is not sustainable, due to the environmental pollution caused by the refining process.

Some people consider recyclable materials to be sustainable materials, but with the caveat that the material must also be biodegradable. Cotton cloth, for instance, can be used repeatedly until biodegradation takes over and the materials rot back into organic compounds, leaving no measurable negative impact on the Earth. Plastic, however, may be recyclable but is not usually considered sustainable, because it may take hundreds or thousands of years to degrade. Additionally, depending on the chemical composition of the plastic, the environment may be harmed as detrimental chemicals leech into the Earth from the material.

Perfectly sustainable materials are very hard to find; it is rare that the growth, refinement, life cycle, and decomposition of any material can occur with no impact on the Earth. Much of what determines sustainability has to due with the rate of consumption; wild berries might be considered sustainable in an unvisited, healthy forest, but if a thousand people ran in and harvested them, the formerly sustainable crop would be quickly obliterated.

For those looking to live an environmentally-friendly existence, it is important to investigate all claims of sustainability carefully. In many cases, materials deemed sustainable are actually renewable or recyclable, but not sustainable. Yet materials that do not quite match the concept of perfect sustainability may still be considerably less harmful to the environment than non-renewable or recyclable sources. Wood from forests continually re-planted and maintained, recycled denim insulation, and food from organic sources that take care in ensuring a safe turnover of the Earth, and tactics that offset any ecological damage may not be perfectly sustainable materials, but may still do a lot of good.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Amphibious54- Depending on where you fall on the sustainability spectrum (sustainable development<---->sustainability) something like that would not be considered sustainable. Some might consider sustainable to have no environmental impact whatsoever because they believe in resource preservation over conservation. The view might be that automobiles are unsustainable because the vehicles themselves create so much waste throughout their life cycle that anything to promote the automobile may be unsustainable.

Someone more aligned with sustainable development might even be somewhat adverse to corn as a biofuel because it has a negative impact on food accessibility. The new dynamic of food versus fuel may be seen as unsustainable, especially considering some climate change is inevitable and the global population is still rising exponentially.


@Valleyfiah- I would say that corn could be sustainable if you removed all fossil fuel inputs and replaced them with something like wind or solar. This would make the ethanol produced as close to net zero as possible. It would be hard to do, but the new field of industrial ecology looks at things like this. Industrial ecology is a field that tries to find sustainable industrial systems for producing all kinds of goods from green building materials to consumer goods to biofuels.


What a great article. I have a question though. The article stated that corn can be seen as a sustainable material, but ethanol would not be because of the energy intensive refining process. My question is as follows. If we could look at the entire manufacturing process of ethanol and use renewable energy for the energy inputs, would this make ethanol sustainable? From what I understand, ethanol and other biofuels would be net zero if they did not take fossil fuels to produce. Does anyone have any feedback on this?

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