MaterialDistrict Utrecht goes circular!
MaterialDistrict Utrecht commits fully to the Circular Economy. Because everything within spatial design is made of materials, there is a lot to gain in this field by switching to sustainable materials. But what is a sustainable material? To make the overarching concept of sustainability easier to grasp, we have divided it into three main themes: Energy Transition, Circularity and Wellbeing. Below, each of the themes are explained.
The Netherlands have to be fully circular by the year 2050. That was stated in the national programme Netherlands circular in 2050, presented by the Dutch government in September 2016. The ‘Take, Make, Waste’ model of the linear economy causes many environmental problems, including climate change and plastic soup in the oceans. That is why this model has to be changed into the ‘Make, Use, Return’ model of a circular economy.
The major part of the economy, about 80%, still runs on fossil fuels. By burning coals, oil, and gas, CO2 is generated, which contributes to climate change. Additionally, fossil fuels are non-renewable; though there is a lot of debate about how much fossil fuel there is left exactly, relatively easily accessible reservoirs of oil and gas will most likely be gone in 50 years. Therefore, it is crucial to start using alternative, renewable energy sources, to counter climate change and to prevent an energy crisis.
In 2019, the Dutch government presented the so-called Climate Agreement in which over 600 agreements have been recorded to prevent the emissions of greenhouse gasses. For example, in 2030, 70% of all electricity has to come from renewable sources, and in 2050, 7 million houses have to be gas free.
Materials can help in the energy transition. We discern two types: energy saving materials and smart materials. Materials that save energy are, for example, insulation materials, preferably made of sustainable materials, such as biobased or recycled materials (see ‘Circularity’).
Then there are smart materials, which are especially designed materials that have one or more properties that can be changed in a controlled manner by external stimuli, such as stress, moisture, electricity, or light. These changes are reversible and can be repeated. Smart materials are included under Energy Transition because in many cases they can replace energy consuming, complex equipment, use fewer to no energy, and in some cases can even generate energy, like materials with integrated solar cells.
The global need for raw resources is increasing dramatically. Simultaneously, we throw away a lot of material, unnecessarily wasting value, polluting the environment and changing the climate.
From the aforementioned Netherlands Circular in 2050, the Dutch Grondstoffen-akkoord (Raw Materials Agreement) arose, an agreement between governments, companies, unions, nature and environmental organisations, knowledge institutions, financial institutions and other social organisations to make the transition to a circular economy possible. Over 330 companies and organisations have signed the Raw Materials Agreement.
The term circularity refers to the (preferably indefinite) reuse of raw resources. Within this theme, we discern two cycles: the biocycle and the technocycle.
The biocycle consists of biobased materials, meaning, materials made from natural, living sources. These sources can be vegetal or animal, but have in common that they are renewable and thus replenish themselves. Wood or wool are examples of these types of materials. Within the theme of circularity, we are looking for biobased materials made both of green materials and their waste streams, such as coffee grounds, chitin (made of the shells of crustaceans), or mycelium (the root system of fungi). Bioplastic, whether or not biodegradable, is also included in this category. Additionally, biotechnology is an important part of the biocycle. This term refers to the manipulation of biological processes, with which materials can be made or even cleaned up, like mushrooms or bacteria that eat plastic. Examples of biotech materials are mycelium ‘leather’, synthetic spider silk, and SCOBY (a symbiose of micro-organisms that form a thick gel-like membrane).
The term technocycle includes ‘technical’ materials, or non-organic materials that have to be processed or made before use, such as (petrochemical) plastic, metal, concrete, and glass. All of these are made with finite raw materials and are thus non-renewable. Even more than in the biocycle, it is important that these raw resources are used with care, as long as possible, and keep their value (although, the aim is of course to do the same with biobased materials). Materials that now end up on the landfill or even in the environment have to be reused and preferably upcycled, gaining a similar or better value than in their previous life.
While we have never before been able to treat or cure so many illnesses and diseases, public health is declining. We stay indoors more and thus see less sunlight, move less because we sit more, work longer, stare at a computer screen all day, are exposed to polluted air filled with smells, nitrogen and particulate matter, etc. Depression, obesity, and stress reign supreme. We are becoming ill from plastics and glue, which often contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), substances that have harmful effects on the environment and humans. That is why wellbeing in the built environment is put in the limelight the past couple of years.
The term wellbeing is used in the broadest sense. For a healthy environment, it is important to use as many natural materials as possible. Green materials have a soothing effect. Other examples of healthy materials are materials that breathe, that are antibacterial, heat or moisture regulating, acoustic materials, materials that clean the air, or materials that are just beautiful.
Not just materials in the interior are important, construction materials can also contribute to a healthier environment. Materials like CLT (Cross-Laminated Timber), NUR-HOLZ (wooden construction system without glue or nails), concrete without cement, or straw are examples of such materials.