Sustainable Materials in Wayfinding

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SSAB's fossil fuel free steel plant using HYBRIT technology

Image Courtesy SSAB – Fossil Fuel Free Steel Plant in Sweden, built using HYBRIT technology

Trying to make more sustainable choices for how we live our lives can be challenging. It’s rarely a clear-cut decision. Low carbon products or lifestyle choices often have a negative impact on some other aspect of the environment.

Take for example textiles. Manmade polyester consumes significant energy and emits green-house gases during production; is not biodegradable and sheds microfibres that are polluting oceans. By contrast, cotton as a natural product is biodegradable and has more palatable carbon credentials.  However, despite being grown in some of the most water-stressed parts of the world, it is one of the largest consumers of water in agricultural production.  The associated use of pesticides and fertilisers; degradation of soil and clearing of land for planting can have harmful consequences for biodiversity and on the health of workers and local communities.

Environmental Credentials of Sign Materials

Within wayfinding, the inherent properties of steel, aluminium and acrylic have made them ‘go to’ materials in sign fabrication. Steel for its strength and durability; aluminium its malleability and lightweight qualities; and acrylic for its optical clarity and impact resistance compared to glass. However, steel, aluminium and plastics production, rank alongside transportation, as the most energy intensive and highest producers of carbon of all industrial sectors. Primary production can also have a devastating impact on local ecologies.

As a wayfinding consultancy, that designs and importantly specifies materials for signs, perhaps we should avoid these. After all there are natural alternatives e.g. wood, which can deliver the structural performance provided by steel and on the face of it, have better environmental credentials. However, without appropriate protection and maintenance (with chemicals) wood will rot and suffer from insect infestation.  In external locations a wooden sign is likely to need replacing, long before steel. Trees also act as carbon sinks and if sources are not managed appropriately, using wood could have a negative impact on carbon and species diversity.

Innovation in Materials & Processes

Really Board material made from recycled textiles
Board made from recycled plastic

Examples of new products made from recycled materials (i) textiles  – image courtesy Kvadrat and (ii) plastics from Second Life Products

Now for some positives. Unsurprisingly, there is significant innovation taking place in developing new sustainable materials and improving the credentials of existing products.

Steel producers are investing in cleaner technologies that don’t require coal to process iron ore; configuring plants to recycle steel and increasingly looking at renewable energy sources. With the move towards Hydrogen-based steel production heralded as the route to a carbon neutral future.

Aluminium, is highly durable and provided it is not contaminated with other materials, is infinitely recyclable. The recycling process is estimated to use just 5% of the energy consumed in the production of aluminium from its ore.

Similarly, there are a number of manufacturers producing acrylic from recycled materials (Ecocrylic and Green Cast). Some of these suppliers offer a closed loop service, repatriating the materials for recycling at the end of life. Biotech researchers are also investigating opportunities for creating optically clear materials from natural sources e.g. transparent wood at the University of Maryland.

Then there are the developments in additive manufacturing or 3D printing. That have seen these technologies becoming more mainstream, with the consequent potential for reduction in waste.

Navigating Through the Complexities

To help navigate this complex and often contradictory area, wayfinding designers need to work closely with their fabricator partners to consider the:

  • Life span and consequent performance requirements of the materials;
  • Extent and frequency of information updates;
  • Provenance and sustainability of the materials;
  • End of life disposal.

With fabricators challenging designers to design products that reduce waste and enable materials to be easily reused or recycled at the end of their usable life. And designers challenging fabricators to keep up to date with the latest materials and improve the environmental performance of their processes.

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