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Rethinking Materials for a Circular Economy

In the 21st century, product and material choices hold greater importance than ever before. There is an informed and growing awareness of the problems faced by a finite supply of resources, including wood, metals and petroleum-based plastics. Furthermore, significant health concerns are being recognised related to toxic additives and VOC’s inherent in manufactured building materials, especially those used in the workplace, schools, hospitals and elsewhere. The continued growth in global population, landfill waste and associated costs of waste management alongside related issues of recyclability raise additional concerns that must be addressed by the marketplace.

Some of these challenges can be negated by new design approaches, that result in easier disassembly and recyclability, thus maximizing the value of ingredient materials and components in products. It also requires the development of new business models that provide even better services in sectors like mobility, which aid the more effective use of materials and products, and the increased efficiency in energy usage.

When it comes to those materials that are used, a commonly overlooked consideration is ensuring that the palette of materials used is effective, flexible and profitable in the long-term. What are the needs for material, component and product development in the global economy?

NET_ECORProductImages_RawArray1_NET_Hero2_165
Credit: ECOR

That’s where ECOR, a new material developed by Noble Environmental Technologies, has the potential, and is beginning to, play a key role. ECOR has been developed in the context of increasing awareness of finite material stocks and the need for a better circulation of resource value in the economy, utilizing waste cellulose fibre as the key ingredient.

Credit: ECOR
Credit: ECOR

The cellulose fibres used to create ECOR are naturally ubiquitous and can be sourced from a broad range of potential urban, farm and forest sources, including discarded office paper, old corrugated cardboard, fabrics, synthetic textiles, corn, wheat straw, rice, hemp, agricultural waste, coffee grounds, sawdust, pine, spruce, bamboo and much more. As a waste conversion solution, ECOR creates the possibility that significant volumes of a wide range of materials which are currently sent to landfill can be incorporated  in useful applications.

ECOR is Cradle to Cradle® certified and the manufacturing process is a clean method that produces virtually no waste, uses no chemicals, adhesives or additives, and creates a material that is made from 100% recycled content. It’s also biodegradable, strong, versatile, structural and an almost infinitely recyclable alternative to wood, plastic and other synthetics.

ECOR is made by combining water and cellulose fibre to form a slurry, which is then poured onto a mould and pressed to extract the water. The moulds are then baked on a high heat, resulting in finished flat and corrugated panels. The way in which it is created means that, at the end of use, ECOR can be broken down again to fibre level and put back through the process to create another batch of the material.

The fact that cellulose fibres stick together through a pressure and heat process, rather than through the use of additives, not only enables the product to avoid using adhesives compared with other materials, it is also the key to the economic viability, scalability and ease of its recyclability.

It’s worth noting that the production process is energy intensive, requiring high heat. However, the energy strain is at least partly compensated for in a resource sense by the almost unmatched levels of water use effectiveness. The company reports that in their production process, they have been able to achieve a 99.5% reuse rate of fresh water. In a context where water scarcity is one of the world’s most serious concerns, that is a significant advantage.

What are cellulose fibres?

Cellulose fibres are fibres which are derived from a range of sources, from wood to the leaves of a plant or tree, which each deliver the different mechanical properties found in the textiles used in our clothing, product packaging, and plant-based waste including coffee grounds and spent beer grains hops. As highlighted, the ECOR manufacturing process has also been found to work on synthetic fibres.  The various combinations of these various fibres become fibre alloys and allow the company to achieve specific performance parameters for one product or another.

Robert Noble, founder and CEO, highlights some of the advantages of using cellulose-based fibres in this way compared with most current materials:

“The fact is that we have the technology today that enables us to economically and sustainably convert literally any waste cellulose-based fibre and upcycle it. We can now create a usable, new, natural composite that enables us to create engineered structures designed to meet specific applications. Further, this innovation suggests that we can now enhance and improve existing supply chains in how and where materials are sourced, how and where products are made and then how they are handled once they are discarded.”

Where does ECOR fit in the market?

Credit: ECOR
Credit: ECOR

ECOR has made some early forays into the marketplace and continues to find new uses and applications for different sectors. Customers to date have included Google, Whole Foods, Motorola, Microsoft, H&M, Starbucks, and Kohler for a range of applications that range from use as a printing substrate and for point of purchase displays, to interior wall panels, trade show displays, cabinetry and beyond. Leading building product manufacturers are collaborating with Noble on co-developing ECOR-based building products for ceiling tiles, acoustic panels, decorative wall panels and window coverings.

The material has, so far, been able to establish itself on the market due to the advantages of its performance characteristics compared against the materials it displaces. Cabinetry, signs, displays and interior furnishings, can be created using ECOR without sacrificing any performance characteristics, including fire and water resistance, while having the advantage of being much lighter.

The company is expected to soon complete an expansion of its large scale manufacturing facility based in Serbia. This development, combined with improvements in the manufacturing process and technology, is expected to enhance throughput and productivity; bringing the cost of ECOR developed goods down and increasing its economic competitiveness. Business viability will also be aided by expected price volatility of plastics and wood. Moreover, as the global economy begins to adapt to a model that takes into account the full cost of materials, including extraction and disposal, the opportunities will only continue to grow.

Developing ECOR’s factory

Even today, ECOR is a material that creates value. In the current model, a ton of old corrugated cardboard (OCC) can be collected and sold for €120 per tonne at best. Using the ECOR production method, that cardboard can be easily converted, on location, into the simple countertop, desk, display, cabinet, door or other needed product that may typically pay €2,000 per tonne or more.

Eric Logtens, Director at Noble Environmental Europe AG, also spoke to Circulate about the opportunities that are created when a material can be recycled multiple times. Rather than just selling the material once, you could sell a service that could reprocess the material into a different product with a new life. As a customer’s business changes he could substitute walls for desk tops.

“What would it mean for a customer to just have the material on a 60 or 72 month contract he could expense as opposed to the product he would have to depreciate. Knowing that the material can be recycled repeatedly through its process, Noble and its strategic partners would be incentivised to retain ownership and take advantage of the many reuse opportunities.”

New design opportunities

What is most intriguing about ECOR is the fact that most of the opportunities probably haven’t been identified yet. The material offers designers freedom and opportunities that don’t exist with comparable or traditional materials. They have a palette of options in terms of the many varying types of fibers and the unique performance characteristics that with near limitless moulding geometries can deliver virtually any shape or structural specification.

The nature of the pressure and heat production technique means that ECOR panels can be created with twists and curves that would be difficult to engineer and cost-prohibitive with the regular panel options.

However, it’s worth noting that while the opportunities for complexity in the final shapes and geometries have increased, the foundation for them remains simple. Of the many ECOR shapes and geometries being deployed, they all come from the use of two basic components – ECOR FlatCOR and the WavCOR. These first basic components represent just a small fraction of the potential to create hundreds, even thousands of manufactured forms and shapes.

What would it mean for a customer to just have the material on a 60 or 72 month contract he could expense as opposed to the product he would have to depreciate. Knowing that the material can be recycled repeatedly through its process, Noble and its strategic partners would be incentivised to retain ownership and take advantage of the many reuse opportunities. Eric Logtens.

Material simplicity resonates with the work of Janine Benyus in the field of biomimicry. Benyus’ work compared the fact that there are just five core polymers in the natural world, while in human-made materials, components and products, there are already around 350. The complexity that can be achieved through using ECOR comes through the layering and architecture of the material structures, rather than using inseparable compounds.

ECOR is a material that offers an opportunity to re-imagine the future in a way that reflect the core of biomimicry, circular economy and cradle-to-cradle design thinking, as well as a changing global economy where value can be maximised by better understanding and more effectively cycling separate flows biological and technical materials.

Today, many companies expend substantive energy to collect and recycle resources associated with their products and services. Materials innovation such as ECOR offer organisations from governments to corporations an opportunity to maximise the financial rewards from that activity. With the development of innovations like ECOR, the potential for a different, more profitable and more resilient future is on its way to being realised.

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The Author

Seb Egerton-Read

Seb Egerton-Read

Seb writes daily content for Circulate across the full spectrum of the website's topics. Previously he has spent five years as a freelance writer for a number of websites and blogs. You can e-mail Seb at seb[at]circulatenews.org