Each World Environment Day is organized around a theme that focuses attention on a particularly pressing environmental concern. The theme for 2019, “Beat Air Pollution,” is a call to action to combat this global crisis. Chosen by this year’s host, China, 2019’s topic invites us all to consider how we can change our everyday lives to reduce the amount of air pollution we produce, and thwart its contribution to global warming and its effects on our own health.
Beating Air Pollution, now there’s a challenge. When we think of air pollution we often think of large scale issues created by power generation and transportation rather than the smaller scale domestic ones that we literally live surrounded by. Most plastics contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are poisonous, carbon-containing chemicals that are volatile enough to evaporate even at room temperature. Have you noticed how PVC products such as low cost bags, school ring binder or shower curtains smell?
Much of the furniture we surround ourselves with has plastic content which often pretends to be another material such as wood. Some items are entirely made from plastic and proclaim their exuberance. Man-made materials such as the plastic laminate used to cover office desks or flat-pack furniture we buy for our homes emit gases long after it has been installed in our spaces – this can lead to a phenomenon called ‘sick building syndrome’ a condition affecting us, typically resulting in headaches and respiratory problems. The issue has been compounded by well insulated homes that incubate VOCs and the over use of central heating systems that ‘cook’ plastics and increase VOC emissions.
Roger Bateman, Deputy Head of the Department of Art & Design has been investigating bioplastics in a project called ‘Biofurniture’. The project aims to make production of 100 percent biodegradable ‘plastic’ furniture that does not produce VOCs, thus no off gassing. The project, in collaboration with Netcomposites in Chesterfield, started as a study into whether plant-based material could be used to make furniture components, instead of petrochemical-based plastics. The resulting product is made entirely from flax and a natural plastic derived from maize, and will eventually decompose, rather than needing to be recycled Recycling, though an option when all other opportunities for reuse have been exhausted, is not a long term solution. Also, collecting items to be recycled and the process of recycling creates pollution – it’s a vicious circle.
Roger said: “Sustainable furniture designs have so far focused on using recyclable materials, so that when the product reaches the end of its lifespan it can be recycled and made into other products”
“This product approaches sustainability in a completely different way by being made from renewably-sourced biopolymers that don’t affect the air we breathe. This means that there are more options for disposal of the product at the end of its lifespan – and it can even be composted.”
Roger worked with experts at Chesterfield-based composite materials company Netcomposites to exploit a fabric made from flax and the plant-based polymer called PLA. He then started designing furniture products that use the material as structural, lightweight panel components that replace less environmentally-friendly, man-made boards, such as MDF or chipboard.
Roger said: “I found that manufacturers are generally warming to the idea of bio products, but the key principles of simple, honest, quality design must still be applied.
So, next time you’re deciding what furniture to surround yourself with, consider low VOC options or even better no VOC products. Thinks of natural materials with natural finishes such as wood, and wool over PVC and other forms of plastics, and ensure that additional surface finishes aren’t creating noxious fumes in your environment. There are always adjustments you can make to improve air quality. Remember, whenever you buy a product or service, you cast a vote for the kind of world that you want to live in.