With the planet’s impending doom slowly approaching, the trendy appeal of sustainability has become irresistible. Which is great, because “sustainable” means “able to be sustained”, and most people would agree that’s not a bad thing. Unfortunately somewhere along the way we seem to have misplaced the original definition of “sustainable” and replaced it with: “A material whose production is potentially (but not necessarily) less terrible than the existing alternative, and is sometimes (but not necessarily) used responsibly”. I agree it’s a bit wordy, but that’s the one we’ve decided to run with as a society.
While that definition may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it is driving at a point that is often overlooked or misunderstood:
Materials are not sustainable.
Bamboo is not sustainable. Recycled paper is not sustainable. Triple (even quintuple!) glazed windows are not sustainable.
MATERIALS ARE NOT SUSTAINABLE.
Practices are sustainable.
You’re probably as annoyed right now as you are after the punch line “orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”, but if it’s annoying enough, maybe it will stick.
Let’s say you construct a home entirely from the end-all be-all sustainable material: bamboo. Before you give yourself a big pat on the back for single-handedly saving the world, ask yourself, “did I really need 6,000 square feet of living space?” The amount of energy consumed to grow, harvest, machine, and assemble that much bamboo is still immense, despite the reassurance that the harvested product will regrow quickly.
On the other hand, what if we used materials that usually represent the worst in consumption, but are inserted into practices that are sustainable?
Take, for example tires. They are the most visible artifact of our massive addiction to oil. Not only is oil used in the process of their production, but the tires themselves are of course consumables for the greatest gas-guzzler of them all, the automobile. And while cars can often be stripped down to component materials and recycled, the pile of worn-out tires produced by that car is sitting in a mound that future civilizations may confuse for a neo-egyptian style burial site. They’ll say “Surely they would have only piled them this high to let us know that the man buried here is even greater than the pharaoh’s of Giza.”
Tire piles pretty much sum up the worst of humanity’s attitude towards the environment. But their graveyard is not only a reminder of our past transgressions, but a hazard for future transgressions as well.
So here’s where an opportunity for sustainability comes in. Rather than produce a “green” product such as bamboo specifically for construction, we can use a material which is currently the discarded byproduct of a massive industry. According to The Biocycle Guide to Maximum Recycling, around 250 million tires are discarded every year, just in the United States. Currently, less than 10 percent are recycled, and another 10 percent are burned for fuel. The vast majority are sent to landfills or stockpiled.
Think about it. Even when/if we switch to clean technologies to fuel our cars, we’ll never reach a point where we’re done producing tires. NEVER.
So here we are with a seriously abundant and seriously underutilized resource, with increased production to continue indefinitely, currently being discarded in a dangerous manner. Why don’t we, you know, make stuff with them?
Well, because they’re ugly, and filthy.
But they don’t have to be. Although it often requires further processing, tires can be recycled into architectural materials that reveal little of their less-than-glamorous past.
There are a number of recycled-tire flooring options that exist, some with minimal processing. The problem is primarily the aesthetics, most tire flooring leaves much to be desired in the looks department.
But there are those who are making progress on this front, notably among them is Apokalyps Labotek, who have developed a flooring made of 95% recycled material, primarily tire rubber, which has a flexible and stylish aesthetic. While this flooring is not yet in production, they’ve demonstrated significant potential in this application, and have picked up a few design awards along the way.
So flooring seems like the obvious option given the water repellency and durability of the source material. But what about other surfaces that could benefit from the those qualities, like, say, a sink?
That’s right, it’s a sink made from recycled tires, and it’s better than your sink. For this sleek appliance you can thank the architectural firm Minarc. The simple piece is delightfully refined to the bare essential elements. A sheet of rubber is secured firmly to a frame, while the central drain anchors the gracefully taught form. It’s beautiful, and I can imagine expanding the theme over the edge of the counter-top to seamlessly protect other surfaces in the bathroom, or even the kitchen. Imagine a kitchen island with no true sink to speak of, just a large subtly sloping surface with drain… It’s almost too good. I have to stand up and cool down for a bit.
So where were we? Ah yes, clearly recycled tires can be processed to develop new architectural materials and surfaces that could not only claim sustainability with a straight face, but may offer insight into our assumptions of use. Considering there are billions of these things laying around, and hundreds of millions more being discarded every year, perhaps it’s time that we look sustainability in the eye and start taking advantage of a resource that is clearly available.