Five New Green Materials for Designers

by Jeremy Lehrer on Sunday, September 12, 2010 in Features

Biodegradable packaging material, made with mushrooms, that could replace Styrofoam; water-based UV coatings that don’t use toxic chemicals; banner signage made entirely from plant material (goodbye, vinyl!). These are just a few of the latest sustainable materials on the market, giving designers a larger palette for crafting green projects.

During a recent visit to the Manhattan office of Material Connexion, the mecca for design materials of all varieties, materials specialist Beatrice Ramnarine gave me an overview of new green design innovations. I found myself enthralled with the creativity on display, and by the possibilities presented for design. Material Connexion, which consulted with the studio fuseproject to help with Puma’s “Clever Little Bag” project, maintains a constantly updated library and database in which an extraordinary array of materials are showcased and evaluated based on numerous criteria, including the degree of sustainability. Here’s a guide to five stellar new finds.

The packaging material EcoCradle is made using mushroom roots that feed on agricultural byproducts.


Manufacturer: Ecovative Design.

EcoCradle, a packaging material that can be used in lieu of Styrofoam, has the potential to be a green game-changer. Replacing Styrofoam is an important environmental goal. Styrofoam’s production is quite toxic, and the white stuff is generally thrown out after being used; it’s also a petroleum product, and produces environmental pollution and waste.

EcoCradle, on the other hand, is a naturally grown product that is compostable and biodegradable. The cushiony material is made via an ingenious process in which agricultural byproducts are used to grow mushroom roots that congeal, set, and dry around the organic material used as feedstock. Designed to provide shock resistance/absorption and padding in the packaging for electronics and other fragile items, EcoCradle is produced using materials from farms in the same area as the production facility. The production process has a small footprint, since the mushrooms grow without light, and since the process doesn’t need additional water. In June, Steelcase started using the material in the packaging for select products. 


Manufacturer: Henkel

The UV coatings used to achieve a glossy or metallic effect on paper add a little flavor to your design—and protect it from fading—but they aren’t necessarily the best option from an environmental standpoint. While consumers might put UV-coated paper into recycling bins, they can contaminate the recycling stream. Conscious of this, the company Henkel developed MiraCure UV coatings that are water-based and don’t introduce contaminants into the recycling stream. Along the same lines, the company’s MiraFoil allows designers to give a metallic sheen to various colors—including the entire set of Pantone hues—without preventing the papers from being recyclable. Both provide options for designers searching for the necessary “pop” without the environmental downside. 


Manufacturer: Okinawa

Jackroki is a sustainable material that functions like, and evokes, an amalgam of paper and fabric. Made from a combination of cellulose, recycled paper waste, and latex, it can be used for a variety of applications ranging from stationery to clothing and elements of interior design. The material comes in three primary versions: Racy, which is similar in texture to paper, Soft, used for clothing, and Shine, a thicker version of the material that has the look and feel of leather. If the name of the material is obscure, Jackroki is perhaps more recognizable as the material used for the label stitched onto the back of blue jeans. Jackroki is stitchable, washable, and printable and can take a lot of wear and tear without ripping. After use, it can be broken down and used for paper pulp products. 

The packaging for Pure Essentials nutritional supplements uses TerraSkin for its labeling.


Manufacturer: Design & Source Productions

TerraSkin is a material made from a combination of limestone and polyethylene that is used for packaging and printed materials by clients ranging from REI to Diane von Furstenberg. TerraSkin, which has a silver Cradle-to-Cradle certification, is used as an alternative to paper, and its production doesn’t require water, bleach, or wood fiber from trees. The company that makes the material has just introduced two new formulations so that TerraSkin can be thermo-formed into various shapes (for food packaging) and so that it can be heat-sealed for items like flexible, oxygen-proof pouches for food and other products. The nutritional supplement purveyor Pure Essentials has started using the material in the labeling for all of its product packaging, and the waterproof labels are ideal for environments with a great deal of moisture. While it does contain polyethylene plastic, a container made from TerraSkin uses far less plastic than one made from 100 percent plastic. One advantage of TerraSkin: It can be recycled in locations where #2 PET bottles are recycled. 


Manufacturer: UltraFlex Systems

UltraTex is a printing material that can be used for large-scale printing projects such as banners, signage, and elements of indoor exhibitions (it can also be used in outdoor settings for short periods). In contrast to the vinyl often used for signage, UltraTex is completely biodegradable, made as it is from PLA (aka the bioplastic polylactic acid), cotton, and plant fibers, and its production is nontoxic. The water-based coating used for one side is durable enough to withstand UV light, and the material has a radiant effervescence when lit from behind (as in banners for trade-show displays). The material is fire-resistant and has passed code as a sealing material to use with LED lights.