Insight into Sustainability with Material Value
by Drew Schwartz

recently discovered a book titled Material Value: More Sustainable Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning Products by Dr. Julia Goldstein, a material science Ph.D., engineer and technical writer. This book appealed to me because, based on Dr. Goldstein’s background, it seemed like it would help me improve my ability to talk about sustainability.

Over the past five or six years, I have read books about various materials that compete with plastics, such as sand and glass, concrete, wood and paper products, ceramics, composites like fiberglass and carbon fiber, as well as books about various metals such as steel, aluminum, copper, brass and titanium. The more I learn about the properties and environmental costs of non-plastic materials, the better able I am to promote performance plastics and persuade people that plastics have unique features and benefits that no other materials can match.

As a distributor member on the IAPD Environmental Committee, as well as a member of the IAPD Board of Directors, I am vitally interested in the way plastics are viewed from a social and political point of view. There are regulatory and environmental forces at work in our society that cause some to see plastics as less environmentally responsible than other materials. I am doing my part to change this anti-plastics bias by learning just how sustainable our products and processes are, so we can then make the plastics industry increasingly more sustainable.

Material Value looks at the ways consumers and producers make decisions about material selection and how analyzing — and improving — the manufacturing process can drive us toward greater environmental sustainability.

Material Value book cover

To paraphrase the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, sustainability is “the creation and maintenance of conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

Four principles of sustainability

The first part of Material Value discusses the four principles of sustainability. These principles were devised by The Natural Step, a global non-profit, whose mission is to accelerate the transition to a sustainable society. The Natural Step’s four principles of sustainability are as follows:

  • Eliminate systematic increases in the amount of material extracted from the Earth
  • Eliminate systematic increases in production of toxic substances of concern
  • Avoid systematic increases in destruction of natural resources
  • Avoid practices that contribute to undermining people’s ability to meet their basic needs or create unsafe working conditions

There’s also a discussion in this first section of the book about how much the continuous improvement aspects of Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma overlap with sustainable business practices and the circular economy.

Material comparisons

The second part of Material Value compares plastics to light and heavy metals, with a chapter on each. The plastics section starts with a quote from the IAPD website, “There is absolutely no way you could, or would want to, go a day without interacting in some way with performance plastic.” The chapter goes on to provide a concise history of the development of the various families of thermoplastics. It also has an interesting discussion of the differences between bio-based and bio-degradable plastics, as well as the differences between compostable and recyclable plastics. The history of plastic information is well organized and has stories I had never heard before about the development of some common plastics such as low-density polyethylene (LDPE). The metal section has a good historical description of the different ways that metals have evolved over the years.


The third part of Material Value talks about manufacturing. One chapter is about recycling of metals, plastics, composites and how well consumers generally comply with community recycling programs. This is also the section of the book where Dr. Goldstein introduces one of the big ideas of Material Value, which is “For mass adoption of a greener solution, the solution needs to work as well as the conventional product or method it is replacing.” She follows that idea with a wish list for the ideal plastic which, among other things, would “possess all the desirable properties of the best-performing plastics in common use…be easily recyclable…be made from renewable resources…(and)..would not negatively impact growth of food crops…be bio-benign…disintegrate rapidly into fragments less than 2 mm in size…(and) have no step in its production which poses a health risk.”

Taking action

The fourth and final section is taking action. The author points out that “knowledge is great” but without using that knowledge, sustainability doesn’t get done. This section has a chapter on regulations and certifications and how they can, but may not always, lead to a more sustainable process or organization. I also learned the difference between a B-Corporation and a Benefit Corporation and the difference between the Global Reporting Initiative and the Carbon Disclosure Project. The book wraps up with a list of examples of the ways that each of us, in our different roles, can take steps toward sustainability.

Throughout the book, Dr. Goldstein includes interviews with entrepreneurs who are working on market-based solutions to making the world economy more sustainable. There is a fascinating person named Smokey Peck from Utah who is using clever methods to reduce packaging waste. Another interesting interview is with the vice president of innovation for a cleaning products company who is constantly searching for substitutes for petroleum-based raw materials.

Some of the best references in this book are to outside websites for more information on sustainability. These include:

A book for our times

This book will be of interest to IAPD members because the author has a background in plastic product development. She approaches the topic of sustainability in a practical way and acknowledges that plastics and fossil fuels are not going away anytime soon. Dr. Goldstein also takes a realistic and sympathetic view toward how difficult it can be for leaders of plastic businesses to make planning decisions for more sustainable processes that don’t have an obvious benefit to their company’s profitability or reputation. For all these reasons, I highly recommend Material Value: More Sustainable Manufacturing of Everything from Cell Phones to Cleaning Products by Dr. Julia Goldstein to anyone curious about sustainability and plastics.

Drew Schwartz is president of Colorado Plastic Products, serves on the IAPD Board of Directors and is a longstanding member of the IAPD Environmental Committee. For more information, contact Colorado Plastic Products at 500 South Arthur Avenue #600, Louisville, CO 80027-3066 USA; phone (303) 443-9271 or (800) 398-9271, fax (303) 443-9251, sales@coloradoplastics.com or www.coloradoplastics.com.