5 key concepts for understanding sustainability: recycling, ecodesign and more

Sostenibilidad

Sustainability is a hugely important social issue today. In spite of this, not everyone knows what sustainability is or fully understands the concepts surrounding it. There are several terms that we often take for granted, but, if asked to define them, we would draw a blank.

This is why SP Group has created a short list of sustainability-related terms to help you understand the concept and its issues a bit better.

WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?

We can define sustainability as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs through using natural resources in a disproportionate or carefree way. In order to achieve this, we need to generate a balance between economic growth, respect for the environment and social well-being. There are several types of sustainability; economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and social sustainability.

We often generalise and talk solely about environmental sustainability, which is the idea that natural resources are not infinite and must be looked after, protected and well managed.

RECYCLED, RECYCLABLE AND REUSABLE

These concepts are generally used interchangeably, but they are actually very different:

WHAT IS A MATERIAL WITH RECYCLED CONTENT?

Materials with recycled content are any materials that are produced using a raw material made from materials that have been used previously.

SO WHAT IS A RECYCLABLE MATERIAL?

A recyclable product is one which, after its useful life has ended, can be processed and transformed into a new material ready to be used again.

what-is-sustainability

WHEN IS A MATERIAL REUSABLE?

A material is reusable when it has been conceived, designed and marketed to be refilled or reused for the same purpose as it was designed for without needing treatment or processing.

Although recycling and reusing both give objects or raw materials a second life, thereby reducing the impact on the environment and saving natural resources, they reach this second life in a different way. While a recyclable material has to be modified somehow to be recycled, a reusable object can be used again directly, favouring strategies based on the circular economy and allowing materials to be used for several years.

BIODEGRADABLE AND COMPOSTABLE

The first thing to point out here is that all materials are biodegradable. Biodegradability is the ability of a material to break down into simpler substances thanks to the enzymatic activity of microorganisms. It is a natural process that does not require human intervention. However, it is closely linked to sustainability because the times things take to biodegrade can vary from a few months to millions of years, depending on the material.

The term compostable refers to the capacity of a material to biologically break down into compost, without generating toxic or harmful waste during the process. Compost is organic fertiliser, a very useful product in certain sectors, such as agriculture. This process cannot happen naturally (as occurs with biodegradability), but requires human action.

In the European Union there is a standard called UNE-EN 13432:2001, which establishes the compostability of a material. It includes aspects, such as:

  • Physical and chemical characteristics: there must be no heavy metals in its composition and have a percentage of above 50% volatile solids.
  • Biodegradability, which should be above 90% in a maximum of 6 months.
  • Disintegration during the process, in which there should not be any fragments of material larger than 2 mm x 2 mm after 12 weeks.
  • Ecotoxicity or the quality of the compost obtained.

ECODESIGN AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO SUSTAINABILITY

Ecodesign is another concept that is generally linked to sustainability. It mainly consists of the implementation of several different environmental factors throughout the product design and development process. The aim is that none of the phases in the lifecycle of a product should have a negative effect on the environment, or only a very minimal effect. This means sustainability must be part of every phase of the process from design to its eventual disposal.

Ecodesign is applicable to all products, regardless of the sector. From tableware to toothbrushes, clothes and shoes, even jewellery, ecodesign can be used in almost any area. Some ways of achieving this include redesigning packaging, reducing its size and thickness, and getting rid of any unnecessary packaging; or by creating products that can be easily disassembled, using materials that are identifiable for later recycling and reuse. 

Ecodesign can also improve other aspects related to marketing, such as social impact.

THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT: THE WAR HORSE OF SUSTAINABILITY

It is almost impossible to discuss sustainability without mentioning the greenhouse effect. This effect occurs when certain gases in the atmosphere retain part of the thermal radiation generated by the Earth’s surface after it is heated by the Sun. The phenomenon itself is beneficial for the planet, as it maintains an optimal temperature for life. However, human activity has increased the effect.

Industrial activity and livestock farming, among other things, increase the presence of these gases in the atmosphere. These gases are principally CO₂ and methane, produced by burning fossil fuels, such as coal and oil. As a result of the increase in these gases, the atmosphere retains more heat than it should naturally, increasing the temperature of the planet and producing what we know as ‘global warming’.

This has consequences such as the melting the polar ice caps, floods, the desertification of fertile areas and even more devastating climate-related events. For all these reasons, reducing the greenhouse effect and ending global warming is one of the main aims of sustainability.

We hope this article has helped you learn more about sustainability. As we are sure you know, at SP Group we continue to innovate and improve our production processes, committing to sustainable packaging and minimising our carbon footprint.

In coming articles we will continue to reveal new concepts so we can all learn together. If you too are committed to a greener world and don’t want to miss out on new content, keep an eye on our blog and our LinkedIn profile!


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