Andrew Dent: How everyday materials can make innovative new products Materials scientist Andrew Dent takes us on a tour of the "materials library" where companies can find existing materials to reuse in their products—from chewing gum, to fish scales, to cow manure.

Andrew Dent: How everyday materials can make innovative new products

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show - Repair, Repurpose, Reimagine.

So, Andrew, where are we going?

ANDREW DENT: We're heading to the library. And it is...

ZOMORODI: The other day I took the subway to Lower Manhattan to go to a library.

DENT: It's just through here. And it is...

ZOMORODI: But this isn't a library for books. Housed on the sixth floor of a skyscraper right near Wall Street is a library for materials.

DENT: It's innovative and sustainable stuff - so things which is new, different, materials that perhaps you wouldn't have expected. And we do, of course...

ZOMORODI: My guide, the librarian, is scientist Andrew Dent.

DENT: I work as a material researcher for a company called Material ConneXion

ZOMORODI: The company acts as a kind of matchmaker.

DENT: Yes. Yes. We like to match the innovators, the people who manufacture these materials or create these materials, and the people who use them, it's - whether it's an architect, designer or a manufacturer of product themselves. And we do, of course, have resources for the more standard materials, the stuff that you make shampoo bottles out of or the leather for your couch. But designers kind of want to see what's new and what's next.

ZOMORODI: So this is like walking in the future. This is, like, if I...

The materials library is a large room filled with movable walls, each with dozens of samples of different materials mounted on display from floor to ceiling.

OK, I'm following you. We go through the wall after wall after wall of materials. And some of these are just like little boxes. What's this one? This is a method for turning egg shells and tomato peels into automobile tires. Oh, my God. This is 100% vegan leather made of apple peels. That's so cool. I mean, just in front of me here is a sound-absorbing panel made from natural hand-picked Scandinavian reindeer moss. Is it OK if I touch it?

DENT: You can, yes.

ZOMORODI: That's OK? It's very soft. It's soft. I would love to have a wall made out of that.

DENT: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: What's the criteria for something to make it into the library?

DENT: Yes, we have a panel that judges the materials. You know, we, of course, want to include as much stuff as possible. We want to ensure that our designers have access to as many different options as possible. But for us, we want really just the stuff that will be wow but also the stuff that will offer a more sustainable, lower-carbon future and will resonate with consumers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DENT: When you throw something away, it typically goes into a landfill.

ZOMORODI: Andrew says we need to reimagine how we make and build things and use materials that will never end up as garbage. Here he is on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DENT: An industry that's not doing so well is the architecture industry. One of the challenges with architecture has always been, when we build up, we don't think about taking down. That's a challenge because it ends up that about a third of all landfill waste in the U.S. is architecture. We need to think differently about this. There are programs that can actually reduce some of this material. A good example is this - there's actually bricks that are made from old demolition waste, which includes the glass, includes the rubble, includes the concrete. They put up a grinder, put it all together, heat it up and make these bricks we can basically build more buildings from. But it's only a fraction of what we need. My hope is that, with big data and geotagging, we can actually change that and we can be more thrifty when it comes to buildings. If there's a building down the block which is being demolished, are there materials there that the new building being built here can use? Can we use that ability to understand all of the materials that are available in that building that are still usable - can we then basically put them into a new building without actually losing any value in the process?

ZOMORODI: OK. So let's say I - let's say I'm one of your clients and I arrived here and I said, you know, Andrew, I have - look at my beautiful design for, I don't know, a sneaker - a new fashionable sneaker, but I definitely want to market it to a conscientious consumer. You would then take me into the library and show me what?

DENT: We would show you two types of things. We would show you materials. We'd also show you new manufacturing processes as well.

ZOMORODI: Ew, Andrew, that looks like a box with somebody's old chewing gum in it.

DENT: Exactly right. So there's a company in London that is taking - well, basically has put containers around the city. So when you finish chewing your gum, rather than leaving it on the floor, which is in itself not a good thing, you can put it into one of these receptacles and they will collect it, they will clean it, and then they will take that material - because it's basically a rubbery material - and they'll synthesize it and manufacture it into products.

ZOMORODI: Like what?

DENT: Coffee cup lids, coffee cups themselves, even the soles of shoes. Because the material - it's just a chemistry. So, yes, it's been inside my mouth and I've been chewing it. It's got bacteria from my mouth. But once we clean that off, the raw material itself has value as basically a rubbery, durable and colorable product.

ZOMORODI: So is this a proof of concept or is this actually...

OK. So what's this?

DENT: So this is a - it's a rigid panel material, perhaps used as a countertop, 100% from fish scales.

ZOMORODI: No way, fish scales?

DENT: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: So, OK, tell me where this - OK, explain the process here. It looks - by the way, it really looks just like a - maybe quartz, quartz countertops.

DENT: Yeah, a quartz countertop, yes, or something like that. So, yes, turns out that chitosan, which is what fish scales are made out of, is a very wonderful engineering material. So they're going clean it first so it doesn't smell of fish. Like, if you smell it...

ZOMORODI: It doesn't smell like anything.

DENT: OK. Exactly. You know, because we're now able to clean these sorts of things very effectively. So it doesn't smell of fish, there's no salt in it. So we just take the raw material, clean it well, press it together hard with a binder, and it becomes a viable, valuable material.

ZOMORODI: Is this going to happen soon. Are there - I don't know - fish canneries in Alaska also turning into kitchen countertop companies?

DENT: This company sells kitchen countertops. You can purchase kitchen countertop from this company which is 100% fish scales.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Do I get a discount?

DENT: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sorry, just keep going.

DENT: OK. This one I thought might be interesting - merdacotta. It's actually some rough-looking cups and bowls that are manufactured out of cow manure.

ZOMORODI: Really? OK, so it looks like a terra cotta mug. Oh, you're taking it off.

DENT: Yes.

ZOMORODI: Can I touch it again?

DENT: Yes, of course.

ZOMORODI: OK.

DENT: You can drink out of it as well. It was more of a concept.

ZOMORODI: OK.

DENT: But the...

ZOMORODI: But this is poop. This is cow poop.

DENT: This is cow poop. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: But it looks really nice.

DENT: (Laughter) Well, it's also very functional. The thing was, you had a farmer, a dairy farmer, who basically was worried about the amount of manure they were producing. They had to discard it somehow, and there wasn't any other use for it. So they were like, OK, well, since it's mostly just cellulose fibers, it's really - it's still usable material. So they decided that, OK, well, let's fashion it into cups and then just fire it and manufacture these products out of it.

ZOMORODI: But I'm guessing that's a hard sell, right? I mean, right?

DENT: Well, it doesn't need to be a cup. It can be floor tiles. It can be anything. It can be something else that, perhaps, you wouldn't be drinking out of.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: I have to ask you, as a consumer, I mean, it's really depressing. Everything I read basically says, that's very nice that you're recycling your milk jug or your laundry detergent jug, but the chances of it actually being recycled and reused again is pretty limited. Would - do you feel that way, too? Is that true? I feel like we don't even know what to believe anymore when it comes to recycling as consumers.

DENT: It is confusing, yes. And our recycling rates are abysmal. If we take the most easily recyclable and the most valuable material, say a water bottle or a soda bottle - so that material is amorphous polyester, OK? It's clear. It recycles very easily. We've got a very efficient system to recycle it. It ends up as chairs or as clothing. So it's got a second life. It has value. And we still only recycle about a quarter of it. Compare that to other plastics, let's say the polyethylene used in milk cartons or in shampoo bottles, that number gets down to sort of 5- or 10%.

But it is possible to do it efficiently. There are some Scandinavian countries - yes, I know, they always do it better than we do - where their recycling rates are up in the 80s- and 90 percents. So almost everything that they are using then gets recycled back into something else. We have a unique challenge here in the U.S., but it is possible to improve. And yes, it can be sometimes that you lose faith in it, but there have been so many new methods of recycling. And our efficiencies of actually repurposing that material once it does actually get recycled are so good, I believe that there is still hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

DENT: So have you think about the way - if you make anything, if you're any part of a design firm, if you basically are refurbishing your house - any aspect in which - where you make something, think about how that product could potentially be used as a second life or third life or fourth life. Design in that the ability for it to be taken apart.

ZOMORODI: In the meantime, it sounds like we also need to consider changing the way we manufacture things so that they are - is it - is the right term circular? Is that the right term?

DENT: Yes. That is the ideal, that everything should work in circles. Because everything in nature works in circles. The water circle, the circle of life - nature basically finds a second life, a third life, a repeatable life for everything it has. There is no waste in nature.

And we are thinking about designing products so they have the potential for a second life. So trying to remove glues, which make it very hard to pull things apart. Trying to make things which are what we call monomaterial, so all from the same material, so therefore you can put it in the same recycling bin. So this design evolution has tried to approach design as a way of ensuring that any product can have a second or third life.

ZOMORODI: I just want to ask you, what comes to your mind as a material scientist when I say - I mean, it's a phrase that's been said an infinite number of times - reuse, repurpose, recycle. Is that still the right message or is there a new message that we need?

DENT: It's still a viable message. I think reuse, to me, is possibly one of the most valuable ones because no matter how sustainable you can make a product, if it can last two or three times the length of another product, then that is always going to be the better choice. But I think that the standard three of reduce, reuse, recycle are iterative. They are steps we can take for existing solutions.

I think for me, it's very much about reimagine. I know it's a tired, old example, but from CDs to iTunes - we've just reimagined and now it's a process that uses no material at all. So I think a lot of examples which are the most successful is where a designer or an architect or a brand owner has completely reimagined the product or its use and therefore has gone away with any concern about the three original Rs. So reimagine, I think, would probably be the best new solution, if we can.

ZOMORODI: That's Andrew Dent. He's the executive vice president of materials research at Material ConneXion. You can see his full talk at ted.com.

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