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Mainstream materials

Most mainstream products are made from plastics such as polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), PET, ABS, polystyrene (PS), glass or metals such as aluminium and steel. 

Although none of these materials are renewable they can all be easily and economically recycled.  They also have excellent structural and manufacturing qualities which many of the alternatives do not have.  


The general rule of thumb for plastics, is “the simpler the better. The more pigment, plasticizers, fire retardants and other additives that are used, the more unfavourable the environmental performance becomes. However, physical performance such as flexibility and UV resistance is vital for a product to work and so compromises must be made.” [1] 

A note about PVC

All plastics have environmental problems, but PVC is by far the worst.  Dioxins are produced in its production, and additional dioxins are produced if PVC is burnt (either by accident or in disposal). "Dioxins are among the most powerful carcinogens known, and they also cause a whole range of other health effects on the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems." "Workers involved in making PVC or its basic ingredients are exposed to vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen, and chemicals from PVC production have contaminated groundwater near several plants. PVC also requires the use of many toxic chemical stabilizers, such as lead, cadmium and organotins, and phthalate plasticizers. These chemicals leach, flake, or outgas from the PVC over time, raising risks that include asthma, lead poisoning, and cancer. Because of these additives, recycling is nearly impossible for most PVC products and interferes with the recycling of other plastics." [2]

[1] Datschefski, E., Materials Choice. 2004.
[2] Source:, May 2007

As ceramics generally have much lower embodied energy than plastics or metals, they can provide a more sustainable materials option for the right applications, such as knives and engine parts.

Updated May 2007, V.A. Lofthouse