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Is This the Future of Green Building Materials?

3formCompanies are increasingly looking for circular-economy approaches to design — and use — durable products that can be reused or recycled at end of life.

Noble Environmental Technologies says its technology is helping customers do this very thing: recycle their waste streams into new building materials for reuse. And it says it can partner with just about any business to help it close the loop while reduce its manufacturing costs and waste produced.

Starbucks, for example, could recycle coffee grounds and commercial waste and convert it into materials used to build stores, furniture and packaging, the company says. And Walmart could recycle all of its retail store paper and cardboard waste and convert it into home décor, furniture products, retail shelving and displays.

Noble Environmental says its building material product, called Ecor, makes these scenarios possible and profitable. It was a finalist at the annual World Economic Forum conference at Davos, recognized for enabling the circular economy, and a Dell Circular Economy People’s Choice Award nominee. The company says Ecor is the future of green building and sustainable design.

Ecor, developed in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture, is made from 100 percent recycled material. It’s made from fiber-based waste — office paper, cardboard, recycled denim and other fabrics, hemp, jute, sugar cane bagasse, corn husks, wood dust and trimmings, among others — and can be engineered into a variety of shapes for different applications. The company describes it as a sustainable alternative to wood, composites, aluminum and plastic. The product itself is also 100 percent recyclable.

“We call it a fiber alloy,” said Noble Environmental’s Jay Potter in an interview. “The fiber alloy is like your finger print. Every single company we encounter has a waste stream and that waste stream is unique to them. And every company has a need for building materials, for their own use or making into products such as furniture or something else. Whether its in their building or products, we can design a unique fiber alloy around their needs.”

Panels are priced between $3 and $24 per square foot.

Google, Whole Foods and Toms Shoes are among the companies using Ecor — Whole Food has used Ecor for signage, Google used Ecor for wavy interior panels and Toms’ for shoe hangers. The company says it will soon announce a new customer, “a leading global brewer,” that will convert its spent brewers grains, paper and cardboard waste into a range of Ecor materials, which will then be used by the brewer and its vendors to produce their retail graphics, point of purchase displays, commercial packaging and perhaps even the 6 beer bottle boxes.

Potter says they’ll announce the brewer customer before the end of the year.

“The brewery has to replace 15,000 uniforms a year, and 85 percent of those are 100 percent cotton — just wonderful fiber,” Potter said. “Unlike a pair of jeans, which someone might wear again, nobody wants a soiled uniform. It has very little opportunity for reuse. Same thing with the brewery’s off-labels. They might have little pieces of glass in it, or some glues that recyclers can’t dal with. We take any fiber that we can cobble together to make an alloy. Some of those fibers are long and strong and others are short and weak. We’re able to dial in on that fiber allow specific to the applications need.”

Potter says Noble Environmental is also in discussions with a “major European airport” about integrating Ecor-based building products for use throughout its terminal redevelopment project and will provide Ecor-based interior wall systems for use in the construction process.

The company says in addition to helping businesses reduce or eliminate their waste, using Ecor also gives them a competitive advantage. The product is lighter, which means it costs less to transport. It’s also 30 percent denser than medium density fiberboard, which means it is more durable and will last longer.

Ecor contains no toxic adhesives, additives, formaldehyde, or off-gassing and has virtually zero airborne volatile organic compounds.

Potter says it also costs less than it’s conventional counterparts. “There’s a big MDF [medium density fiberboard] project in Northern California that’s going to cost $300 million — we could build that same factory for probably $75 million.”

Another customer, sustainable building materials manufacturer 3form, partnered with Noble Environmental to develop a material finish made out of 100 percent post-consumer recycled corrugated cardboard called Elemental (pictured).

3form VP product management Azar McMaster told Environmental Leader that Elemental is offered in five standard, rusted metallic aesthetics in four of 3form’s product lines: Edge, Wovin Wall, Wave Wall, Ripple Wall.

“The environmental and economic sustainability of a material or product are of utmost importance to 3form,” McMaster said. “The Ecor material not only achieves this promise, but the creativity and spirit of the Ecor team are fantastic collaborators in the product development process.”

He says using Ecor instead of conventional materials met several of 3form’s business needs: it’s a post-consumer recycled product, it has a design-timely look of rusted, weathered metallic, and it’s easy to install, compared to using actual weathered steel.

“Whether drawn to the environmental story, or the idea of a rusted metallic aesthetic without the hassles of using an actual steel product that is cumbersome, expensive, or both, Elemental has proven to be a very exciting option for architects and designers to specify,” McMaster said.

Lux Research analyst Jerrold Wang told Environmental Leader that Ecor is a good example of a circular economy approach. “The use of waste material not only achieves sustainability but also enables low raw material cost or even negative cost,” he said.

But Lux Research doesn’t consider it an alternative to wood, composites, aluminum and plastic.

“Ecor is sustainable in terms of using urban waste, agriculture waste and forest waste,” Wang said. “But we don’t see it as an alternative to the products you listed. The modulus of rupture for Ecor is higher than some of the competing products such as medium-density fiberboard, but lower than that of aluminum products as well as many wood, composite and plastic products. Ecor is a sustainable solution, but can only compete with some of the competing products.”

Wang said Ecor has good growth potential from a product and sustainability point of view. “But the factors determining the company’s growth include a lot others. In the short-term future, the company’s growth depends on whether its management team can expand the business into the company’s target market segments.”

This circular economy approach shows promise — and potential profit — for businesses across industries. And circular economy leaders like Dell seem to agree that it is on the right track. Ecor is an example of how companies can turn their waste streams into new materials. We hope to see it and similar innovations pick up steam in the near future.

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