Fall 2020 PlushBeds Green Scholarship recipient

Sara Saghafi Moghaddam

Virginia Tech

Sara Saghafi Moghaddam

The Detrimental Effects of Plastics on our Environment and Proposed Alternatives

The Earth turns to Gold, in the hands of the wise. (Rumi)[1]

Several years have now passed, but the memory is still vivid: I was nine. In the darkness of the night, I was trying to find my way through the storm, surrounded by dust and foggy weather in a small town where we had just moved. Located in southeast Iran, the town is still known for its harsh arid climate and 120 days of a sandstorm. Its residents were mainly humble deprived local people. Deeply into my thoughts about midyear school changing and desperately looking around for a sign of hope, I noticed a dim light in the fog, and I began running towards it. I started hearing my name. They finally saw my shadow from afar, and I soon was sheltered in my friend's "home" in the middle of the storm.

What I entered though was not a conventional house, a shapeless space with a vague neutral colour material, like an inexplicable mystic dream. Smelling fresh bread baking, I saw my friend's mum sitting by the stone oven in the corner of the house. Life was so warm and safe in that quasi-circular space, wholly insulated from the outside. To me, that little space was an entirely new world.

Early the next morning, when the calm blue sky was back, I eventually saw the exterior. It was made of plants, tangled thorns, and panels of woven palm tree leaves. The geometry, the surface, and the structure were so united and tightly interweaved that removing one element seemed impossible. I realized later that by making the walls wet, the inhabitants enjoyed a pleasant air circulation. While creating an amazing geometrical structure, the thorn walls also protected the interior from insects, intense light, and the outside's heavy dust. Years later, when I understood the importance of sustainable design solutions, that town's thoughtful solution for its habitation challenge came to my mind: utilizing local materials and resources, finding a possible resilient structural configuration, and offering a sustainable and efficient solution that adds value to the context.

After years of studying and working in the design and construction realm, I think the crucial environmental problem we are facing is, in fact a design problem. Inspired by the biological cycles and the Cradle to Cradle design [2], I think advancements in technology can be co-opted to help reduce harm to the environment and serve us as a tool to gradually alter the technical cycle. Since "being less bad is no good"[2], we need to reject plastics that are not reusable, recyclable, compostable, or recoverable. We need to make a distinction between the biosphere and technosphere material and consider materials' embodied energy. Depicting the big picture of every material's life cycle, we shall reflect on the question of "what is next?" for each of them. This mindset entails designing the disassembling and dismantling the product and utilizing its materials to produce new products. Especially in our time, with the highly rapid urbanization growth all over the world on the one hand, and the domination of the phenomenon of globalization, on the other hand, architectural studies has to put itself in a pioneer position. Since the development of cities and their relationship with the surrounding ecosystem is becoming increasingly complex.

Traditionally, the physical space (site) has been an essential influencer in design; however, the site has been commonly treated as an isolated force. Throughout my work, I have developed design methodologies that focus on understanding the city as a complex field of networks systemically interrelated to each other at multiple scales, from an urban to material systems[3]. As a designer, I am interested in re-thinking the development of architectural and urban systems that will improve the resiliency and robustness of cities, minimizing their ecological impact, since construction is an industry with significant capital expenditure, and it deals a lot with land, facilities, infrastructure, and major manufacturing equipment.

There are new emerging studied on utilizing waste materials from manufacturing, service industry and municipal solid wastes in architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) processes[4]. Growth in the awareness about the importance of sustainable design and the scarcity of landfill spaces due to their ever-increasing cost is a significant contributor to the environmental concerns regarding wastes disposal. An example of these research in AEC industry is the usage of waste product in concrete where discarded tires, plastic, glass, steel, burnt foundry sand, and coal combustion by-products are among such waste materials. This use of waste materials in concrete reduce many costs and encourages decreasing disposal problems.

Promoting natural and local materials and techniques is an essential step that has a high impact on the construction's environmental consequences. It would also involve local people and let them feel more engaged. Thus, they would feel more responsible for their role and decisions on material and construction. Each of us, as a member of society, can strike a balance in our plastic use by growing awareness and being conscious of the consequences of plastic use, feeling responsible about the environment we live in, and the fact that we need to inherit this environment to the next generation.

It may not seem feasible to get rid of plastics all at once since they have become closely part of our daily life in many aspects. However, it must be a future scope and thought to gradually replace non-recyclable petroleum-based plastics with recyclable ones, such as thermoplastics and plant-based plastics. They are recyclable and ecological-friendly and would not destroy nature and landfills. Public and private sectors need to make new policies to encourage using durable fabric and paper-based bags, investing in papers and recyclable textiles for retail and packaging, and planning smart preserving methods for agriculture products. This cannot be achieved without increasing the awareness by educating from schools, intelligent and thoughtful advertisements, and providing a cheaper option of recyclable products. Several studies need to be funded at institutes and universities, especially in design and engineering schools, on exploring the properties of polymers and natural materials and how to design and make products with new fabrication techniques. In my Ph.D. research, I am studying how to create a "future house" that meets the human needs in its layout and spaces. I further my studies on sustainably utilizing new materials and fabrication.

With the help of new technologies and processes, earth materials and plant-based ones can gradually replace non-recyclable plastics. Examples of these materials are: clay, ceramic, plant-based materials such as straw, stubble plant, fruit skin like chestnut, almond, pistachio, hazelnut, plants' roots, animals' hair like mohair, which has valuable properties including tensile strength, durability, insulating (similar to rice straw), moisture-wicking properties that allow it to remain cool in summer. It is durable, naturally elastic, flame resistant, and crease-resistant.

New arising fabrication technologies such as 3D printing construction directly on site will reduce the need to have materials transported from other sites or production plants. As a result, less plastic waste will be produced with increases in accuracy and precision in simulation and fabrication due to such technologies. Global knowledge must meet local building materials from manual to digital and vice versa to create sustainable construction and re-materializing construction. In the long run and in terms of economics, replacing non-recyclable plastics with recyclable ones and finding natural alternatives would be an investment for the future, saves natural resources, decreases environmental damages, and preserves our main home, the earth. This future looks healthier, kinder, more humane, and more beautiful.