A Handy Reference Guide to the 20 Greenest Materials

green eco materials

True, we are still living in a material world, but cotton grown with pesticides is no longer the fabric of our lives.

The green movement is making huge strides replacing toxins and waste in the marketplace with organic fibers like bamboo and hemp, as well as good old corn starch, throw-away cork and used paper.

The brave, new soldiers of eco industry believe enough is enough when it comes to creating more waste and adding to our grossly overflowing landfills and plastic islands. Bet you do, too!

Instead, the trend has been to meet a growing consumer demand for renewable and reusable resources, seeking out the scraps of industry (glass, cork and plastic bottles) and growing plants without pesticides to make healthy fibers with no trace of petroleum.

Here is a go-to list of the friendliest materials that have our planet covered.

1. Bamboo Fiber

The eco fiber option of choice, bamboo is woven into everything from fashionable dresses like those made by Spun in Seattle and other respected labels, to towels, totes and interior elements such as window treatments. This natural textile is made from the pulp of the bamboo grass and is best in the organic form – pure and unbleached. It is a strong fabric, considered more durable and sustainable than conventional textile fiber.

bamboo clothing, spun

2. Bamboo Hardwood

Considered a renewable resource, bamboo is a grass that thrives quickly. Oak trees can take 120 years to grow to maturity while bamboo can be harvested in three. it also regenerates without need for replanting, and requires minimal fertilization or pesticides. The jury is still out on whether or not bamboo flooring is as durable as traditional European hardwoods. As Tree Hugger points out, now all bamboo products are alike. Since it  is mostly shipped from China, you have to determine if the product is treated according to environmental standards. Companies like Teragren are careful about adhering to strict environmental specifications.

blackbrushed cut-bamboo

3. Cork

Got a surface that needs covering? Put a cork on it. Whether molded into mosaics for floors by Mod Walls or adapted as a textile for chic handbags by Shop Cork Design, cork is a renewable resource from the industry’s by-products. It can be waterproofed to extend the life of the surface and also applied to walls as an unexpected modern surface.

cork mosaics

cork bag

4. Plantation Grown Teak

Teak is a deciduous hardwood tree from the highlands of southeast Asia and is considered a sustainable timber for indoor-outdoor furniture, as well as decking. The Maku Chaise, below, is an example of outdoor designs sold by Design Public and other vendors. Teak has a naturally high oil content which makes it both stable and resistant to rotting when exposed to extreme climates. Much of it comes to us from the island of Java. The Dutch started plantations there about 150 years ago. The Indonesian government agency, Perum Perhutani, now manages the plantations, enforcing a strict policy regarding the size and quantity of trees felled each year together with annual replanting.

teak maku design public

5. Corn Starch Biocompostables

Corn: it’s what’s for dinner and so much more. These utensils from the Biodegradable Store made of sugar cane fiber, corn and potato starch are the green alternative to petroleum-based plastics and styrofoam materials which take thousands of years to degrade. Thankfully, the new biocompostables are not restricted to the home pantry but are showing up at shopping mall food courts and school events where large crowds gather and consume disposables in bulk. Corn has also been used for library cards in San Francisco and ringtone downloader cards. And don’t forget ethanol, a fuel helping to reduce greenhouse emissions and slow global warming.


6. Hemp

Hemp is grown without pesticides or fertilizers and is rapidly replacing plastic-based materials for clothing and home decor. A member of the Cannabis Sativa plant family (don’t worry, it won’t get you high – other than environmentally!), it yields 250% more fiber than cotton per acre plus 500% more pulp fiber than forest wood. Sold by the yard or already woven into bedding, curtains or fashion garb by brands like Eco Fabrik, hemp dates back to more than 10,000 years ago with a myriad of uses such as paper making, cloth weaving and extracted oils for medicinal products and skincare.

hemp tank

7. Soybean Fabric

Soy fabric is friendly and soft and similar to cashmere or silk in texture. It is found in luxury items, such as these cushy robes from Eco Body wear, and scrumptious baby rompers from Baby Soy USA. Soybean protein fiber is a sustainable and botanical textile fiber made from renewable and biodegradable natural resources – the leftover soybean pulp from tofu and soy milk production. Its 16 amino acids are healthy and nutritional for our skin.



8. Organic Cotton

The Organic Trade Association tells us organic cotton grown by farmers worldwide increased 152 percent during the 2007-2008 crop year. Organic cotton is grown without harmful toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers meaning the farming methods and materials have a low impact on people and the environment. Production replenishes and maintains soil fertility to build biologically diverse agriculture. Genetically engineered seed for organic farming is strictly taboo, and all cotton sold as organic in the United States must meet strict federal regulations covering how the cotton is grown. In terms of products, it is much easier to find now in upscale and everyday clothing and underwear stylish bedding like this soft set from Pottery Barn, rugs, bags – you name it.


9. Recycled Glass

Companies like the inventive Vetrazzo are sparing landfills of post-industrial glass scraps, while giving new life to post consumer glass such as Corona Beer bottles which are made into countertops. It all goes into the mix of making a sustainable recycled product that adds great beauty to the environment. The same reusable resource is being molded into jewelry or new tumblers for entertaining. One man’s junk”¦you get the picture.



10. Low VOC Paint and Finishes

You’ve probably heard of VOC’s, the solvents in paint which evaporate easily at room temperature. They smell bad bad and are bad for people and other living things. They contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer as well as  poor indoor air quality. That’s why companies like Benjamin Moore and  YOLO Colorhouse® are offering us alternatives. The scientists and artists at YOLO produce a premium zero-VOC paint with an appealing designer palette of 40 hues for interiors, inspired by the natural world. It seems to be the direction more makers of finishes are going. Let’s follow this path and refuse to buy anything less healthy for our homes.

yoloeco spec

11. Recycled Polyester

Yes, rPET is the new polyester! PET stands for Poly Ethylene Terephthalate, a plastic resin and a form of polyester. PET is a polymer that is formed by combining two monomers called modified ethylene glycol and Purified Terephthalic Acid. PET is labeled with the #1 code on bottles and containers used to package soft drinks, water, juice, peanut butter, salad dressings and oil, cosmetics and household cleaners. PET is a popular package for food and non-food products because it is inexpensive, lightweight, resalable, shatter-resistant and recyclable. To source the post consumer bottles, they are sterilized and then dried and crushed into tiny chips. The chips are heated in a vat and forced through spinnerets (as with virgin polyester) and then are spun into yarn and dyed without toxic properties. What can you make with the Eco-fi material? Everything from carpets, bags and clothing to wall coverings, furnishings and craft felt.

recycled rug


12. Recycled Paper

Did you know 57 million trees are killed each year to produce the paper catalog companies crank out to market their stuff? The catalog industry floods our mailboxes with over 17 billion catalogs a year in the United States, many produced on paper that comes from endangered forests, including those in the Canadian Boreal forest. But businesses, such as Norm Thompson Outfitters of Portland, Oregon, are setting new standards by using recycled paper for their catalogs. Many other companies are getting on the recycled paper bus, including card and stationary designers such as Papel Vino in Vancouver and Bird Dog Press. Magazine strips are also coiled for trays and meshed into placemats for chic home decor. For every ton of paper that is recycled, 17 trees are spared. You can recycle most paper, including white office paper, newspaper and mixed-color paper, through a local curbside recycling program.


magazine tray

13. Felt

No longer just the craft stuff of school kids, if you’ve got an eye like Josh Jakus (bags and coasters) and Ronel Jordaan (modern stones) there is nothing you can’t glue together with this delightful, ecological textile. Felt can come in many forms, from recycled wool from PET bottles to made the old fashion “wet felting” way by nomadic peoples in Central Asia. The non-woven cloth is made by matting, condensing and pressing organic fibers while they are wet. While some types of felt are very soft, some are tough enough to use on construction materials such as a tar paper called roofing felt.

felt jakus


14. Solar Cells

A solar cell is a device that converts light directly into electricity by the photovoltaic effect. Assemblies of cells are used to make solar panels and solar modules to produce energy for practical use. Harnessing energy from the sun is a major goal in slowing global warming. Prefabricated solar panel systems for roofing usually range in capacity from 3 to 120 kilowatts. According to Technology Review, solar roofing materials can “cut the cost of household solar installations by doing double duty, generating electricity while protecting buildings from the elements.” Scientists tell us that on a bright, sunny day, the sun shines approximately 1,000 watts of energy per square meter of the planet’s surface. Collecting all of that energy would allow us to easily power our homes and offices for free.


15. Aluminum Bottles

A question that might be posed by Dwight Schrute of The Office is “which water bottle is best?” Many athletes, backpackers and soccer moms who used to quaff from leaky plastic will tell you the Sigg aluminum is best when it comes to bottles free of Bisphenol-A (BPA) found in polycarbonate plastics. Sometimes called Lexan, BPA is an endocrine disruptor that has been shown to affect reproduction and brain development in animal studies. It can leach into foods and liquids and mimics estrogen when absorbed by the human body. Sigg bottles are made from a single piece of aluminum (no leaks) and have a water-based, non-toxic interior coating. The liner’s finish keeps out bacteria and mold and is neutral and resistant to fruit acids and energy drinks.  SIGG bottles have been independently tested to prove they are completely leach-free and are 100 percent recyclable.


16.BPA-Free Plastic

While plastics have been shunned by environmentalists since The Graduate debuted, the new Better Bottle produced by  CamelBak is a move in the right direction. The company switched its 2008 Better Bottle line to Eastman Tritan copolyester, a new BPA- and phthalate-free material. BPA-free bottles started shipping to retailers in January of 2008 and are popular choices for children following required packing lists for summer camps and school field trips. Camelbak also makes stainless steel bottles, which are a close rival of aluminum in popularity and purity. You can buy them at outdoorsy outlets such as REI.


17. Cardboard

Recycling old cardboard to make recycling containers? Sure, that’s what the inventive set, such as Amazing Recycled Products, is doing and much more. Savvy products on the market include coasters, DIY speakers and journals. The two types of cardboard that can be recycled are flat cardboard, which is typically used in cereal and shoe boxes, and corrugated cardboard, which has a ruffled layer between the two flat pieces of cardboard and is often used in packing boxes. Both can usually be recycled through your local curbside recycling program.



18. Reclaimed Rubber

Tired of tires sitting in landfills for indefinite periods of time? So are companies like Rubber Sidewalks, which use shredded tires to compose panels that fit together to form a rubber sidewalk. The rubber is even good for trees, letting the sidewalk raise and bend around the roots. You no longer have to remove entire trees to keep concrete from being torn up and replaced. In 2006, 60 cities from 15 different states tested rubber sidewalks. Residents find the rubber feels good under their feet and sound is reduced, as well. It’s safe and non-toxic. Rubber sidewalks also comes in different colors. While the main motive is to save trees, recycled rubber also reduces the waste from tires each year. In California alone, tires create an estimated 408 million pounds of waste rubber.


19. Rice Hulls

Green Pots are made from rice hulls and break down much quicker than traditional planters. No pollutants are used or produced at any stage of the manufacturing process of the containers and there are no wasted materials because scraps are recycled back into the production process. Consumer rice also enjoys afterlife as durable messenger bags that look pretty and help us conserve.

green pots


20. Natural Earth Clay and Plaster

A friendly alternative to cement, gypsum, acrylic and lime plasters, products like American Clay Earth Plaster are pure and breathable, a popular choice in the new construction of walls and remodeling of old buildings. As Countryside Magazine points out, using earth to make walls and houses has been done for thousands of years. Uncle Sam invested in testing Rammed Earth construction from the 20s through the 40s as a practical way to achieve affordable housing. Even Frank Lloyd Wright was said to be a fan of using adobe and other natural earth sources. He drew up plans for a multi-family cooperative but due to the war that project was never fulfilled. The process of making rammed earth involves the mixing of raw material from gravel, sand, silt and clay.



21. Elbow Grease

Susie Homemaker is not staying slim these days by downing diuretics (that was my mother’s trick) but by spinning her salads, washing and wiping dishes by hand, hand washing and line drying clothes, riding her bike to the market, walking to her volunteer meetings and other steps that burn calories while leaving a lighter carbon pump print. The more we use our own body’s energy the less we rely on oil, electricity and other sources that drain the planet. And by the way, the exercise of cutting some of your pretty hair also can help the planet in the mopping up of oil spills in the form of hair mats. Human hair has not caught on as fabric for clothing yet, as far as we can tell from Project Runway.


Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.