‘Sustainable materials are vital to combat damage of mass consumerism’

3 Jan 2018

Dr Eoin Flynn, head of the Sustainable Materials Laboratory in UCC’s Environmental Research Institute. Image: UCC

UCC’s Dr Eoin Flynn writes about his efforts to push ‘sustainable materials’ and the challenge of overhauling decades of damaging consumerism.

As the world attempts to wind down from the mass spending spree on gadgets and toys after Christmas, one researcher attempting to halt the damage caused by the proliferation of plastic is Dr Eoin Flynn of University College Cork (UCC).

After obtaining his BSc in chemistry from UCC in 2008, Flynn went on to complete a PhD in material chemistry in 2013.

Beginning work in industrial membrane manufacturing the following year, he returned to academia via AMBER and the CRANN institute in Trinity College Dublin.

Flynn is now running the Sustainable Materials Laboratory at the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) in UCC, developing materials for more sustainable living with the help of PhD student Russell Banta.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Two things. The first was that, as a child, almost all of my books were children’s encyclopaedias and natural history texts: The Tell Me Why books by Arkady Leokum; Monster Animals by Zigzag Factfinders; The Oxford Illustrated Children’s Encyclopaedia; and, most precious of all, the Dinosaurs magazines by Orbit released in the early ’90s.

The second thing was that my father used to watch Horizon (the greatest science documentary series in history) on BBC from as early as I can recall. At some point, there was a rerun of Horizon’s famous interview with the great Richard Feynman from 1981. He had this quote that I have written in a little notebook, that I almost always have about my person: “You see, the thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing, than to have answers that might be wrong.” Well, I suddenly saw my path before me – science, it had to be.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I work on ‘sustainable materials’, a concept I’ve developed over the last three years at the ERI in UCC, which has now adopted it as a part of their strategic plan for the next decade.

It is a multidisciplinary methodology focused on materials science – probably the most integral, major science that people haven’t commonly heard of. The methodology is used to develop new materials to allow us to live more sustainably. Sustainable materials are based on:

  • Materials science techniques informed by biological sciences to develop more sustainable manufacturing methods with bottom-up production.
  • Inherently, truly biodegradable materials (rather than the often cynical abuse of the term ‘biodegradable’ by corporations, desperate to look ‘green’ without actually doing anything) at no loss in materials quality.
  • Making products from the waste materials of our production processes to minimise environmental impact of industrial and municipal waste.
  • Developing materials for environmental clean-up using classic materials science methods and new, nature-inspired methods.
In your opinion, why is your research important?

Climate change is the single most important issue on every political agenda in the world – or, it should be. If we don’t halt it and reverse it to some degree, we’re all screwed.

Sustainable materials is an effective means to combat the effects of consumerism.

This is one of the major drivers of climate change, alongside our energy systems and our food systems, all of which overlap to large degrees. Simply buying and wasting less stuff is the easiest way for society to make a dent in climate change but, even if that were to occur to its fullest extent, we would still need some stuff.

And that stuff has to be manufactured sustainably; it has to be sourced renewably; it has to be used by the consumer in a way that has no negative impact on the environment or climate; and it has to be disposable in such a way that it is entirely biodegradable and/or recyclable.

Sustainable materials allow us to do this.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Bottom-up manufacturing methods are already being adopted to some degree by companies, in the form of 3D printing and additive manufacturing more generally.

We are developing methods of producing sustainable materials such as high-tech membranes and high-surface area films from sources like mushrooms, seafood waste and seaweeds.

These are potentially equivalent to traditional electrospun membranes and nano-patterned films from block copolymers. These traditional materials are usually made from oil-derived plastics, using unsustainable manufacturing methods.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

I get a lot of political and societal support, and even a lot of verbal or trivial support from industry, because it makes them look good to be associated with developments in sustainable technologies.

But they don’t really put down cold, hard cash for the research. Getting companies and industries to change their ways is very difficult if it isn’t profitable for them in the short term (even if you can demonstrate significant profits long-term).

Without any real regulation, most companies won’t collaborate on developing the innovations of my laboratory, so getting research money is a constant struggle and, personally, my employment is always precarious as a result.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

There are no major misconceptions but there are some minor ones, and there is a lack of depth of knowledge or nuance on the topic (but to fix that, it’s up to experts to reach out more and be more approachable).

Some things people think are sustainable are in fact hugely damaging. For example, some companies subtly imply that fuel sources like peat or wood are better for the environment because they’re ‘renewable’. You’re still burning it and that releases carbon emissions as well as locally damaging toxic particulates. This is no fault of the consumer, it is cynical advertising by companies.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Well, sustainable materials, obviously! But detailed life-cycle analysis of just about everything humans have any interaction with is a must.

This would result in a database that could be used to ensure effective legislation, regulation, civil engineering projects, social policies etc. I actually can’t think of anything that would be more beneficial to science, engineering, politics and society than that.