Although all materials are derived from nature, at some point in their manufacture, natural materials are subjected to less treatment and processing than man-made materials. Natural materials are sourced directly from nature -- cotton is picked from cotton plants, corn harvested from corn fields and granite is mined from quarries. Man-made materials, on the other hand, go through rigorous processing to alter the material so that it suits its intended purpose. Common man-made materials include plastics, which are used in everything from bottled beverages to clothing to construction.
Natural materials are fundamentally different from man-made materials -- the first are sourced from nature, while the latter are sourced from a scientific laboratory. Different types of materials have different applications and uses, whether everyday or specialized. You encounter all kinds of natural and man-made materials on a daily basis, even as you walk down the street.
Man-made materials are typically much more durable than their natural counterparts. In fact, the durability of man-made materials -- such as plastics -- is central to the environmental movement to reduce consumption and waste, because man-made materials accumulate in landfills, quickly approaching their capacity limit when they are not recycled. Natural materials, however, have a shorter lifespan, because these materials were once alive and so gradually perish over time. Wood furniture, unless treated with varnishes and stains, will rot as moisture seeps into their frames, and clothing made from natural materials develops holes and fades.
Care and Maintenance
Maintaining man-made materials requires less care and attention than natural materials. Man-made materials are readily available because they are cheap, durable and hardy -- they can be subjected to rougher handling than natural materials and resist breaking and damage. Washing polyester clothing, for example, requires less vigilance about shrinkage than washing cotton clothing, because the fabric is specially made to be convenient for the wearer. Natural materials can become damaged if synthetic soaps, dyes or other cleaning agents are used to disinfect or treat their surfaces.
In addition to contributing to the steadily growing landfills around the world, man-made materials can have a negative environmental impact because they are not sustainable. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sustainability as "policies and strategies that meet society's present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Petroleum-based man-made products, including the plastics family, are not classed as sustainable because they rely on the production and refinement of oil, a finite natural resource. More and more commercial companies are turning to sustainable materials, such as bamboo, to appeal to a heightened public consciousness of environmental issues and to lessen the impact of specific consumer products on the earth. Bamboo is a resilient natural material that can be farmed easily and grows quickly without damaging the earth or taking up too many natural resources.
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