Behind the Book | It’s Complicated: Our Changing Relationship With Materials

From stone to steel to silicon, Springer author M. Grant Norton looks at the history of materials, the rise of industry, and the future of sustainability.
Published in Materials
Behind the Book | It’s Complicated: Our Changing Relationship With Materials

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What a load of rubbish.

No, this isn’t a nasty comment left by a disgruntled student on a year-end class evaluation. It’s the opening line of the syllabus of Washington State University’s Honors College course, Global Issues in the Sciences, taught by professor of materials science and engineering, and bestselling Springer author, M. Grant Norton


Since 2019, Grant’s course has challenged students to critically examine the impact of society’s relationship with materials, from exploring the fate of plastic waste in oceans and landfills, to delving into the ethical questions surrounding mineral extraction in politically unstable regions of the world.


And in his new Springer book, “A Modern History of Materials: From Stability to Sustainability,” Grant gives particular attention to the materials that have rapidly transformed our society over the last century, and their role in the major global challenges of the future.

From the discovery of plastics to the invention of the silicon integrated circuit and the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, Grant tells the story of how the modern materials revolution has irreversibly reshaped our world — for better and for worse.


Take plastics, for instance. Derived from crude oil, these ubiquitous materials are lightweight, seemingly indestructible, and able to be molded into almost any shape imaginable. However, the selfsame property that makes them so desirable has also led to a series of unintended consequences affecting both us and our environment. And despite popular perception, only a fraction of plastics are actually recycled, with the majority ending up in landfills, oceans, and other parts of the environment where they pose a serious threat to wildlife and ecosystems.

Then there’s the issue of cobalt, a key component in the lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones and electric vehicles. Over 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where environmental degradation and flagrant human rights violations such as child slavery run rampant. And the demand for cobalt is only set to grow, with experts estimating that global demand could almost double by 2030. 

In the same vein as his previous Springer book, “Ten Materials That Shaped Our World,” Grant continues the story of humanity’s deeply intertwined evolution with the materials that made us, and our ever-changing relationship with them.

On the topic of sustainability, for example, we get a glimpse into the lives of the ancient Pompeiians and their large-scale system of sorting and re-selling their refuse, giving us one of the first-ever examples of a circular economy. We also learn why the global recycling rate of aluminum is so high (over 70%) while that of lithium is so low (less than 3%), and what this bodes for the future of lithium-ion batteries and our transition to a low-carbon economy.

Our relationship with the things we create has far-reaching consequences. From the proliferation of plastics to the exploitation of critical minerals, the materials that shape our world also shape our ethical, environmental, and social landscapes. As we move towards a more sustainable future, Grant shows us how we must grapple with the trashy legacy of our past, and find innovative ways to repurpose, recycle, and reimagine the materials that define us.

After all, one person's load of rubbish is another person's engineering breakthrough.


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