Research in Action

Dr. Mark Whitaker Develops New Models for Achieving Material Sustainability

Dr. Whitaker is working on two innovations: a "Periodic Table of the Healthy and Toxic Elements" and "Commodity Ecology."

The first is an updated "Periodic Table of the Healthy and Toxic Elements." It catalogs the same data about physical elements as the older chart though organizes this older information in a novel way as combined with biological impact information for each element on life. A circular model of a periodic table equally can be used to demonstrate biological regularities in the periodic table that the older chart is unable to, so both biological and physical regularities become clear in this chart. Such a chart shows 'the sweet spot for life' on the periodic table. It becomes intellectually clear at a glance why life is built around only one certain region of the elements and why life avoids all other regions of elements. In short, this chart helps to show chemists and physicists (and students) the normal elemental information though has a biological level of information showing patterns in the periodic table of areas of greater biological security and greater toxicity at the same time.

The second is Dr. Whitaker's "Commodity Wheel" recognized by the United Nations' Academic Impact Office as a good way to achieve material sustainability. It is a shareable rubric of 130 different social uses of commodities. Equally, it is a regional checklist for what sustainable materials we should have in the present and the future in particular areas, and it is a way to archive good ideas for sustainable materials that we have now, per category. Plus, when used as a regional planning chart, it is a good way to analyze and to conceptualize (and to manage) waste handling as wastes move between discrete categories of use per region in the world. Only once a checklist of materials like this exists, three fine-grained questions can be asked toward achieving material sustainability:

  • Do we have enough plural sustainable choices available in this category yet, in this particular region?
  • Are we choosing well in this category toward sustainability yet, in this particular region?
  • How can we help local consumers, producers and the environment at the same time, by linking categories by understanding what products or wastes in one commodity category can be productively used in other categories? A “commodity ecology” on a wider geographic scale of smart regions encourages local sustainable producer/consumer partnerships and better waste handling between categories similar to what has been described in industrial ecology or ecological modernization. (Ayres and Simonis, 1994; Boland, 1994)

Both rubrics are useful in our department's EST 391 (Technology Assessment), which is a course training students how to judge and to improve management of our built infrastructures via material, technological, and environmental impact assessment. Equally, both charts could be used in teaching of chemistry, physics, or materials science. Both charts help us have a better interscientific education as well as are for entrepreneurs or policy makers who want to known how to innovate toward better material choices in more biologically-knowledgeable and sustainable ways.