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Soybean insulation? Sheep dung greeting cards?

What if your new kitchen countertops could be made from discarded paper? Or your old electronics could biodegrade and return nutrients to the earth? Designers are already on it, searching out new green materials that move far beyond the neighbourhood recycling program.

Helping out those designers is Material Connexion, a private, New York-based materials library that works with some of the biggest names in design. "A few years ago, the first thing designers said was, 'I want the coolest, most innovative new material,' " vice-president Andrew Dent says.

"Now it's, 'I would like to produce something that is more sustainable.' "

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From its debut in 1997, Material Connexion now has locations in Bangkok, Cologne and Milan ( ). Working with a jury of advisers, it adds 40 to 60 innovative materials every month. Fuelled by industry and consumer demand, an increasing number of those selections have a sustainable edge.

The firm recently worked with an athletic shoe company to retool one of its models. The new version uses corn-based textiles, recycled plastics, foam from renewable sources and water-based adhesives.

What other innovative sustainable materials are just beginning to hit the market? Dent gave us the inside scoop.

BioBased Insulation You've known all along that tofu is good for you. Now it's good for your walls. BioBased Insulation is a blow-in expanding foam derived from soybeans that has high-performance capabilities without releasing any nasty gases.

Colour-grown organic cotton Some of the worst environmental offenders are toxic dyes. U.S.-based Foxfibre avoids the issue, growing cotton that has been selected for its natural shades of green, pink or brown and using the resulting fibres to create textiles with coloured patterns. .

Zelfo A "bioplastic" natural resin composite made entirely from agricultural waste, Zelfo can be moulded into almost any shape and is biodegradable. It's being used in chairs, musical instruments (it has good acoustic properties), lamps and even coffins. .

Grove upholstery fabrics While bamboo has recently been turning up in fashion circles, Grove's 100-per-cent bamboo fabric is tough enough for furniture. Soft to the touch and shiny in finish, it comes in numerous colours and various patterns. .

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Sheep Poo Paper A sheep digests only about half of the cellulose fibre it eats, which means that its, uh, byproduct can help make some very nice paper. Starting out with "super-fresh sheep poo," a company in Wales is making paper products with handcrafted quality ideal for stationery. Don't worry, the finished product is funk-free. .

Sakyot This plastic material is made from multiple layers of recycled shopping bags, melded with heat and pressure in a process that makes a collage of existing graphics. It's used in accessories, whose colours depend on the raw materials. .

Shetkastone What can you do with all those old fashion mags? How about making some new kitchen countertops? Shetkastone is made from recycled glossy paper that is turned into a slurry and then pressed into a hard, slick surface similar to polished stone. It can even be used to make bricks. .

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