In my world setting, metals such as iron, steel, copper, etc were as ubiquitous as they are in our world. Over time though, stores of these metals began to run out. It is still very possible to mine these metals, but it's harder and more expensive to do so. Due to this, my world has developed robust recycling programs to reuse metals and they've also started to use wood and other renewable materials where metal was once used. Could you give me some examples of technology/items that could use renewable materials in lieu of metal?

Some examples I have thought of:

Wood being used in stocks of all guns like they were in the past in our world

Developing fast growing trees to use as housing and for bridges

Thank you

  • $\begingroup$ Turn the question around: In your world, what goods are using all those metals. yet are not being recycled? Also, you seem to be using term "renewable" in a different sense than many other folks, which will confuse people. Metals recycling and re-use is ancient. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jul 3, 2021 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ @user535733 “renewable” meaning you can get more of the substance from the same source repeatedly, thus avoiding the need to reclaim the substance from existing usages. It’s the same sense as “renewable energy”. Wood is a renewable resource. Standard terms. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jul 3, 2021 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ What is the technology level of your world setting? If the world setting is early 20th century or more advanced, what synthetic materials are available and to what degree are they in use. What is the biosphere and climate of your world? $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2021 at 13:13
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This question seems to be of the type asking for an infinite list of things which is off-topic, as it's too broad to be answered. Please narrow things down lots. $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2021 at 13:21
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ What is that planet made of so that metals in general are rare? I would expect at least iron and aluminium to be inexhaustibly abundant on any planet supporting human life. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 3, 2021 at 14:48

2 Answers 2


Not much. Without metal, you unwind most of the tech gains from World War II and later in all fields.

Electricity. None of the electronics can be done with wood. Power generation and transmission is all metal.

Transportation: The Soviets did work out how to build a stealth aircraft using wood, competing with USA’s stealth bomber; it could fly high, but it couldn’t turn fast because of sheer forces. Automobile bodies can be done with wood (although those are mostly plastic today, not metal). Ships do well with wood… except not if you want them to take the role of airplane carriers or transporting nuclear power engines. There’s scale problems with wooden ships. Submarines can be built with wood, but to very limited depth. You are not going to have meaningful space travel (rockets) without metal.

Buildings. You can’t build the dense city cores with wood — it just can’t go as tall as metal without a lot more structural reinforcement.

Medical. Modern medicine requires metal. Aside from the electronics, you have hypodermic needles (steel), splints/pins, dental implants, scalpels and other tools… the precision of metal and it’s ability to be reproduced exactly in bulk matches the demands of medicine for reproducible conditions.

Pipes. Water, oil, sewage… metal rules here. Wood gets torn up really fast in a sewage environment. Stone can build the structures, but it is just as non-renewable as metal.

Summary. Your society loses the mass agriculture, the medical advances, and the city infrastructure that make modern life possible. You lose the future of space travel without metal. You’ll lose the education infrastructure that the Internet has brought us. Focus on 19th century living for your stories.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A big problem is that energy extraction is heavily dependent on metals. If society can't extract oil, dig for coal, or run nuclear power plants, the society can't recycle the existing metals or do a lot of other things we need today. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jul 3, 2021 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ Re: transportation, the catastrophic problem with a scarcity of metal there is that there will be no railroads or large cargo vessels. Society falls back to 1600's levels of economic activity because it suddenly becomes vastly more expensive to move goods and raw materials far from their place of origin. $\endgroup$ Jul 3, 2021 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ @grumpyyoungman yeah, I didn’t even get to rail. You CAN build wooden rails, but the weight transport and maintenance is a lot higher. I don’t know finances, but I doubt it’s cost effective. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jul 4, 2021 at 2:57
  • $\begingroup$ Electronics can be done in plastics for a large part these days. Scalpels and needles could be done with ceramics. Pipes for a large part these days are plastic $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jul 4, 2021 at 10:43
  • $\begingroup$ Stone is definetly renewable, I mean in the same sense as wood is, or even better. There is more stone than there is CO2 for wood making. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 4, 2021 at 13:30
  1. Electrolyte solutions. You could use electrolyte solutions in pipes in place of wires. Instead of wires you could have tubes and pipes of electrolyte - salt solutions. These conduct electricity. They could substitute for wires in many circumstances. I think some electrolytes conduct better than others and some produce less corrosion than others. A motor / generator with no metal parts would be a fun challenge for engineering students!

  2. Brick and ceramic. You can build tall towers with brick. You can build boilers with wrapped carbon fiber and fiberglass. I cannot think of something strong enough to build the Empire State Building but giant brick towers are definitely possible.

  3. Plastic. Plastic came after metal but despite our affection for metal, plastic can supplant metal for many applications. Plastic and fiber reinforced plastic polymers (e.g. fiberglass) are super versatile. Plastic can be made from renewable resources. It does not corrode and so is more durable than metal in that respect. It wears faster and is less durable than metal in that respect. Fiberglass with ceramic wear points is a serious competitor with metal as regards moving structures.

Looking into my crystal ball I see objections that metal is better for all of these things. Yes it is better. I am not suggesting that right now in our metal rich world we make pressure vessels out of epoxy and carbon fiber. I am putting these ideas forth to help build an interesting metal poor world where electricity enters houses through pipes and locomotives are built like Corvettes and run on borosilicate glass tracks.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Electrolytes are mildly plausible for AC conduction, but not DC (due to electrolysis). Interfacing an electrolytic power grid, with machinery/electronic devices would be problematic, due to the corrosive properties of electrolytic compounds. $\endgroup$
    – jwdonahue
    Jul 3, 2021 at 23:46
  • $\begingroup$ Graphite (or graphene if they have the tech to synthesize it) might be a better option for a non-metal conductor. $\endgroup$ Jul 4, 2021 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ @GrumpyYoungMan - it would definitely be easier to work with. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 4, 2021 at 2:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ With buildings, you can use spun basalt rebar instead of steel rebar. $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    Jul 4, 2021 at 10:44

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .