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Designing for sustainability: part 1

12 September 2011

In the first of two short articles discussing 'designing sustainable products’, Carol Lo of Cambridge Design Partnership focuses on factors of 'recyclability' in product design and innovation

The general definition of sustainability involves three main aspects; social sustainability, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability. Product designers and engineers are usually fairly adept at addressing familiar issues such as user needs and manufacturing cost, so social sustainability and economic sustainability are nothing new.

However, the world of product development is now playing catch-up in addressing the environmental sustainability of design, which has traditionally been neglected. Hence environmental issues are often seen as the focus of ‘sustainable design’.

Nonetheless, when we discuss 'sustainability', we should remember that we always require a balance between these three pillars. An environmentally friendly product concept that is weak in usability or commercial viability is not a sustainable solution. Keeping this in mind, let us look briefly first at the notion of 'recyclability'.

The more affluent societies in the world have established a standard of living based heavily on consumption and consumerism. As the global population grows exponentially it is evident that our planet does not have the resources to support the entire human population indefinitely; at least not at the quality-of-life level we are used to.

Partly this problem is caused by the way we have used resources to make products and services. Manufacturing and design has generally taken a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach; we dig up resources and process them into products and energy. When users are finished with the products they then throw them away.

In most cases this means burying or burning the materials from which they are made rather than regenerating them. Unlike natural cycles in nature, such as the water, carbon, or nitrogen cycles, this process cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Many recent efforts have tried to improve this situation; for example, the ‘Cradle-to-Cradle’ approach for material use, design for ‘remanufacturing’ strategies and the use of ‘life cycle thinking’. Most of these approaches emphasise the importance of seeing the ‘big picture’, understanding and designing for the whole life cycle of products and services.

As the recycling industry slowly grows to address the regeneration of materials, and legislation requires manufacturers to take some responsibility for end-of-life treatment of their products, there is still a disjoint between those who are in the business of creating products and those who are in the business of dealing with the same products when they have been discarded.

Europe is currently the world-leading region in eco-design and environmental legislation. Even so, the producer obligation imposed on product manufacturers to deal with the waste products they have designed, in reality, often involves little more than a financial responsibility. They don’t have any legal obligation to design or manufacture their products to be recyclable in practice or easy to recycle. Problems such as recovering reusable materials from products with complex construction, rests solely with the recyclers.

Learning from the recycling process
One key to moving a step closer to designing truly recyclable products is for designers to better understand what happens to the products they design when they arrive at the waste handlers at the end of their life. Design houses must forge close links with recycling facilities, as well as develop an intimate understanding of the latest waste treatment processes and methods to inform any sustainable design approach. My own company has followed through on these points, and has adopted sustainable design practices to take recyclability into account.

A good example is a recent FMCG development project where the brief required the design to deliver a premium experience for the customer at very low cost. In the past, the default approach has been to focus on function, aesthetics and branding, and to deliver this with plastic as the primary material.

However, increasingly eco savvy consumers are reacting emotionally against this traditional approach but are not yet minded to pay a significant sustainability premium. So, for a multinational brand to create an economical solution that is not simply ‘greenwashing’, the task is certainly not straightforward.

A new design must fit in with the local waste treatment processes of the day, and material selection is crucial to achieve a truly sustainable business case. In market regions where recycling facilities are common, plastic materials that are routinely recycled can be a sensible choice; however, for market regions that have limited recycling infrastructure, a biodegradable material would be preferred.

Nevertheless, there are limited options for high volume manufacture of some of the more environmentally-benign materials where integration with downstream automation is essential. The end solution is to take all these issues into consideration and satisfy market regions with appropriate configurations that balance embodied energy and waste treatment infrastructures. It is a complex optimisation process.

The tide is changing; when the idea of sustainable design first emerged many manufacturers felt it was low down on their list of priorities. For businesses, there are many practical and financial barriers to delivering it, and legislation is beginning to drive change.

Forward looking companies view sustainable design as the only way into the future – not an ‘optional extra’, but in the way they plan their projects now. It becomes an integral part of design thinking.

Carol Lo’s final article in this series will appear later this year

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