Designing products for a sustainable future

Under European legislation, manufacturers will soon be legally bound to recycle their products at their own expense. Beverly La Ferla spoke to Miles Park, lecturer at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design, about how to design environmentally-friendly products.

An estimated one million tonnes of electrical waste is produced in the UK each year, increasing by five per cent annually. Of this, 90 per cent is thrown into landfills or incinerated, despite the fact that many electrical goods contain substances which are toxic to the environment.

Is there another way? Could manufacturers save money and remain competitive by designing products with minimal environmental impact that can be easily disassembled and then the component parts recycled to make more products? Yes, says Miles Part, programme leader and lecturer in product design at The Surrey Institute of Art & Design. He believes it is possible to do both – create desirable goods that are both green and competitive.

Sustainable designs

Miles lectures for the Institute’s BA(Hons) in Product Design: Sustainable Futures, a design course set up only three years ago to incorporate aspects of sustainability into the design of consumer goods. He is teaching the next generation of designers and hopes they will take the principles they learn at the Institute and incorporate them into their work in the years to come.

“What we try and do is give each aspect of design an even spread so the students come out after three years primarily as a product designer who have employable skills and knowledge, but also have a good grounding and grasp of issues of sustainability.

“And, not just a theoretical understanding of the subject but how that can connect and relate back to the tangible results within a business.” Which is exactly the problem that manufacturers have at the moment. So how does Miles incorporate issues of sustainability into product design? Manufacturers listen closely.

“What we do is use a suite of tools and problem-based learning to get students to integrate elements of knowledge from the different modules of the product design course,” says Miles, “They might have to consider the product’s materials, its health and safety issues, or its embodied energy. They also think about the life cycle issues such as life expectancy – another eco design principle. For example, products that scratch easily are likely to be thrown away quickly and end up in landfill.”

Product design can be broken down into several entities which contribute to the final design: the core product design method surrounded by other aspects which the designer takes into account, such as aesthetics, ergonomics, marketing and sustainability (see diagram).

So how does a designer go about integrating sustainability into a product? Miles: “Think about the traditional method of production as a linear system where we take resources, make products which end up as waste. This system has worked very well for us since the industrial revolution but the problem is now that the material and energy flows in this system are becoming so great and so fast, that they create problems – a rapid increase in materials extraction, a rapid increase in energy extraction and use, and the whole consumer-driven lifestyle where we all want new goods.

“It’s more about wants than needs now. We want things but we don’t need them anymore.

So it would be better if there was a cyclic system which turned the waste into raw materials which would then be made into new products. We think of it as a creative opportunity.”

Useful tools

One tool which can be used to look at the sustainability of a product is life cycle assessment (LCA). However, LCA is only useful for products that have already been designed, not for ones that are yet to be designed. During the design process, the designer makes important decisions about parts of the products which will have a major impact on its final cost and environmental impact. So what can be done?

Minimising the mix of materials in a product so it can be easily disassembled and recycled is one possibility. “When you start looking at materials, you find that some materials are good in one respect but poor in another,” says Miles, “For instance, aluminium is a material which has high embodied energy so extracting it is not good for the environment, but that resource can be captured at the end of its life and if it is uncontaminated with other materials, such as in a drinks can, then it is a perfect material for closed loop recycling. In other words, that aluminium can can come back as an aluminium can – it doesn’t ‘downcycle’.”

This is being done today – for example, the sofa (pictured left) has been assembled with a minimum of glues, screws and other fasteners that compromise end-of-life recovery. The same for the bike light (pictured top and designed by a student) which as well as having minimal parts, was also made in natural rubber instead of plastic.

Another way is to attack the problem from the consumer’s angle. “I think one of the fundamental problems with moving towards sustainability is the consumer,” explains Miles, “We need to reprogramme the consumer to use products more responsibly and more efficiently.”

This can be done in two ways: by subversion or in an overt way. Subversion is a subtle form of reprogramming the intellect without the consumers realising or having to change their lifestyle, for example by incorporating rechargeable battery technology into a product which would dispose of the need for buying single use batteries. Or incorporating light emitting diodes (LEDs) which are highly energy efficient and long life bulbs.

“Something as simple as stand-by power on electronic goods,” says Miles, “The power wasted is significant: studies on mobile phone chargers, answer phones, tape players and other household appliances, such as washing machines, have shown they contribute to a significant amount of the power being used. For example, why should a washing machine consume six watts of power on standby – why can’t we make it consume two watts? All it would involve is some memory and a microprocessor.”

The real problem is, says Miles, that unless the user can actually see the effects of their actions, like the smoke pouring out of the chimney or waste being dumped in landfill, they ignore them.

Overt actions

The overt way of altering the consumer’s perception is to encourage the user to take control of their choices. For example, by introducing a council recycling collection or educating them about compost. However, this does not involve the product designer because it relies upon systems and processes in place to allow for the recovery of waste.

The idea is to make people aware of what they’re using and the impact of those products on the environment. And that there are products out there which are more sustainable. Miles stresses that the majority of consumers are going to buy products which they like, not because they are green.

“We design products that are competitive in performance, cost and desirability but also incorporate environmental factors,” says Miles, “There are students who study design, talk about design but when they come to actually doing and solving a design problem, they’re not well equipped to do it. We ensure that all students at the Institute are equipped to do this.

“Hopefully, the generation of designers that we’re educating now will take some of this thinking into their jobs and use it. At the end of the day, it saves money for both the consumer and the manufacturer.”

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