If some green-minded designers have their way, soon it will be possible to get a quick, easy-to-digest rating that measures the environmental impact of a product, including the materials it uses.
The Industrial Designers Society of America, with Environmental Protection Agency funding, is developing a tool that will boil down complicated life-cycle assessments for products into a single metric, to make it easier to do preliminary measurements.
And the nonprofit International Design Center for the Environment in Chapel Hill, N.C., is developing its own streamlined system for measuring a product's environmental footprint.
Proponents see the tools as particularly valuable for designers in the product-development stage, when they want information on a product's environmental impact, from the raw materials used, to the methods of manufacturing, to product use and finally, disposal.
``A product LCA provides a third-party evaluation of all the environmental impacts, using an internationally accepted methodology,'' said Deborah Dunning, president of IDCE, which was founded in 2000. ``It overcomes suspicion about using a manufacturer's hype.''
European designers have a single-figure rating along the lines of what IDSA is developing, but the group thinks U.S. designers and manufacturers would be more comfortable with a system based more on U.S. data, said Philip White, chair of the eco-design section for Dulles, Va.-based IDSA. He also is a principal in the San Francisco-based firm Orb Analysis for Design.
The IDSA system, dubbed Okala from the Hopi Indian word for ``life-giving energy,'' allows users to compare different types of plastics with other materials. The lower the number, the more environmentally friendly the material is considered.
Polypropylene, for example, has a rating of 58, while recycled PP fares better, at 49. Virgin bottle-grade PET is 82, while recycled PET is 50.
Virgin rigid PVC has a rating of 33, while flexible PVC rates 41. Polyethylene ranks well, with virgin scoring 25 and recycled 13. By comparison, stainless steel rates 130, cardboard 14 and virgin aluminum, 140. Recycled aluminum is only 24, reflecting the tremendous amounts of energy used to make new aluminum.
Those ratings are fed into a complex model that ultimately measures 10 different environmental impacts, including global warming, eco-toxicity and ozone depletion, and combines it into a single score.
The IDSA effort uses mainly U.S. government data, but it has to use European data for end-of-life impact because the EPA is not collecting that type of data, White said.
White said the design community is very interested in such tools. An IDSA survey found that designers rank getting objective data comparing environmental performance their second-highest need for eco-design, behind getting information about international environmental regulations.
Beyond allowing companies to make decisions that are better for the environment, White said he believes firms can score marketing advantages. But he acknowledges that a single-score rating generates concern from industry.
He said there is ``great reluctance'' to develop standards, but he noted that IDSA's single-score methodology still allows companies to drill into data for nuances.
IDSA did some of the initial work on Okala with funding from Eastman Chemical Co. and Whirlpool Corp. Right now, the project is aimed at design schools, but the group wants to put a professional version on the IDSA Web site, White said.
IDCE said it wants its rating system to mesh with the system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Dunning said interest in green building is taking off because of the LEED system.
``LCAs are getting more popular because building managers and others are working with mandates to make environmentally preferable purchases,'' she said.
The group initially hoped to do a simplifed LCA, but now calls its system, dubbed eLCie, a streamlined LCA that does not curtail the range of data used but is cheaper for manufacturers: about $5,000, compared with $20,000-$80,000 for a full-blown LCA of a product, Dunning said.
The group said it hopes to launch its system in late spring.