Designers are trying to take a more thorough look at environmental aspects of their work, but that does not necessarily mean they must turn away from plastics.
New ``ecological design'' studies are making it possible for designers to weigh the impact of resin use against other materials, and they are finding that the ``natural'' choice is not always the best.
The Okala ecodesign course (Okala means ``life-sustaining energy'' in Hopi), created by a team that included resin suppliers and molders, provides designers with a set of real numbers to compare material uses, said Philip White, chairman of the Industrial Designers Society of America's Ecodesign section during IDSA's annual meeting Aug. 24-27 in Washington. IDSA headquarters is in Dulles, Va.
The Okala program provides ``millipoints'' for materials, processing systems, whether the items go to a landfill or are recycled and even how far those materials have to be shipped - including whether they are sent by air, truck or cargo ship. The higher the number, the higher the environmental impact, he said.
Just consider the high-polished metal look currently in favor, he said. Stainless steel has an Okala rating of 130 points per pound. High density polyethylene has a rating of 25 points per pound. Use recycled resins, and the number drops to 13 points. Copper has a rating of 160 points. Rigid PVC is 33 points per pound.
``These numbers don't mean anything unless they're used to compare one material to another,'' White said.
Organizers of the Okalaprogram still are gathering information. They do not have data for the environmental impact of rotational molding, for instance. But the numbers are an important start for a design industry progresssively taking more notice of the environmental impact of the products they help create.
Architect William McDonough and his colleague Michael Braungart have worked with office furniture makers Herman Miller Inc. and Steelcase Corp. to incorporate environmental aspects in their products.
``It's not as simple as saying, `Is it toxic?' or, `Is it safe?''' McDonough told IDSA members. ``We can't just go back to wearing nothing but Birkenstocks and cotton.''
McDonough and Braungart's book, Cradle to Cradle, calls for improving the flow of material throughout the product life cycle and through integrated recycling. The book is printed on a resin-based paper substitute.
``Why make something so elegant as a tree into something so ugly as a white sheet of paper?'' McDonough said.
It is not easy to change the way things are done, though.
Ken Parkinson, an executive director of design for General Motors Corp. said he appreciates McDonough's message and environmental design principles. He even purchased copies of Cradle to Cradle to share with GM executives.
But the Detroit-based carmaker also must answer to a public that wants big vehicles.
``There has to be a cultural shift in the United States,'' he said. ``No company is good at trying to force that shift. Do we want to be ready to shift in that direction? Yes. We have small vehicles that we sell in Europe, that we sell in South America. When the demand is here, we'll have them ready here.''
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Okala 03 environmental design impact factors for plastics+
How plastics rate
Plastic type: Millipoints per pound
Recycled HDPE*: 13
PET bottle grade: 82
Recycled PET*: 50
High-impact PS: 40
Nylon 6/6: 99
Flexible/rigid PVC: 41/33
Flexible/rigid polyurethane: 270/340
Material type: Millipoints per pound
Recycled steel*: 20
Stainless steel: 130
Recycled aluminum*: 24
Corrugated cardboard: 14
Recycled cardboard*: 9
White paper: 27
Recycled paper*: 12
Plywood, pine: 16
+The impact factor is measured in millipoints per pound of material and is based on 10 environmental categories of TRACI, or tool for reduction and assessment of chemical and other environmental impacts. A lower millipoint rating indicates a lesser impact on the environment.
*100 percent recycled
Source: Industrial Designers Society of America, Dulles, Va.