The people who will create tomorrow's products are giving a lot of attention to sustainability.
During the annual Industrial Designers Society of America conference in Phoenix, held Sept. 10-13, designers talked about improving recycled content in new products, reducing unnecessary packaging in medical products, reusable water bottles, bio-based plastics, ``green'' electronics and more efficient cars and trucks.
The problem is, there are few ways to define what actually makes a product ``green'' or sustainable. This makes it hard for designers to figure out exactly what materials they should use to boost their environmental efforts.
``Nobody can find what they're looking for,'' said Matt Grigsby, chief executive officer and founder of Providence, R.I.-based Ecolect LLC. ``What we're trying to do is demystify sustainability and how things impact the environment.''
Ecolect aims to bring together data on material production including various types of plastics life-cycle analysis, end-of-life recycling possibilities, the impact of transporting materials and finished products and other elements key to creating an environmentally friendly product that is accessible on its Web site at www.ecolect.net.
With that information in hand, product developers can then make decisions based on their key environmental goals, and even make that information available to consumers who want to buy sustainable products. Grigsby compares the process to the nutrition label that appears on food packages, breaking down the key ingredients into forms that are relatively easy to understand.
``It's really about making the companies more educated, so they can then turn around and use that information to educate the consumers,'' he said.
Individual resin suppliers, steel companies and other raw material groups have had information available about their products, but sometimes that information is difficult to access, and it typically does not provide it in plain language that designers and product developers can understand. Ecolect is a neutral data storehouse for that information, Grigsby said.
It can also provide plastics firms and other companies with an outlet to get information about their ``green'' products out to users.
Sustainability is not as simple of an equation as designers may think, he said.
For instance, conventionally grown and bleached cotton, shipped from thousands of miles away, may have a bigger carbon footprint than a recycled high density polyethylene, which is available from a local source. While plastics industry veterans may know that, most designers and consumers do not.
By having that information available to people making decisions both in product development and in the store, Grigsby thinks the entire marketplace can really weigh the benefits of picking sustainable products.
Ecolect is still reaching out to designers to advise them about its data and material suppliers alike to continue building its database, but it is gaining traction and will continue to draw attention as long as designers want to know exactly what sustainability really means, he said.