Andrew Dent hinged his recent presentation to a large group of designers on this big, thought-provoking question: If you had to take back every single material that you designed and produced, could you do it how would you do it? One easily could pose the same question to the maker of any give product. It does give one reason to pause.
Dent, vice president of library and materials research for New York-based consulting firm Material ConneXion, suggested that dilemma would give everyone much greater motivation to eliminate the diverse cocktail of materials used in so many products.
What about using one material instead of six in your product? he mused to attendees at this fall's international conference in Miami of the Industrial Designers Society of America. He calls that the mono-material approach, while recognizing there are many cases where it simply is not feasible.
Other options to consider: Reduce the complexity of your product to make it easier to disassemble and recycle, or aim to avoid painting and coating, whenever possible. The Swedish housewares and furniture store Ikea, for example, vastly reduced the number of plastics it uses in its products from something like 200 to 20, to make them easier to source and recycle.
Ambitious take-back efforts are being attempted, he noted, but with varying degrees of success. Coca-Cola Co., for example, is doing some bottle-to-bottle recycling. Electronics producers are attempting it, as well, though he declared that Europe's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive is failing horribly, mostly because it's such a logistical nightmare.
In his presentation, Dent, who has a Ph.D. in materials science from England's Cambridge University, outlined eight things to consider when assessing materials at the design stage their carbon footprint, inherent value, the percentage at which it is recycled, how many times it can be recycled, how easily it can be recycled, its embodied energy, the percentage at which it can be reused in another product, and its overall toxicity. He then walked through the ratings for different types of materials, including polyethylene, polypropylene and PET resins.
Dent does not pretend it is easy, but insists that everyone, eventually, is going to have to factor take-back into their design and manufacturing equation.
If it's happening in electronics, if it's happening in packaging, eventually it might well happen within your industry, with the products you're producing. You will need to take responsibility for those. You will need to think about the ways in which you design the product [and] the materials that you use, so you know what you can get back from those materials.
You need to understand all aspects of the product's life cycle. Keep up-to-date with legislation, especially related to toxic materials. Such rules tend to start in Europe or Japan. Know the pros and cons of any material choice, he said.
Dent, echoing a well-known phrase coined by British designer Cameron Sinclair, closed by challenging those present to design like you give a damn.
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