Most of us want to do what we can to reduce our negative impact on the planet. Product design and manufacturing are often thought of as being harmful to the environment. Unfortunately, this reputation is warranted.
While poor packaging design, toxic materials, and disposable products can have a significantly negative ecological impact, the opposite is also true. Good packaging design, eco-conscious materials, and well-designed products go a long way toward reducing pollution and maximizing resources.
Whatever your new invention or product, it’s always possible to incorporate eco-conscious design principles into your project. Here are some ways to go about designing environmentally friendly products that will be good for your business, good for your customers, and good for the planet.
Why Be Sustainable?
There are several reasons why firms, inventors, and product designers would be interested in environmentally friendly design. The first and most obvious reason is that we all live on this planet, and to take care of it is to take care of ourselves. Most of us also feel a moral obligation to not cause unnecessary harm to the planet.
There are also financial factors that need to be considered. While people often speak as if sustainability and profit are somehow in opposition, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is not the case. The growing market share of organic produce and restaurants and the meteoric rise of companies like Tesla prove that there is a financial incentive for businesses to go green.
As global consciousness continues to rise regarding the environmental challenges we face, customers are increasingly demanding products and services that can help them reduce their ecological footprint. We feel good when we can live in accordance with our conscience, and it is an added value when products enable environmentally-aware consumers to do that. People are willing to pay for ethical products because people generally want to make moral decisions.
The other side of the coin is that the kinds of practices encouraged by environmentally friendly design are more efficient and can save money in the long run. Maximizing resources, reducing waste, and taking advantage of reusable materials might take a bit more cleverness in implementation, but all these things contribute to a more efficient production process.
Design for the Environment
Environmental sustainability always involves taking a wide-angle look at the entire process. Sustainability requires that designers take into consideration the wider context in which their product exists. They need to think about the factors that go beyond the financial and practical considerations of how to make a working product.
This involves paying attention to the steps that come both before and after the design and production process itself, including the sourcing and processing of materials and what happens to the product once it has reached the end of its life cycle.
This is no small order. However, just like any other process, environmentally friendly design becomes second nature with practice. The more you learn to think holistically about your approach to design, the easier it becomes. Eventually, it’ll become fundamental to the design process itself.
Luckily, there are some principles that have been established to help designers who want to embrace sustainable design. One of the most popular is the Design for the Environment approach, also called DfE. DfE is an approach to reducing the negative environmental and health impacts of product design.
The Design for the Environment approach is based on four main concepts or principles that cover the entire lifecycle of the product, starting with the raw materials and ending with the disposal or rehabilitation of the product.
Four Main Concepts of DfE
Design for environmental processing and manufacturing: Consider how the raw materials that go into making the various components of your invention are extracted, processed, and manufactured. Whether and how they are mined, drilled, or grown and harvested will constitute a large part of the final product’s environmental footprint. Are there materials available that are recycled or reusable?
How were these materials processed? The nature of the raw materials will also determine whether the product will be recyclable, biodegradable, toxic, or otherwise dangerous to the environment. A major goal of this design principle is to minimize the amount of waste, pollution, and energy expenditure that goes into creating the product.
Design for environmental packaging: We’re all aware of the amount of garbage product packaging creates. In many contexts, products do require some degree of packaging. However, designers have a responsibility to ensure that any packaging they use is environmentally friendly.
Once a product is brought home, the packaging comes off and is immediately thrown away. Much of this is never recycled or reclaimed and ends up in landfills or floating around in enormous ocean gyres. Using reusable or recyclable shipping and packaging products, eliminating any unnecessary paper and plastic packaging material, and making efficient use of space are the key strategies for creating environmentally friendly packaging.
Design for disposal or reuse: Everything eventually reaches the end of its life cycle. This isn’t the end of the ecological impact of the product, though. This is the stage in which products often become garbage and end up in landfills, where some products wind up emitting harmful chemicals into the environment.
The ecologically conscious designer avoids this sad outcome by planning for the reuse, recycling, or reclamation of the materials and by avoiding the use of toxic materials. It’s important to consider not just how the product will be used by consumers, but how it will be disposed of once it’s no longer useful. Consider the environmental impacts of the constituent materials and how they might be disassembled and reused.
Design for energy efficiency: This concept applies primarily to electronic devices. The goal is to reduce, as much as possible, the overall energy consumed by the product over the course of its life cycle. Energy efficient light bulbs are the prototypical example of this principle in action.
Another technique available to the eco-conscious designer is Life Cycle Assessment, also called LCA or cradle-to-grave analysis. As the name implies, LCA is a framework for analyzing the ecological impacts a product has through its life cycle, from beginning to end. This includes the acquisition and processing of raw materials, the manufacturing process, distribution, maintenance and repair, energy consumption during use, and disposal or recycling.
One of the primary goals of LCA is to compile an inventory of all the material and energy inputs that go into making the product and all environmental releases (such as off-gassing or runoff) that might be associated with the product during its lifetime. With this information, it becomes possible to analyze the overall environmental impact.
There are four main phases of LCA analysis, including the life-cycle inventory.
Four Main Phases of LCA
- Goal and Scope: The first phase of the LCA is an explicit statement of what the goal and scope of the assessment is. This statement lays out the context of the analysis and why the LCA is being undertaken. This phase defines the boundary conditions and the life-cycle of the product. It identifies the material flow during that life cycle and all the operations involved in maintaining that life cycle that falls within the boundary conditions.
- Lifecycle Inventory: As mentioned, LCA involves creating an inventory quantifying the energy and raw material inputs as well as any environmental outputs or releases associated with the product throughout its lifecycle. This phase involves gathering data, defining the boundaries and scope, and the analysis and interpretation of the study results. In developing the inventory, it is useful to create a flowchart that shows the various different inputs and outputs of the product.
- Impact Assessment: Once the inventory has been completed as fully as possible, it’s time for the impact assessment. The goal here is to look at the various different material and energy flows identified in the inventory and to assess their impacts on the environment and on human and ecological health.
- Interpretation/Improvement Assessment: The fourth and final phase of LCA is the interpretation of the results from the first three steps. The goal of this interpretation is to identify strategies for improving the environmental impacts associated with the various different inputs and outputs identified in the inventory and assessed in the impact assessment. In other words, this phase is about identifying the opportunities for reducing the ecological footprint of the product.
As with any form of assessment, the value of an LCA is entirely dependent upon the data upon which it is based. As a designer employing LCA analysis, it’s important that you be as diligent and accurate in completing your life-cycle inventory as possible.
Sustainable and Recyclable Materials
As with any form of assessment, the value of an LCA is entirely dependent on the data upon which it’s based. As a designer employing LCA analysis, it’s important that you be as diligent and accurate in completing your life cycle inventory as possible.
Renewable vs Non-Renewable
We all remember the three Rs from childhood: reduce, reuse, recycle. Of the three, the third is the only one most of us seem to remember. The obvious reason that it’s important that we reduce resources we use, reuse materials we have, and recycle what cannot be reused is that many of the materials we have available to us are finite. This applies broadly to metals, fossil fuels, and other gasses like helium. In addition to being finite, these kinds of resources are usually hidden underground and require ecological damaging techniques like mining or drilling to extract.
Renewable resources, on the other hand, are things that are theoretically limitless in supply. This includes valuable resources like water, wind, and wood. While the use of renewable resources is generally preferable whenever possible, it’s important to remember that ‘renewable’ does not necessarily mean ‘environmentally friendly.’
A good example here is lumber. Humans have been exploiting wood as a fuel source and building material for as long as we’ve been on the earth, and trees are a prototypical eco-friendly renewable resource. However, our reliance on wood, combined with our desire for agricultural land, has resulted in the deforestation of about two-thirds of the world’s ancient forests.
In other words, it’s not just the kind of material you’re using, but the method by which those materials were extracted or harvested. There are always better and worse sources. In lumber, for example, there is FSC certification, which ensures that the wood comes from responsibly managed forests.
The Autodesk Eco Materials Advisor is an awesome tool for designers and inventors that provides reliable environmental materials property data for your Autodesk Inventor model, allowing for environmental impact analysis right in Autodesk. The base version is installed with Inventor.
Environmentally Friendly 3D Printing
As technology is at the forefront of manufacturing innovation, it’s no surprise to see that there are all kinds of exciting developments in environmentally friendly 3D printing techniques. Two of the most common 3D printing materials are PLA and ABS. PLA is somewhat biodegradable, though it needs to be sent to a proper processing facility to be broken down in a reasonable time frame. ABS is not, but it can be melted back into filament and recycled.
But that’s only the beginning. Innovative companies are introducing compostable, eco-friendly filaments. Bioinspiration’s WillowFlex compostable filament is made from non-GMO cornstarch and produces temperature-resistant flexible parts that you could compost in your own backyard.
3D-Fuel has introduced a line of eco-friendly PLA filaments, including one made from byproducts of beer brewing and another made from coffee. They also offer a filament made from hemp. All of these green filaments can be used by regular extrusion printers.
Another company that aims to make additive manufacturing more sustainable is ReDeTec. Their ProtoCycler is an all-in-one filament recycling machine that breaks down plastic parts or models and then extrudes a fresh filament for the next print job. A great way to get rid of failed prints, unneeded tests, or old parts you have lying around!
Products That Fail the Sustainable Packaging Test
I thought it would be worthwhile to point out some commonly used, everyday items that more often than not aren’t sustainable. Being aware of common mistakes can help you shop smarter and design with the environment in mind.
- Chip bags
While you’d think companies like Frito-Lay and PepsiCo. would have pushed a better packaging solution onto all of their chips by now, they haven’t. The traditional chip package is made up of seven layers of foil and plastic. The problem is that there’s no way to separate the layers. When a product is made up of different materials, it can become impossible to recycle.
It’s difficult to talk big companies into changing their product packaging when what they’re currently using is cost effective. We probably won’t see chip bags change in the near future — at least not until there becomes an incentive for companies to change to more environmentally friendly packaging.
There are some chip manufacturers doing things right. Take a look at SunChips compostable packaging.
- Toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes
Toothpaste tubes are a nightmare for recyclers to handle. They’re a mess of blended materials and leftover toothpaste, which makes for an impossible to recycle product. Luckily, Colgate-Palmolive is working on an environmentally-friendly solution, and some of their tubes are already recyclable as long as you wash them out first.
- Takeout containers
A lot of takeout containers — including the pizza box — are made of recyclable materials. However, the problem is that once food sticks to the box, it’s no longer recyclable. And we both know how often cheese gets stuck to the lid.
- Plastic bottles
Most plastic bottles are recyclable nowadays, but many people don’t bother. Making recycling as easy as throwing stuff in the trash is a hurdle stopping people from recycling their everyday goods. Thankfully, we may not have to worry about recycling plastic soon. Scientists have just created a mutant enzyme that eats plastic water bottles.
Cad Crowd’s Product Design and Development Freelancers Can Help
We can all do our part to protect the environment. At Cad Crowd, we also do our part looking out for inventors! We offer a full range of product design and development services to help you realize your vision. From industrial design to packaging design and manufacturing services, we connect you with the expert design services you need for your project. Learn more about how it works.