Wasted potential

By maximising the re-usability of components and waste, not only do manufacturers stand to improve their environmental credentials, they could make more money.

Concerns about exactly how much stuff the human race accumulates have started getting louder and more persistent. At issue here is the fact that we live on a planet of finite resources and, therefore, we cannot continue to make such large numbers of things that are treated, ultimately, as completely disposable.

Annie Leonard, author of "The Story of Stuff”, contends that we humans only engage with the consumption phase of a product’s life cycle, despite the fact that this is preceded by phases of extraction, production and distribution and then followed by the disposal phase – thus blinding us to the true cost of our consumerism; environmental degradation, the emission of greenhouse gases as well as a range of toxic chemicals into our water and air, diminishing levels of natural resources, and so on.

The significance of these side effects of consumerism cannot be overstated. For example, chemicals released into our environment have been implicated in increasing incidences of autism and declining fertility rates (anyone who has seen or read "Children of Men” can imagine the potential long-term consequences of this); and the threats of dangerous climate change are obvious.

But does it need to be this way? Obviously, humans will not simply quit being citizens of the 21st Century and return to basic agrarian societies – ultimately, we want stuff. Phones, computers, furniture, bicycles, coffee mugs, soft drinks, toothpaste, baby toys, houses – it is all a celebration of how civilisation has advanced and it is, for better or worse, fundamental to our self expression and identity.

So how do we continue to enjoy the fruits of advancement without leaving a legacy of environmental ruin for future generations?

The emerging field of industrial ecology tells us that this can be achieved through design. Better design. Smarter design. The title of a 2002 book provides the best summary of how this smarter design works: cradle to cradle. The current paradigm is cradle-to-grave: we take raw materials, make it into something, then we ultimately throw it into landfill. The cradle-to-cradle design concept – which can theoretically be applied to anything from a pen to a car to a factory – proscribes that everything should be made of biological nutrients (ie. things that will decompose and safely re-enter the biological life cycle) or technical nutrients (ie. materials that maintain their value through repeated product cycles). Basically, every element that makes up any one item should, at the end of its life, seamlessly re-integrate into the production of a new item.

The authors of a 2002 book called "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things", German chemist Michael Braungart and US architect William McDonough, cite numerous instances where their firm, MBDC, has helped clients develop products using this new paradigm: the new products save their clients money, they’re better for the environment, and waste from one process provides the input for the next cycle of production. While this "design for environment” should not be used to justify rampant consumerism, it can certainly minimise the impact of modern lifestyles.

An early success story from MBDC was a textile mill in Europe that wanted to develop an upholstery fabric that could be ultimately discarded in a compost heap. Once the new design and manufacturing process was implemented, the company no longer had to pay to ship their waste to an external site for treatment; they reduced their regulatory burden because the water coming out of the factory was now cleaner than the water going in; workers no longer needed to wear masks and gloves to protect themselves from toxic chemicals used previously; and, critically, the new product was cheaper to produce and proved to be extremely popular and successful.

On a larger scale, the Kwinana Industrial Area outside Perth has been a world leader in regional resources synergies, or industrial symbiosis, wherein waste can flow out of one factory into an adjoining factory as required raw materials.

This type of thing may not be achievable for all manufacturers, though. Perhaps not every product will be amenable to having certain chemicals removed or to incorporating a greater degree of re-usability of its components; even if a cradle-to-cradle design can be achieved, perhaps it will be too expensive to implement. In some cases, the cost of investigating a new design process might be prohibitive. But there is certainly potential for both financial and environmental savings. Policy measures could be used to provide some incentive to companies who are interested in the concept but uncertain about the rewards. For example, a logo, like the Heart Foundation tick, displayed on a product that incorporates cradle-to-cradle features might spur the increasing numbers of environmentally concerned consumers to purchase that product instead of a competitor’s.

So here is a challenge to industrial designers and the CEOs who employ them: Can you re-design your products and their packaging with a cradle-to-cradle view? Can you replace the toxic chemicals with innocuous alternatives? Can you maximise the re-usability of your components? And can you make money by doing this? This can be a way of improving environmental credentials, and it could just as easily be an excellent business opportunity: to derive profits from waste streams, to minimise costs, to be at the forefront of a new generation of industrial design and to reap the associated rewards.

Nicholas Aberle is a research scientist at the University of Melbourne