Clarify Core Functions (Gertsakis et al. 1997)
The true purpose of a product must always be at the center of its design. Consumers may accept losing some secondary functions or minor reductions in performance to reduce the environmental impacts of a product, but an “environmentally friendly” product that does not adequately serve its core functions will be difficult to sell.
If the consumers decline to purchase or use the product then the likelihood is that they will instead choose an option that offers better performance but is more damaging to the environment, and so no real benefit has been offered to the environment by the new design.
There are many strategies that can be pursued when designing a product, which will usually reduce its environmental impact.
Following a set of standard strategies is almost certainly the simplest method of continuing sustainable design, as in its most basic form it requires no comparison with other products, no understanding of LCA or even of the environmental problems trying to be prevented.
Despite this, it can lead to significant reductions in the environmental impacts of a product and can become an increasingly effective method as the designers understanding of the issues improves, allowing them to more effectively set their priorities and identify solutions and opportunities.
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Select Responsible Manufacturers and Suppliers
The designer or design team of a product are sometimes also responsible for finding suppliers of components and materials, and companies to manufacture the product. In these circumstances, the designer should consider that these companies operate a crucial part of the product’s lifecycle and so it is important that they act responsibly. Where possible, the designer should avoid companies’ known to have poor environmental standards and should look for evidence of good practice.
Many products contain more material than is required to function effectively. Careful assessment of a products design can allow the unnecessary material to be eliminated. The lightweight of a product reduces the requirements for material production and processing, reduces the energy required to transport the product and reduces the amount of material requiring treatment at the end of the products life.
Consider the Waste Treatment Infrastructure
The treatment of products at their end of life can create serious environmental problems, and so it is important that the product is designed to minimise its impact come to the end of its life. This means designing it to be suitable for the least damaging treatment such as recycling or composting. However, products can only be treated as the designer intended if the infrastructure is in place in the market area to treat the product as planned. If for example, a ”recyclable” product is sold in an area where there are no recycling facilities for the particular materials used, then it is unlikely that the product will ever actually be recycled.
Select Recyclable Materials
Recycling is probably the most effective way of dealing with waste materials. The material is reprocessed and used in the manufacture of new products, eliminating the problems associated with landfill disposal, preserving resources and reducing demand for the extraction of virgin materials, which damages the local environment, causes pollution and is usually more energy intensive than recycling existing material.
Use Recycled Material
Specifying the use of recycled material in the production of new products is a crucial strategy in sustainable design. Unless the recycled material is used in the production of new products, then there is no benefit to recycling it. If there is a market for recycled material, then using recycled materials puts the materials in a closed loop cycle that can potentially be genuinely sustainable, conserving natural resources, avoiding the problems associated with extraction and processing and minimising the disposal problems associated with the waste material. Even renewable materials such as wood can be worth recycling because it helps to reduce the disposal requirements of the material and limits land requirements for commercial forestry, which reduces biodiversity. The availability and quality of recycled materials can be limited, but sources are available to suit a wide range of applications. The Waste & Resources Action Programme assists businesses in sourcing recycled materials.
Use Home Compostable Materials
Recycling should not always be considered the most effective method of treating materials at the end of a products life. Most local authorities in Britain have only limited recycling facilities, and few are capable of recycling plastics, and so in many cases, the use of recyclable materials offers little benefit to the environment. Some products such as packaging and carrier bags can be produced from biodegradable materials that theoretically rot down, reducing the problems associated with the landfill. However, modern landfill practices do not provide conditions suitable for the composting of materials, and so even biodegradable materials such as paper and vegetables can remain intact for many years. Home composting offers an effective solution for the disposal of some packaging as it allows the material to biodegrade effectively and reduces the amount of waste going to landfill. Compostable products should be marked to indicate that they are suitable and safe for the home compost heap. Photodegradable materials, however, should be avoided in most applications because they are not truly biodegradable and when the material breaks down, it remains intact as microscopic particles.
Label Products Effectively
Once a product has been purchased, its use is out of the control of the designer and is the responsibility of the consumer. However, much of the environmental damage caused by products occurs in use and disposal and so the designer should seek to ensure that the user knows how the product is intended to be treated. This communication is usually in the form of labeling or instructions, and the designer should select the most appropriate methods to ensure that the product is used correctly, and disposed of correctly at the end of its life.
Composites such as GRP and CFRP offer many performance benefits that cannot be achieved at present through conventional materials, and which provide undeniable advantages in applications such as artificial limbs and helicopter blades. They can also help to reduce the weight of vehicles and machines, thus reducing energy requirements. However, the definition of a composite as a combination of two or more materials indicates the fact that recycling is difficult or impossible. They are also rarely biodegradable and often contain harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde.
Avoid Hazardous and Toxic Substances
Some materials used in products cause serious damage to human health and the natural environment. Reducing or eliminating these substances in products benefits, not just human health and the natural environment, but can potentially have financial benefits by reducing the need to deal with their consequences and disposal. Material suppliers should be able to supply safety data, which will state the hazards associated with the material and should suggest ways of minimising the risk.
Don’t Contaminate Materials
Different types of materials need to be separated from each other at the end of life so that they can all be treated in the most appropriate way. However, materials can become contaminated by some seemingly trivial items such as labels, coatings, and additives. These contaminants may sometimes have desirable properties that are necessary to achieve an effective product design but should be avoided where possible, and selected carefully to minimise their impact where they are necessary.
Use Low Embodied Energy Materials
All materials use energy in their extraction and processing, which in turn consumes other resources and creates emissions that contribute to climate change, air pollution, and other environmental problems. The energy used to produce a material is called the embodied energy or energy and standard figures for most common materials are easily available.
Avoid Non-Sustainable Timber and Paper
The destruction of ancient forests is a very significant environmental problem at present and results not only in deforestation, but huge reductions in biodiversity and the extinction of native species. Timber and wood-based products such as paper and cardboard should be sourced from sources certified as sustainable by the FSC or from recycled sources.
Aim for Maximum Efficiency (Gertsakis et al., 1997)
All resource-consuming products have a theoretical maximum efficiency. Although it is almost impossible ever to achieve this efficiency, it should be used as a benchmark so that the designer can identify where inefficiencies lie and make continuous improvements. If the target is set below the theoretical maximum, then the designer is less likely to achieve such large improvements.
Design for Part Load Operation (Gertsakis et al., 1997)
Many systems are designed to operate at maximum efficiency when at full capacity, but in reality, most systems do not usually run at full capacity, and therefore don’t usually run at maximum efficiency. The system should, therefore, be designed with practical usage in mind so that its efficiency is best under the conditions in which it is normally used. This may mean designing the product to operate efficiently over a range of conditions.
Select Efficient Processes
All manufacturing processes consume resources and produce waste, but some are considerably more efficient than others. Often the more efficient processes can produce a near identical product with suitable properties but with a much lower environmental impact.
Design for Continual Improvements
A large proportion of the energy used of the lifecycle of energy consuming products is the energy consumed during use. It is desirable for a product to be designed to have a long lifespan, but in some cases, this can have a negative effect by slowing the rate at which the old products can be replaced by more efficient designs and technologies. It can therefore be beneficial to design the product so that the main energy consuming components such as heating elements, compressors, and motors are upgradeable, and may even have a shorter planned lifespan than the product as a whole so that efficiency can be more rapidly improved without the need to discard the entire product.
Maximise Durability of Low or Non-Energy Consuming Products
The main environmental impacts arising from products that consume little or no energy during use are the impacts of manufacture, transport, and disposal. It is therefore logical that efforts should be made to prolong the lifespan of the product. If the lifespan of a product can double, then its environmental impact could effectively be halved. Durability requires more than just parts that will resist wear and tear. The designer should also consider the possible misuses that the product could be put through by the user and try to ensure that the product will withstand it. It may be possible that the product could be repaired by the user when a fault occurs, and so the company may wish to design the product to be easy to repair, and develop a market for spare parts, rather than new always pushing “new” products.
Design Slow Change Products for Remanufacture
The design of some products remains the same or similar over long periods of time, and when products fail, it is usually only a small part of the product that fails, while the rest is perfectly usable. In these cases, the working parts can be reconditioned and used in the manufacture of the “new” products, while only the failed or outdated components are recycled. Such strategies require the product to be designed for disassembly and reuse, and a system must be implemented for reclaiming the end of life goods and utilizing them in the manufacture of the new products.
Design for Disassembly
If products are to be treated appropriately at the end of their lives then they different materials must be separated. The designers should carefully consider how the product can be taken apart and make efforts to make it as simple as possible. This may involve using non-permanent fixings and developing some form of a standardized system for disassembling products. This is an essential part of the recycling process and me cases, where companies are responsible for recycling the products that they produce, can offer considerable cost savings.
Minimise Leaks (Lewis et al., 2001)
Energy is often wasted because of leaks in a system. This is particularly true of heating and cooling systems, where ineffective insulation allows heat to travel in or out of the system where it is not supposed to and can result in large losses of efficiency even from leaks that appear to be small. This principle applies in some way to many different types of system that consume energy during use.
Minimise Standby Energy (Lewis et al., 2001)
Many electronic products consume electricity even when not in use because the circuits required to detect a signal from the remote control or another type of control must remain in operation. Other standby losses can occur from transformers, which consume energy even when the product is switched off, so long as they are switched on at the mains, and secondary functions such as digital clocks.
Use Renewable Energy
Renewable energy sources are limited in most countries, and their supply through the mains is not the concern of product design, but small-scale renewable energy generators such as kinetic generators (magnetic induction), wind-up generators and Photovoltaic cells can provide an effective source of clean energy and can even offer practical benefits in some products typically operating on battery power.
Use Feedback Mechanisms
Many people feel reluctant to take energy conservation seriously because they are not aware of the true problems associated with energy use or aware of the amount of energy that they are using. Feedback mechanisms in buildings and products to indicate levels of consumption can be effective in persuading people to consume less.
Packaging constitutes a large proportion of waste, most of which has an extremely short lifetime in which it serves only to protect and sell the product, and is then discarded in a landfill or incinerated. However, while the blame is often placed primarily on the packaging designers, much of the responsible falls with the product designers. This is because the packaging requirements of a product revolve entirely around the design of the product contained. If a product is designed so that it can safely and conveniently be transported and sold with little or no packaging, then huge amounts of waste can be avoided.
Because packaging is used for such a short period, it is often in perfectly good condition when it is thrown away. Traditionally, much packaging was reused for the same purpose time and time again, but this practice has become less common as packaging materials have become cheaper and consumer habits have changed. However, innovative solutions may allow this practice to be reintroduced in some applications.
Many products such as washing machines and printers consume materials during their lifetimes. The design of these consumable items is important and should be an integral part of the main products development, but the design of the main product can in many cases reduce or even eliminate the requirement for consumables.
Use Waste Products
Large amounts of waste are produced in the manufacture of any product, wasting resources, creating disposal problems and wasting money. Although the first strategy should be to reduce or eliminate this waste, in cases where that is not possible the designer should consider whether there is a use for the waste. This can involve the development of products unrelated the companies standard product range, but has a double financial benefit by reducing waste disposal costs, and potentially generating a new source of income.