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Why Materials Matter in Sustainable Product Design

3p Contributor | Monday March 18th, 2013 | 4 Comments
Graveyard of broken lights. Courtesy of the California Product Stewardship Council

Graveyard of broken lights.
Courtesy of the California Product Stewardship Council

By Priscilla Burgess

In the incredible excitement of realizing their new product will save the environment, solve world hunger or cure all our economic problems, many entrepreneurs forget to look closely at the materials in their products. They are focused on the end result. But what if the production of this marvelous invention contributed to emissions of greenhouse gases, destruction of the rainforest, damages to workers’ health and poisoned agricultural land?

Here’s a real world example of a product designed for social good which is having negative impacts:

Every morning small children erupt from African huts wearing spotless uniforms, the shirts so brightly white they hurt the eyes. Each child sports a backpack and exudes excitement about the day ahead. They are adorable and they are the future doctors, business people and politicians who just may solve Africa’s problems. And yet, they live in tiny daub and wattle huts without electricity or water.

We want to help them, even though being able to pay for school elevates these families to the African middle class. One way Westerners try to help is to light up the huts so the kids can do their homework after the sun goes down.

This effort is in progress. Solar-powered lights are being given out to families without electricity.

It’s too soon to establish what social impact lighting the night will have but if we look at the manufacturing process, we already know how it will impact the environment.

LED lights require materials made from arsenic in their manufacturing process. These elements, plus others, are dangerous to workers who make the lights. Solar panels require rare earths. The factory itself is most likely in deepest darkest region of China where there is little concern about pollution or worker safety.

Then, back at the hut, something goes wrong and the light goes out.
Lacking the expertise to fix it, the broken light gets tossed in a garbage heap where it breaks, leaving the heap full of an assortment of toxic materials, broken glass and plastic.

Green certification is one way to break this cycle and to shine a spotlight on the entire product life cycle, not just the pro-social use. However,
green certification of products typically occurs after the product is market-ready. Sales provide the funds for a certification group to examine the manufacturing process to be sure materials and manufacturing are safe, sustainable and green.

But after the product is on the shelves, it’s too late.

It’s better to start with a sustainable model and then find safe materials that will fit product goals. Locking yourself into a specific product first can lead to an unsustainable determination to force-fit it into green credentials or greenwashing.

A good example of this force-fit is fiberglass insulation which claims to be green due to recycled content and the removal of formaldehyde. Recycled glass melts at 1,700 degrees Celsius. From a life cycle perspective, the energy required to melt the glass more than negates the advantages of using recycled content. Fiberglass companies themselves put formaldehyde into their insulation batts. They removed it because the government insisted. Now they charge more for batts without formaldehyde, virtuously trumpeting their formaldehyde-free insulation.

When you start, before you share your brilliant idea with others, here are some things you can do:

Consider the materials your product is made from. Many use either plastic or metal for the basic structure — both made from non-renewable resources. Plastic is usually a byproduct of the petroleum industry that is destructive at every stage from exploration, extraction, refining, and use. Metals are mined. Most mines damage the environment with digging and the chemicals used to extract the ore.

Realistically, it’s probably not possible to manufacture an object without using plastic or metal but being aware of your product’s materials’ origin is a start in figuring out substitutions and encouraging research in new materials. Unless we speak up and demand safe, renewable materials, nothing will change.

Information about the ingredients of the materials with which you plan to build your gadget is freely available on the Internet. For a quick overview of safety data sheets (MSDS), safety data sheets (SDS),or product safety data sheets (PSDS), check out Wikipedia.

MSDS are typically used when it’s too late – first responders and hospitals look them up after contamination or injury has occurred to determine treatment. A responsible inventor will check out the materials before committing to using them in manufacturing.

Your conscience will be your guide not only to selecting the materials necessary to build your product but also in how end-of-product-use is managed. Ken Alston of MBDC (part of Cradle to Cradle) urges manufactures to consider what will happen to dangerous materials in products such as computers or LED lights when they are thrown out. Will lead from solder be crushed along with arsenic and mercury and enter the waste stream? Or will they be repurposed and used again in new products and never actually touch the earth?

But even if dangerous materials stay out of the waste stream someone has to reclaim them. Today, small children in developing countries pry gold, copper, and other valuable recyclable materials out of our discarded computers.

It’s up to us, inventors and entrepreneurs to save the world by making sure our products are made from safe materials by conscientious manufacturers, used properly and finally, disposed of safely. This way, we can save the environment, create jobs, improve health and cure all the world’s economic problems.

Priscilla Burgess is CEO, Co-inventor and Co-founder of Bellwether Materials, an award-winning, GIIRS-rated, triple-bottom line company that manufactures deep green building insulation made from an agricultural by-product. Before founding Bellwether Materials, she ran her own management consulting business. She has traveled all over the world, asking questions about how people work and from that, has developed several models and many opinions about the best way to grow a flourishing business.


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  1. March 18, 2013 at 5:11 am PDT | alishemmingsen writes:

    Priscilla, I agree: Consider the materials your product is made from. I usually work with procurement professionals and to them this is a completely new approach. If it is a current product I suggest you to use some of the same tools as you use when working with lean optimisation. Simply mapping the wastetypes.

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  2. March 18, 2013 at 8:46 am PDT | Jeffrey Helfrich writes:

    Couldn’t agree more. That is why we are making our trash/recycle bin, the Solecan, from recycled plastic in the USA. Unfortunately, plastic was the only viable and cost effective option for our design, but if you are going plastic you can at least go recycled and stop contributing to the problem.

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  3. March 18, 2013 at 18:42 pm PDT | dgsthd writes:

    × You have already made this comment.

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  4. March 20, 2013 at 17:59 pm PDT | Matthew McKenna writes:

    Hi Priscilla. I was really struck by your example of the children in Africa. I found this website really informative and it made me view how I make purchasing decisions in a whole new light. Thank you for making see such things in a new way.

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