Designs for a material life

November 6, 1998

Sustainable product design is vital to cutting the contribution of consumer goods to environmental pollution, writes Kam Patel

Following concerted attempts by governments worldwide to cut industrial and transport pollution, the less noticed, but no less damaging, contribution of consumer goods to environmental problems is coming under the spotlight.

A London conference last week organised by Surrey Institute of Art and Design and backed by the Department of Trade and Industry highlighted the challenges for art and design departments and firms in creating products that consume less energy in creation and can be recycled at the end of their life. The conference boasted top academics from more than 20 countries and an equally international list of industrialists.

Addressing the implications of finite material resources on product design, Eric Billet, pro vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said that 35 years ago population growth projections suggested the 20th-century lifestyle was not sustainable. There were fears of catastrophe caused by exhaustion of mineral resources, food shortages and pollution.

In the past two or three years, population experts have come to the conclusion that there is a good chance that global population, now six billion, will level out at around 12 billion in the next century.

"Meeting the energy and material needs of this population is not without its challenges, but there do appear to be sufficient materials, plastics, metals, ceramics and natural products to form the basis of a sustainable future," Professor Billet said.

He estimates that to meet this goal, humans will have to become up to 20 times more efficient in their use of resources - the equivalent of reducing energy consumption to just 5 per cent of its current level or, applying the analogy to cars, the equivalent of doing 600 miles to the gallon.

Ian Dumelow, dean of design at Surrey, says Professor Billet is not alone in his prognosis. Studies by organisations such as the European Commission and the World Bank have come up with similar figures. It is therefore not surprising that the language of sustainability has penetrated all aspects of life.

Landfill legislation, eco-labelling schemes, world environment summits at Rio and Kyoto, integrated transport policies and teleworking are just some of the developments that have led to the concept of sustainability permeating the pronouncements of politicians, economists and planners of the built environment.

With British design talent highly regarded throughout the world, it might be thought that this country's art and design colleges are at the forefront of developing curricula and carrying research in the field of sustainable product design.

But Mr Dumelow says the sector in general has been "curiously slow" to embrace in any practical sense the fundamental rethink that is taking place about the role of design in production and consumption. "Innovation is at the heart of the mission of art and design colleges and yet I do not think, in general, it is being brought to bear on sustainable product design," he said.

Surrey Institute of Art and the Design Museum are hoping to organise a competition to heighten awareness of sustainable product design in colleges and encourage innovative curriculum development and research in the area. If talks go well, the annual competition could be launched next year.

One of the most important problems Mr Dumelow believes design courses could help to alleviate is the paucity of designers in the upper echelons of companies. Countless reports over seemingly as many decades by government departments and bodies such as the Design Council have been produced highlighting this problem.

While this certainly shows shortsightedness on the part of firms, Mr Dumelow believes institutions also have a part to play in alleviating the problem by producing designers who can not only design but are trained to have a strategic overview of a company's operations.

There is also an urgent need, says Mr Dumelow, for design departments to make sure students and researchers are familiar with the language of sustainable product design.

"At first exposure the language is almost foreign, and yet this is what is driving the legislation and regulation that is beginning to have an impact on manufacturers. Students must get to grips with it."

To illustrate the point that there is considerable power in buzzwords of the new language of sustainability. Mr Dumelow cites "end-of-life-management".

Right from the start of the product cycle ways in which a product would be handled at the end of its life is designed in. It is now being implemented in some forward- thinking countries including Sweden where there is a statutory requirement for car makers to take back tyres and batteries from their vehicles when they reach the end of their life.

Called "producer responsibility", an ambitious application of this is now being considered by the European Commission through its Directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Waste. At a draft stage and scheduled for implementation between 2001 and 2004, the directive "will have a profound impact on manufacturers, placing a big responsibility on them to deal with their products at the end of their lives", Mr dumelow said. It could also become a political hot potato.

There are concerns it will lead to charges of "restrictive practices" by the United States because the proposals cover not only manufacturers based in the EU but also those outside it but selling in member state countries. The directive covers 11 exhaustive categories of goods. These include large household appliances (such as refrigerators, microwaves, washing machines and freezers), small household appliances (like toasters, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners), IT equipment (mainframe computers, PCs, printers and pocket calculators) and electrical and electrical goods (typically drills, saws and sewing machines).

The commission is proposing that member states commit themselves to setting in motion measures that will result in an average of 4 kilos of consumer goods being collected and recycled per person. But this is only an interim measure. By 2006, the commission is proposing to set EU-wide compulsory targets for collection, that are likely to be more demanding.

There is considerable disagreement as to who should be made responsible for collection and treatment of goods, but it is likely that manufacturers, working with local authorities, will bear the brunt. Whoever is made responsible will need to ensure that of the units collected, the rate of recycling of materials and components in all categories except large household appliances is 70 per cent by weight. For large household appliances the commission is proposing the even more onerous target of 90 per cent by weight.

Mr Dumelow says the scope of the directive is "breathtaking" and its potential for impinging on lifestyles and consumer psychology immense. He believes the time is ripe for a more emphatic, constructive response from the design community: "It will be those designers who understand the new language of sustainability and the pressures manufacturers face who will in the end secure both viable and ecologically efficient solutions to problems.

"If the United Kingdom is to maintain its pre-eminence in design, those who devise curricula in art and design departments must provide - with some urgency - an education to prepare students for the new working environment already being shaped."

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