The EPA estimates that in 2009, the United States produced approximately 486 billion pounds of solid waste, most of which could have been recycled. And where did all that solid waste go? Right into our landfills, not too far from where we live and work. The same year, 34% of municipal solid waste was recycled (compared with only 10% in 1980) but the problem remains that, according to Chemical & Engineering News, most product-design methods used today are short-sighted. Most of these products were not designed with an end-of-life solution in mind, therefore most cannot be recycled or reused.
Read on to find out what this means for design after the break.
The solution begins with creating products with the end in mind – this means their ability to be disassembled, facilitating the reuse and recyclability of their components. Some companies are already stepping up to design in an effort to reduce waste. Herman Miller is one of those companies taking the initiative to design products that are environmentally friendly and sustainable, starting with the design process and ending with the processes involved with recycling them. To do this, the furniture company has established a Design for the Environment team which is responsible for developing environmentally sensitive design standards for its products. Herman Miller has increased its environmental standards to be incorporated with their goal of creating durable and innovative products. The focus with the DfE team will be on sustainable materials, features and manufacturing processes. Among the main considerations in producing environmentally sustainable products are three key areas: Material Chemistry and Safety of Inputs – the materials that go into products and how they stand up to others available on the market; Disassembly – can the components of the product be easily disassembled to be reused at the end of its life?; and Recyclability – are the materials composed of recycled materials and can they be recycled at the end of its life?
According to Chemicals & Engineering News, the marketplace is also showing trends that retailers and manufacturers are taking responsibility for where their products end up by taking on the cost of safely disposing or recycling their products. For this system to remain economically sustainable, it must be profitable. A reverse supply chain for the products must be worth the effort and investment for each link in the chain from retailer to product manufacturer and raw material maker. The electronics recycling industry offers many opportunities to address the pollution threat from the use of cell phones, computer, televisions, etc. that are being replaced with more frequency by consumers. The Obama Administration established the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship on July 20 to initiate this process. Authorities are also taking initiative on the state level, with 25 states requiring that manufacturers take back their products for recycling.
With so much emphasis on recycling materials and begining with the end in mind, can architecture have a role in this trend? Traditionally, architecture as a product and commodity has a much longer life than your next water bottle or cell phone, but can architects plan the components of their buildings far enough in advance to project how they can be disassembled, recycled, refurbished and reused? This, of course, will depend on where technology takes us, but the scale of the product should not alter the way we consider the raw materials, chemicals, componenets and processes that are involved in its production.