Green Product Design

Several years after the surge of pollution prevention programs, a growing number of companies have looked to a more expanded view of pollution prevention—"green product design." These companies are finding that "green" products—products that reduce the burden on the environment during use and disposal—have additional marketing appeal to consumers. In contrast to past practices, in which product performance and environmental compatibility were managed at different points in the production process, manufacturing executives have targeted the design stage of product development to satisfy both of these consumer demands.

A recent report published by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) [9] explores the benefits of green design in depth and targets the product design stage as the perfect leveraging point for determining how to reduce environmental impact and compliance costs and improve product quality and performance.

OTA cites a 1991 report by the National Research Council (NRC) that found that the quality of U.S. engineering design is generally poor. The report recommended that the federal government make engineering design a national priority to improve competitiveness. The NRC concluded that the design stage determines 70% or more of the cost of product development, manufacture, and use [10].

The key elements of green design are simple to comprehend but challenging to implement and consequently are the fundamental challenge to engineers of the future. OTA focuses on four objectives of green design in its report [10]:

Design for pollution prevention. Examples include reducing the use of toxic materials, increasing energy efficiency, using less material to perform the same function, or designing products so that they have a longer useful life. Design for better materials management. Examples include making products that can be re-

manufactured, recycled, composted, or safely incinerated with energy recovery. Design for remanufacturing and recycling. Recycling can reduce virgin material extraction rates, wastes generated from raw material separation and processing, and energy use associated with manufacturing. It can also divert residual material from municipal waste, relieving pressure on overburdened landfills. Design for composting and incineration. Designers can facilitate composting by making products entirely out of biodegradable materials. For example, starch-based polymers (which are inherently biodegradable) and easily composted and films can substitute for plastic in a variety of applications.

Each of these design objectives represents an engineering challenge. Designing products that meet all four elevates the challenge even more. A look at the life cycle of products helps explain the scope of green design.

Products affect the environment at many points in their life cycle (see Figure 5). It does not take much imagination to see that engineering work is integral to each step of this process. However, in the past, each step in the process was often viewed independently from other steps in the process. Engineers did not often communicate with each other along the way. Many companies are now integrating the work of their product designers, raw materials suppliers, purchasing department, manufacturing and maintenance operations, and public affairs departments and their customers to identify opportunities for improving product designs. OTA found that design trade-offs are a major challenge.

—Stages of the Product Lite Cycle r.

Material extraction Material processing t


—Stages of the Product Lite Cycle



Waste management

Waste management



Figure 5 Stages of the product life cycle. Environmental impacts occur at all stages of a product's life cycle. Design can be employed to reduce these impacts by changing the amount and type of materials used in the product, by creating more efficient manufacturing operations, by reducing the energy and materials consumed during use, and by improving recovery of energy and materials during waste management. (Adapted from D. Navin Chandra, The Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, personal communication, March 1992.)

These choices often involve environmental dilemmas. Tradeoffs may be required, not only between traditional design objectives and environmental objectives, but even among environmental objectives themselves—for example, waste prevention versus recyclability.

As an illustration, consider the cross section of a modern snack chip bag [Figure 6], The combination of extremely thin layers of several different materials produces a lightweight package that meets a variety of needs (e.g., preserving freshness, indicting tampering, and providing product information). The use of so many materials effectively inhibits recycling. On the other hand, the package has waste prevention attributes: it is much lighter than an equivalent package made of a single material and provides a longer shelf life, resulting in less food waste. Even this relatively simple product demonstrates the difficulties of measuring green design [10, p. 8],

Some foreign competitors are making huge advances in green design. For example, OTA points out in their report [10, p. 12] that several German auto companies, including BMW and Volkswagen, have begun to explore this system oriented approach. BMW recently built a pilot plant in Bavaria to study disassembly and recycling of recovered materials, and Volkswagen AG has constructed a similar facility. The goal of the BMW facility is to learn to make an automobile out of 100 percent reusable/recyclable parts by the year 2000. In 1991, BMW introduced a two seat roadster model with plastic body panels designed for disassembly and labeled as to resin type so they may be collected for recycling. [See Figure 7.]

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