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Designed for a longer life

Mike Webster

The Glassrite wine bottle, a new WRAP-sponsored design, is 40g lighter than its lightest UK predecessor. The change is indistinguishable to the consumer and performance has not been sacrificed. It would, if adopted nationally, save 153,000 tonnes of glass being produced each year, cutting CO2 emissions by 119,000 tonnes.

This is an example of eco-design: a concept that considers not only form and function but the whole life cycle of a product, including the post-consumer phase. As well as ‘lightweighting’, there are a variety of ways good design can reduce the amount and toxicity of waste. For instance, the wooden radiator made from FSC-certified wood is lighter to transport, uses renewable materials and is easier to recycle than previous versions.

Disassembly is another aspect of eco-design. Using screws instead of glue, for example, makes it easier for items such as furniture or electronics to be taken apart and reused or recycled. In the US, a concept phone called the Linc has been designed to be returned to the producers every year for hardware updates and refurbishment, and to be easier to disassemble for reprocessing when it finally wears out.

“Consumers need to understand why, in some cases, costs may have to rise”

Making eco-design happen means ensuring that designers are aware of, and bear some sort of responsibility for, the full life cycle of their product. Extended producer legislation has been brought in, notably around waste electronic and electrical equipment and vehicles. There are also a variety of EU directives requiring minimum product standards for energy and resource efficiency and restricting the use of certain materials. Voluntary agreements, such as the Courtauld Commitment, also have a part to play and have encouraged UK retailers to take steps to design-out packaging.

In Europe, Belgium’s public waste agency OVAM provides an online database of best practice as well as simple tools, such as the Ecolizer, a guide to help designers choose materials and processes that have the smallest environmental impact. Retailers can also help with their choice of products - commonly known as choice editing. For example, all of the eggs stocked by Sainsbury’s are free range, for animal welfare reasons, and other supermarkets have taken their own action in response to pressure from a variety of groups. Why not apply choice editing to a wider range of eco-products?

But there is only so much the Government and retailers can do. A 2008 House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report noted that, despite professed concern for the environment, the public is generally unwilling to pay more for green products. Consumers need to understand why, in some cases, costs may have to rise, and the key to this will be a greater awareness of the environmental impact of consumption, matched by a shift in attitudes. What is the point of producing a longer lasting car or mobile phone if fashion dictates that you change it every year?

This view is supported by the 2009 WRAP report, Meeting the UK Climate Challenge: the Contribution of Resource Efficiency, which noted that lifetime optimisation - ensuring people use products until they wear out and promoting a restorative economy - and building better products that last longer were crucial customer-side strategies to reducing cumulative greenhouse emissions.

Public awareness can be raised in several ways, such as indicating the cost of disposal on products or eco-labels such as the EU flower mark. But messages need to be clear and consistent and this means everyone in our sector needs to start taking an interest in product design. The fractured chain of responsibility during a product life cycle does not help; how can the recycling officer in a small district council possibly influence the design team of a large manufacturer? So we need a coherent voice, committed to ensuring that a product’s end-of-life is considered while it is still on the drawing board.

Mike Webster is a senior consultant at environment charity Waste Watch

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