Forward thinking product design.

Eco-design methods aim to reduce consumption, prevent waste, and accelerate the shift to a circular economy. By embracing these principles we create positive user experiences in balance with the planet's natural systems.

Sustainable Product Design | One over three

Fundamental to our business are the principles of eco-design and the circular economy. More important than ever, we feel achieving these goals represent some of the most difficult challenges facing design today.

What is sustainable product design?

Sustainable product design is about creating beneficial product experiences whilst maintaining a long-term balance with the planets natural systems. It aims to meet the needs of today’s society without compromising our ability to provide for the needs of the next generation.

Our established economy follows the path of take-make-dispose; where products are developed without systematic consideration, then left for others to manage wherever they end up in the wider environment. The results of this behaviour are widely known; for the last 100 years the majority of materials have either been discarded, incinerated or buried; entire ecosystems on which we depend have been exploited, destroyed or pushed to collapse; human health has been intoxicated by pollution, and inequality is stretched to diametric proportions.

In a world of finite resources, these issues are accentuated by the ever-increasing pressures of consumption, human population and rising economic development. More and more people are demanding access to higher living standards, and the products that enable these lifestyles are created with little planning for how they are to be managed at the end of their useful life.

 

Sustainable product design does not accept this constrained view, and instead actively targets the most serious issues we face. It is through this ingrained opposition to the traditional economy that the power to create truly disruptive business models and new product experiences can be found.

 

To One over three these problems represent the most compelling challenges that society and design faces today. As a collective, we embrace this responsibility and make it our imperative to do the best we can to create considered products that are balanced within the economy.

How do we create more sustainable products and business models?

The product life-cycle defines the key phases that constitute the creation, use, and disposal of products. By understanding what and where environmental harm occurs in the cycle we are able to reduce impact and enable the re-capture of materials for use in equivalent products.

What is the Product Life-cycle?

 

The life-cycle of the product describes the inventory of all energy, material and by-products that go into the creation and use of a product. It begins at the material phase, with the extraction and processing of raw materials for manufacturing - where products are made, assembled and packaged. From here, the product moves via the distribution phase into its use phase. Finally, once it has no useful life left, it moves into the end-of-life phase for re-purposing, repossessing or dumping. Figure 1 shows the typical product life-cycle and various strategies that can be used to reduce environmental impact.

 

To support the implementation of any harm reduction strategies, several key concepts are discussed below:

 

Linear and Circular Economies

 

The majority of products circulating in the economy today follow the linear take, make, waste model, where materials are translated into products and subsequently lost through processes such as incineration and land-fill at the end-of-life. Contrary to this approach is the principle of the circular economy (CE), which instead defines end-of-life materials as resources for the creation of new products through recycling processes. Furthermore, products designed for CE maximise useful life; by designing for durability, reuse, re-manufacturing and recycling to limit material use and reduce environmental impact.

 

Closed and Open Loop Recycling

 

At the end-of life, products are routinely recycled through two primary systems; closed and open loop. In closed-loop systems, post-consumer waste goes back into making the same category of products as many times as possible (PET drinking bottles for example) and supports the aims of CE. Despite producing the best environmental outcome for any product by displacing the use of virgin material, this method represents the least used system. More commonly, products end up in open-loop recycling, where materials are recovered and used to create a product of lower value. Also known as down-cycling,  this commonly occurs if materials cannot be adequately sorted, or naturally lose some of their mechanical properties through the recycling process. Whilst still beneficial, through the displacement of virgin material during manufacturing, the end point of open-loop systems often results in the land-fill and incineration of non-renewable resources. Where materials cannot be either separated or recyclable, the trend is to convert these into fuel for energy production - the least environmentally desirable option after land-fill.

Alternative Business Models

 

Feasible business models aligned with the principles of CE have the potential to deliver value to customers beyond that of established, linear products and companies. Primarily aimed at maximising the product use phase and reducing material waste/use, several alternative models have been presented below:

 

Refurbish, Repair and Recondition

 

Used products are returned and restored to an ‘as new’ state. Re-manufactured product is sold at reduced cost to customers for new phases of reuse. Spare parts are refurbished and sold for repair under new warranties.

 

Extended product life-cycle - Minimises material and energy consumption through the extraction of virgin material and manufacturing of new products.

 

Reverse distribution - Model requires a suitable take-back distribution system to be established and controlled.

 

Product condition - The condition of returned product cannot be guaranteed. Refurbishment to a saleable state may not be economically viable.

1. Material Processing

(Design for sustainable sourcing)

 

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the extraction, harvesting, recycling and processing of materials for manufacturing.

 

Design Strategies:

 

Virgin materials from sustainably managed sources and production processes.

 

Use renewable materials such a bio-polymers and natural alternatives.

 

Use materials from recycled sources over virgin stock.

2. Manufacturing

(Design for optimised resource use)

 

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the manufacturing of components, assembly and packaging of final product.

 

Design Strategies:

 

Utilise processes that reduce energy and water consumption.

 

Use processes that limit the emission of green house gases.

 

Design to limit material use and provide optimal performance.

3. Distribution and Sales

(Design for transportation)

 

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the marketing and distribution of products to users.

 

Design Strategies:

 

Use distribution methods that minimise emissions and energy use.

 

Optimise shipping volume for maximum packaging density.

 

Increase the use of recycled materials in packaging.

4.  Product Use

(Design to extend product life)

 

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the product in use.

 

Design Strategies:

 

Design for re-use, multi-use and sharing.

 

Design for re-manufacture and re-refurbishment.

 

Maximise ease of repair and maintenance.

 

Maximise product durability.

5. End-of-life

(Design for re-use)

 

This phase accounts for all energy, resources and damage to human health/environmental systems from the processing of the product at the end of its useful life.

 

Design Strategies:

 

Enable easy disassembly ready for recycling into closed (preferred) or open-loop systems.

 

Utilise renewable materials that can be separated and composted into biological resources.

 

Provide infrastructure to enable re-capture and re-processing of materials to be used in new products of same value.

Extended Producer Responsibility

 

Customers are incentivised to return end-of-life products back to the producer through take-back schemes. Subsequent product is then either refurbished for resale or disassembled and recycled through known CE supply chains.

 

Material consumption - Waste is minimised and reduces material and energy use. Raw materials are extracted for the creation of high-value products.

 

Reverse distribution - Model requires a suitable take-back distribution system to be established and controlled. Location of recycling supply chains may increase energy use and environmental emissions.

 

Products as a service

 

Products are not directly sold to customers but instead leased for an established duration. Customers pay a regular fee for the use, repair and replacement of products during the use and end-of-life phases.

 

Extended product life-cycle - Minimises material and energy consumption through the extraction of virgin material and manufacturing of new products.

 

Cost to customer - Customer can access products at a reduced cost when taking into account depreciation, maintenance and disposal/replacement factors.

 

Reverse distribution - Model requires a suitable take-back distribution system to be established and controlled.

 

 

Collaborative Consumption

 

Customers are able to share access to unused products through an online platform.

 

Extended product life-cycle - Minimises material and energy consumption through the extraction of virgin material and manufacturing of new products.

 

Reduces consumption - Multiple customers can access the product without the need to manufacture additional units.

 

Online Infrastructure - Requires the creation and maintenance of a suitable online system for the sharing and distribution of used products.

 

 

What are the problems driving sustainable design?

The linear economy combined with unsustainable design and policy decisions have forever changed the world we live in. Here we discuss the main threats this poses to our societies and some of the causes driving these outcomes.

Resource depletion and global scarcity

 

Our current economic model has meant we’ve been living beyond Earth’s carrying capacity since 1970 [1]. At our current rates of consumption, significant pressures will be placed on global mining operations to exploit less accessible resources in the coming decades [2]. As these non-renewable materials and fuel reserves become ever more depleted, the costs and energies required to extract them from alternative sources will increase dramatically; destroying ecosystems, and further increasing pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

So what does this all mean? To put it simply, the materials used to create the technology and products we rely upon are manufactured from a wide variety of non-renewable elements, materials and energy sources. As these unmined resources become ever more scarce, the costs to extract them become economically unviable.

Figure 1 – Ecological Footprint and Human Development Index of Countries (2018)

To highlight these points, and how they are influencing the world present day, we will take a look at two examples:

 

Deep Sea Mining:

 

Growing demand for the metals used in batteries and clean energy technologies has led to a resurgence of interest in exploration of the mineral resources located on the seabed. Driven by a depletion of land-based resources, exploration contracts have already been awarded; with 29 leases covering an area of around 1m km2 being issued to countries such as the UK, China, France, Belgium, India, Germany and Russia [3].

Figure 3 – The Clarion-Clipperton Zone is a deep-water plain wider than the continental United States. When the Mining Code is approved, more than a dozen contractors could begin commercial extraction.

(Source: International Seabed Authority - 2014)

 

Given the scale of proposed mining operations, conducted in what are poorly understood habitats, serious and widespread negative impacts on animal life are inevitable and likely to be irreversible [5].

Rare Earth Metals:

 

Rare earth metals (REE) are a group of 17 elements widely used in the production of electronic products and technology related to low-carbon energy. As the world becomes more prosperous and transitions toward the low carbon future, global demand for rare earth metals (REE) is expected to increase significantly, with estimates for some elements predicted to rise by up to 2,600% over the next 25yrs [6].

 

This exponential increase in market demand is predicted to outstrip growth in global supply, resulting in both large price increases and environmental harm through mining expansion. Further concerns relate to water contamination and storage of the by-products of extracting REEs. With most ores containing radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium, careful operation and waste management is required [7], factors that have led to significant environmental damage in areas of China.

1. National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts – Global Footprint Network – 2019

 

2. Mineral Resources: Geological scarcity, market price trends, and future generations - 2019

 

3. The Emerging Threat of Deep-Sea Mining – Greenpeace - 2019

 

4. Evaluating Rare Earth Element Availability: A Case with Revolutionary Demand from Clean Technologies – MIT – 2012

 

5. Biodiversity loss from deep-sea mining – Nature Geoscience – 2017

 

6. Evaluating Rare Earth Element Availability: A Case with Revolutionary Demand from Clean Technologies – MIT - 2012

 

7. Social and Environmental Impact of the Rare Earth Industries – Resources - 2014

Global Warming and Climate Change

 

Global greenhouse gas emissions and where they come from

 

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are chemical compounds in the atmosphere that trap the infrared heat radiated from the surface of the planet after warming by the sun’s UV rays. Since the start of the industrial revolution, human economic activity has been steadily increasing the amounts of these gases, resulting in a planet that is on average approx. 1oC warmer than since the late 19th century.

 

According to the Fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the world has now entered a stage of committed climate change. In this scenario, the changes to the world’s climate are already irreversible regardless of any reduction to current GHG emissions. Over the last several decades GHG emissions have increased substantially however. Comprised of a mix of different gases, Co2 is by far the largest contributor to increases in global temperatures.

Figure 4 – Annual Greenhouse Gas Index – Radiative forcing (shown on the left vertical axis) is the change in the amount of solar radiation, or energy from the sun, that is trapped by the atmosphere and remains near Earth. When radiative forcing is greater than zero, it has a warming effect; when it is less than zero, it has a cooling effect. In this indicator, radiative forcing from long-lived greenhouse gases is shown relative to the year 1750.

The AGGI (shown on the right vertical axis) is an index of radiative forcing normalized to the year 1990 (represented by a red dot); it shows that the warming influence of long-lived greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increased by 43% between 1990 and 2018.

 

(Source: U.S. Global Change Research Programme - 2018)

Energy consumption is by far the biggest source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for 73% worldwide. The energy sector includes transportation, electricity and heat, buildings, manufacturing and construction, fugitive emissions and other fuel combustion.

The other top sectors that produce emissions are agriculture, such as livestock and crop cultivation (12%); land use, land-use change and forestry, such as deforestation (6.5%); industrial processes of chemicals, cement and more (5.6%); and waste, including landfills and waste water (3.2%).

 

Within the energy sector, generation of heat and electricity is responsible for most emissions (15 GtCO2e in 2016, or 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions), followed by transportation (7.9 GtCO2e in 2016, or 15% of total emissions) and manufacturing and construction (6.1 GtCO2e, or 12% of total emissions).

Figure 5 – Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Sector

(Source: World Resources Institute – 2016)

The global emissions budget and UN Paris Agreement

 

The Paris Agreement is a framework adopted by 196 nation states that aims to keep the increase in global temperature to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this, each country must plan reduction strategies and submit regular reports on emissions which contribute to the total global budget. As warming created by GHG emissions are effectively irreversible over multi-century timescales [1], the cumulative total of both historic and current emissions form what is called the global emissions budget. With strong evidence supporting a linear relationship between net CO2 production and the rise in global temperatures [1], the IPCC have projected how much CO2 we can emit in the future whilst maintaining a global average temperature increase of 1.5°C or 2°C.

 

In order to achieve the Paris temperature target, the carbon budget that remains after deducting past emissions is between 150 and 1,050 gigatons of CO2. At the current annual emission rates, the lower limit of this range will be crossed in four years and the midpoint (600 gigatons CO2) in 15 years (Figure 5). After this point emissions would need to drop to zero almost immediately once the budget is exhausted. Under current and planned policies, the world would exhaust its energy-related carbon budget in under 20 years to keep the global temperature rise to well below 2°C. To meet the below 2°C goal, immediate action is crucial to reduce further cumulative emissions by 470 gigatons by 2050, compared with current and planned policy targets [2].

Figure 5 – Co2 Mitigation Curves to achieve Paris temperature target.

(Source: Global Carbon Budget – 2019)

The effects of climate change and where we are heading

 

Already, the annual global mean surface temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.07°C per decade since 1880 and at an average rate of 0.17°C per decade since 1970 [3]. The trends in sea surface temperature, marine air temperature, sea level, tropospheric temperature, ocean heat content and specific humidity are similar [1].

 

Beyond temperature increase, the impacts already observed include changes in the water cycle, warming of the oceans, shrinking of the Arctic ice cover, increase in the global mean sea level, and altering of the carbon and biogeochemical cycles.

Time is running out to prevent the irreversible and dangerous impacts of climate change. Unless GHG emissions are reduced radically, the world remains on a course to exceed the agreed temperature threshold of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, which would increase the risk of pervasive effects of climate change, beyond what is already seen. These effects are wide ranging and include extreme events (including flooding, hurricanes and cyclones) leading to loss of lives and livelihoods, pervasive droughts leading to loss of agricultural productivity and food insecurity, severe heat waves, changes in disease vectors resulting in increases in morbidity and mortality, slowdowns in economic growth, and increased potentials for violent conflict [4],[5].

 

If the emission pledges in the Paris Agreement are fulfilled however, the worst effects of climate change can be avoided, and studies suggest this could avoid a temperature increase of 3°C by 2100, which would be catastrophic.

1. IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) - The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014)

 

2. Global Energy Transformation: A roadmap to 2050 - International Renewable Energy Agency (2018)

 

3. State of the Climate: Global Climate Report for Annual 2015 - United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2015)

 

4. Social, environmental and security impacts of climate change of the eastern Mediterranean - Salem, H.S. (2011).

 

5. The Relationship between Climate Change and Violent Conflict – Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (2018).

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