Category Archives: Materials

IBM takes on the devil in the details

image via ibm.com

One of the greatest challenges to businesses pursuit of sustainability is understanding the vast interconnected supply chains that all products inevitably relay upon.  In truth a company can only claim they are environmentally responsible if they’ve taken into consideration the broader impact of all the individual components, materials, and packaging that contribute to the overall business.  The complexity of trying to measure one’s impact in terms of things like energy use, emissions, and waste is that those metrics exist not only for the company whose name is on the product but also for the myriad of supporting companies whose own products and services go into the making of that final entity.

In the last few years many organizations have attempted to address this challenge through the creation of standardized assessment tools that apply a scorecard approach to each individual product.  These assessments are often based on applying generalized values to various aspects of a product; such as the materials used.  But the utility of such tools is often limited because the amount of information needed to populate the equations is simply unknown or unavailable.  To contend with this issue many of the larger consumer product companies have had to take it upon themselves to organize this information, which means demanding their suppliers provide more accountability.  This is an approach pioneered by Wal-mart which has been able to extract mountains of environmental data from their suppliers by establishing sustainability guidelines for many of the products they sell.  Nothing seems more typically American then a major corporation leveraging its size and dominance in a market to pressure it’s suppliers into meeting demands, But using that power for good, well that’s a new twist.

The New York Times recently reported that IBM has launched a new supply chain initiative requiring all of its suppliers to employ some form of environmental management system and to begin tracking environmental data like energy, water, and greenhouse gas emissions.  The initiative is a first step in cleaning up IBMs global operations which involve suppliers in 90 different countries worldwide.  IBM has thus recognized the fundamental roll that data plays in any sustainability measures.  Once they have a picture of their global impact across the entire supply chain they will be able to create a far more strategic plan for improving their efficiency and reducing waste and emissions.

IBM has taken things a step further by requiring it’s suppliers to publicly publish all their environmental findings and to forward the mandate on to their own subcontractors and suppliers.  The goal to capture any and all environmental data contributing to the massive IBM supply chain will be critical to the companies future decision making with regard to sustainability.  To encourage compliance form it’s suppliers IBM has played that ultimate power-card; If you don’t have a data monitoring system in place  by 2011, you know longer do business with IBM.

link to NYtimes


a better scrubber means goodbye detergent!

Goodbye detergent! is a new line of environmentally friendly scrubs that aim to clean-up your home cleaning habits.  Made with naturally abrasive materials such as recycled corn cobs, peach pits, and walnut shells, the line of reusable scrubs is meant to help reduce the need for conventional soaps and detergents.  By matching the abrasive qualities of these natural materials with specific household cleaning needs, the company has created range of scrubs designed specifically for different home surfaces and cookware materials.  The scrubs also feature minimal packaging made of 100% recycled material.

image via goodbyedetergent.com

It is widely known that many household soaps and detergents contain toxic or otherwise harmful chemicals.  These substances pose a threat not only to our personal health, but also to the environment, as they eventually make there way into our ocean, and river systems.  This is an issue that is currently being addressed by the myriad of “natural” and “non-toxic” cleaning products already available on the market. The eco-friendly scrubs from Goodbye detergent! seek to take this idea a step further by  reducing the need for soaps all together.  So regardless of what soap you use, you can be at least a shade or two greener by simply using less of it, and using a better scrub.

The Scrubs are designed by industrial designer Hiroki Hayashi. All the products are made in Japan and have been awarded numerous international design citations.  Goodbye detergent! scrubs are available at Amazon.com and other major online retailers.

best of the 09: green building products

Each year Environmental Design + Construction magazine publishes a list of the top 15 products from their New+Notable, and Products Focus sections.  The final selections are actually determined by the number of reader requests they received, and thus should represent some idea of what those who work in the industry consider most important in green building.  The movement for sustainability in construction and building design is in many ways far more developed than that in product, packaging, and even service design.  There are several reasons for this, just one being the development of LEED standards over the last decade and a half.  The advancement of LEED has created very comprehensive set of metrics with which a buildings “greeness” can be thoroughly tested throughout it’s planning, construction, and use phases.  One of the other pressures that has contributed to the green building push has been the consistent hike in construction and utility costs.  Unlike products, which have a comparatively short life-span, a building incurs these costs over an extended period of time.  This is the reason why higher efficiency with regard to water and energy use are at the very core of the LEED criteria.

With the development of better standards such as LEED and a growing awareness of a future of higher costs and shrinking resources, their has been a boom in new building technologies and products that can achieve greater efficiencies. This past spring I myself became a LEED accredited professional so I am always very interested to see just what can be achieved with the latest innovations.  This years list of finalists seems to weigh heavily on products affecting water efficiency and conservation. This is not surprising given that a buildings’ water use can be easily affected by the use of newer appliances, and better plumbing system approaches.  However, it got me thinking that a lot of the products on this list don’t seem to have the stand-alone appeal that one would expect from a “best of” list.  This is mostly because what this list shows are actual practical, usable solutions.  So much of what is written about in today’s mania over “green” are either untested, uneconomical or in some cases ineffective.  Missing from this list are the glut of solar arrays, home wind generators, and adaptively reused objects like shipping containers, that seem to flood most other forums on creating sustainability in the built environment. Regardless, here are the top 15 from ED+C:

1. Sloan AQUS Greywater System

2. The Silva Cell Tree and Stormwater System

3. Gravelpave2 Porous Pavement System

4. Tierra Rapidly Renewable Ceiling Panels

5. Tumbled Landscape Glass Mulch Alternative

6. Senior Series Water-source Heat Pump w/ Energy Recovery

7. Terreon RE Recycled Content Solid Surface

8. WaterSense Flapperless Toilet

9. Versa low-VOC Designer Wallcovering

10. EcoBatt Glasswool Insulation

11. eSolution Water Conserving Program

12. HALO Recessed LED Luminaire

13. MeTechno Insulated Standing Seam Roof

14. Turffalo Low Maintenance Low Water Grass

15. WoodWorks FSC-Certified Wood Ceiling Panels

(images via JetsOn Green)

turning garbage into green

Earlier this fall the Montgomery County Solid Waste Transfer Station in Derwood, Maryland was host to the first public performance of the Envion Oil Generator (EOG). What makes this new technology so intriguing is that the EOG can actually make usable oil product directly out of our own plastic garbage that would otherwise be buried it in a landfill or incinerated. Envion also claims that it can create this light to medium grade synthetic oil at an operational cost of around USD$10 per barrel. The concept of recapturing some of the energy that is trapped in the approximately 60 million tons of plastic waste produced each year could mean a whole new way of looking at the countries solid waste stream.

In my experience as a designer there has been hardly a single product or package I have dealt with that wasn’t composed of one or several types of plastic. Plastics have innumerable advantages in both manufacturing and performance which has led to their rise to become a truly ubiquitous aspect of our built environment and the objects that fill it.  It is therefore very frustrating that plastic also presents on of the greatest challenges to managing our solid waste reality.  Much of the problem has to do with plastic’s ability to far outlast the intended life of the products and packaging for which it is used. Not only does it degrade extremely slowly, but it can also release harmful chemicals in the process.  Even more troubling is the fact that most plastic is derived directly from the limited, costly, and non-renewable resource of oil and natural gas, two carbon-intensive fuels at the very core of the current fight for improved sustainability.

In my past posts I have addressed some of the issues concerning plastics by examining stories of improved or expanded recycling.  The last few years have seen an absolute explosion in consumer products containing recycled content.  Riding a tide of consumer demand, or at least expectation of “green”,  the use of recycled content has become a standard strategy for boosting a products’ green credentials.  However, designing something that is recyclable or made from some portion of recycled material remains a somewhat limited solution to improving overall sustainability.  This is because each time something plastic is recycled the performance and appearance attributes of the resulting material is significantly diminished, limiting the amount of times a given type of material can be reused and what types of new products it can be used for.

This conundrum surrounding how we handle our mounting reliance on plastic illustrates just how exciting the new Envion Oil Generator technology is for the future of plastic waste handling.  What Envion has created is a way to reconstitute bulk, unsorted plastic waste back into a usable petroleum product from which commercial fuels or even new plastic can be derived. This suggest that what was previously considered garbage can actually be turned into a source of renewable energy.  This is the type of solution that could actually shift consumers and producers’ perspectives on how we look at waste in general – as a potential resource.

The EOG works by using a reactor that converts waste plastic into oil through low temperature thermal cracking in a vacuum, extracting the hydrocarbons embedded in petroleum-based plastic waste. Each EOG unit is assembled on 47ft x 13ft mobile platform and can process up to 10,000 tons of plastic waste annually. The system converts roughly 62 percent of the plastic (by weight) into usable oil – three to five barrels of refined oil per ton of plastic waste.  The remaining by-product consists of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ash.  Envion even re-uses some of these by-products in the conversion process, utilizing vent gas to provide electricity and recirculating excess oil residue back into the system to improve efficiency.

Envion has been working on this technology for almost 15 years, and is now confidently promoting what they claim is a fully scalable, carbon negative oil production system.  They have already begun work on similar reactors to handle other forms of petroleum based waste, such as used tires.  Time will tell weather this new technology will prove a sustainable new boom amongst the world of waste. Regardless, seeing someone bold enough to snatch new sources of energy right out of the garbage bin sure is exciting.

Coke wants their garbage back

b2b_21Last month the Coca-Cola Company opened the doors on a brand new 60 million dollar bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in Spartanburg South Carolina.  The plant is designed to produce new PET containers directly from used bottles, and will have a projected capacity of around 100 million pounds of recycled PET, enough for about 20 billion 20-ounce bottles.  The significance of this story is in part due to the fact that the facility is reported to be the largest of its kind in the world. And it draws even more importance when viewed as a potential new model for the consumer packaged goods industry to support more sustainable consumption.

Though many have already lauded Coke for this and other efforts, an equal or greater amount have continued to criticize the organization as a whole, reciting a ‘too little too late’ mantra.  Granted, Coca-Cola must be held to a higher standard when it comes to the consumer waste they produce, but the current problem of more than two thirds of the PET  bottles produced ending up in landfills, is not theirs to shoulder alone.  It is also the responsibility of the consumer and their governments to support policies and behaviors that stem this growing mountain of wasted plastic.  What is most compelling about Coke’s new facility is that it seeks to establish a market-driven solution to the problem, something that if successful may be scalable to farther reaching programs.

To understand the significance of a true bottle-to-bottle system, one must first understand a little bit about the complexity of recycling PET.  Though we have seen bottles on the market in the past that claim to be 100% recycled, these examples are few and far between because achieving such a measure is extremely challenging.  Most consumer plastic recycling is handled by a broad and loosely organized network of private and municipal collectors spread across the country.  When it comes to recycled PET, it can only perform to higher standards if it comes form a clean and reliable waste stream.  The more non-PET material it comes in contact with along it’s journey, the less suitable it becomes for recycling directly back into a food-grade plastic.  This is why most PET is downcycled into things like park benches and other low-end plastic goods, rather than being put back into bottles.

While this may not be well known to the average consumer, who wholeheartedly puts their empty bottles in the recycling bin, it was recognized by Coke as a starting point to improve the system.  This is why the new facility was created in a joint venture with United Resource Recovery Corp, a leading authority in recycled PET.  URRC has a patented process called UnPET that allows them to chemically super clean used PET plastic making it safe for being recycled back into food-grade containers. Thus Coke, by understanding the limitations to recycling, actively found a technology partner who could work with them to create a model system to bring value back into their supplychain from the post-consumer waste stream.

Collecting all those used bottles is another issue.  This is where Coke has taken things a step further and invested through there bottling subsidiary, Coca-Cola enterprises, to create a new recycling organization, Coca-Cola Recycling LLC.  This new entity will recover PET along with other recyclable materials from a variety of sources, including government recycling centers, NASCAR events, college football stadiums, and even their own manufacturing network. This shows just how comprehensive of an initiative this is, that Coke is truly attempting to create a workable construct for reaching the eventual goal of recycling 100% of their packaging.

Whether or not the venture will be profitable is another question.  It is fair to assume that such a program would at least pay-off in the long-term, but the recent dive in the cost of virgin PET surely isn’t helping.  The cost of virgin plastic is at the core of the challange for most businesses interested in recycling. As long as the cost for virgin plastic is low, the business argument for recycling is on very weak footing.  However this passed year has shown us that commodity prices can sky rocket in the blink of an eye (consider the price of oil this past summer) and when that does happen, and it will, we will see if Coke’s bottle-to-bottle brainchild can step up to the plate.

I realize this is story has already been kicked around quite a bit over the last few months. But as a designer who has worked with many large CPGs it is inspiring to see a company rise to the challenges of a complex problem and take a broader look at what their situation could be rather than simply accepting what it is, or what it has been in the past.  On the announcment of the facility opening last month Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America best summerized things by saying “The opening of the Spartanburg plant, coupled with our investment in recycling businesses, programs and a new marketing effort, underscores our belief that our packaging has value and we want it back – both for our own supply chain and to support the myriad of other uses for recycled aluminum and plastic.”

dark days for recyclers

recycling

I hate open things up on such a down note but I just finished reading a series of articles dating back a few weeks that discuss the dismal state of the recycling industry, and I can’t help but reiterate a bit.  The recycling industry is in the midst of an economic ‘perfect storm’ which is being driven by two significant shifts in the global marketplace.  The principle cause is, not surprisingly, the current economic slow-down which has drastically reduced consumer demand for manufactured goods, including those made from recycled materials.  The situation is further compounded by the extreme drop in prices for many raw material commodities over the last few months which have made virgin materials far cheaper than they where just a few months ago.    This has been especially visible in the market for plastics which because they are derived from petroleum have been subject to the steep dive in oil prices from nearly $140 a barrel over the summer to around $40 today.

So just another victim of the bad economy – why is this significant? Because such a severe drop in demand for recycled materials means that the many thousands of tons of material that are being collected and separated on a daily basis, stand the chance of being sent to the landfill if their vendors and handlers can’t find something to do with them.  Furthermore some of these recyclers my look to scale down the amount of material they collect in order to stem rising inventories. That is if they don’t close down all together. The current situation seems almost hard to believe considering the nearly opposite state of affairs a year ago.

610x

In 2008 we saw one of the greatest booms in the recycling industry in decades, mid-2008 marking an all time high for many material markets.  This was paralleled by an even more extreme spike in the cost of virgin materials, which made recycled materials a competitive alternative for many manufacturers.  This resulted in the added bonus of such manufacturers seeking out new and improved ways to incorporate recycled material into their products, pushing better technology, efficiency, and even improving consumer education.  Now it looks like a lot of that progress is under threat, as many producers scale back production, revert back to virgin material, and leave recyclers to retreat the industry due to a simple lack of solvency.

Recycling has always had its skeptics, so it’s painful for many ardent supporters to see things in such a desperate state.  But it should be recognized that the market for recycled materials must be willing to withstand the same volatility as any other commodity-based market, a point well taken by most of the surviving large-scale recyclers.  In other words, this is merely a cyclical phase for recycling, from which it will undoubtedly rebound. Regardless, one would still hope that this could be achieved without adversely affecting the existing recycling infrastructure, which is already being diminished.  Maintaining pure and reliable ‘streams’ or sources of recycled materials has always been the greatest challenge for the industry, because such infrastructure is clearly expensive to establish where it does not already exist.  Virgin materials are produced from well established supply chains, all the way down the the extraction of raw materials they are refined from.  Sure, these industries are also affected by the same economic turmoil that is hurting recycling, but the main difference is one of perception.  If the demand for virgin paper or plastic slows, the surplus created is not automatically considered waste.  It is a lot easier to ignore the potential value of something considered ‘garbage’ than it is to disregard a newly produced, not yet utilized commodity product.

terrac2

This stands to some reason.  After all most recycled materials do lack in quality and performance characteristics when compared to they’re virgin counterparts.  However this does not mean that there are not still innumerable potential uses for these materials that have yet to be developed.  The success of new products that incorporate recycled sources is the greatest testament to the validity of the industry, and is even more important in the face of current adversity.  Additionally there are new business models emerging that may also hold value in preserving the future of the industry. One of the more interesting examples is demonstrated by Coca-Cola Company’s recent construction of the largest bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in the world.  This shows an unprecedented amount of investment by an actual manufacturer into the waste-stream, reaffirming the long-term strategy of viewing consumer waste as a valuable resource.  While this is a seemingly straight forward approach, there are still other models that illustrate more innovative strategy.  TerraCycle the NJ-based company that first began by re-using discarded plastic bottles to package their eco-friendly gardening products, has now expanded there business to include numerous products, upcycled directly from post-consumer packaging collected out of the waste stream.  This innovative approach capitalizes on the standardized attributes of much consumer packaging by repurposing as new products without spending the energy and capital that would be necessary to reprocess it into all together new forms.

There is of course no one solution to the current challenges facing the recycling industry.  It will undoubtedly be a combination of approaches that will endure the current problems and keep the industry going forward.  Hopefully some of these new, and reinvented companies will inspire others to take on the challenge of capturing the value inherit to our consumer waste-stream.  It is there for the taking, economy permiting.