Design industry must iron out its environmental apathy

With regard to the sustainable design feature (DW 17 November), to try to understand how designers and manufacturers can help address environmental issues, I recently visited an event run by Envirowise; a Government-financed programme to provide free, practical environmental advice for business.

Delegates to the event, held during the recent Manufacturing Week, were split into groups of four or five, each of which were assigned products that ranged from an electric kettle to an alarm-clock radio.

With the aid of a checklist that looked at everything, from packaging to material selection and overall function, my group spent an hour taking an electric steam iron apart and agreeing a range of environmental design priorities for use in a theoretical redesign.

As the iron was purchased from a catalogue showroom, there was no need for elaborate, full-colour packaging.

Major components were bonded into position when they could easily have been clipped together and plastic parts were painted, making re-grind or re-use very difficult. About a third of the plastic components were marked for easy material recognition, but the use of special fixings made disassembly for recycling, or even servicing, impossible.

Being a product designer, I would like to think I am aware of the environmentally flawed design details found in the steam iron, most of which, if modified slightly, would not only have less ultimate impact upon the environment, but also reduce assembly costs.

The real shock for me was not the realisation that it could only be three years (as highlighted in your article) before legislation drives a significant and welcome change in the way we approach consumer product design, but witnessing how far our sample branded consumer product was away from even starting to consider the impact it might have on the environment during its production, promotion, use and ultimate disposal.

Compounding my concern was the low level of interest in the event I attended. Of the thousands who must have visited Manufacturing Week I was joined by two other designers within a total audience of about 20. Either the rest of the design and manufacturing industry already have plans in place or we all have a great deal of work to do within the next three years.

Gavin Cawood

Senior design advisor

Design Wales

gcawood@designwales.org

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