ORLANDO – Sustainability will only continue to increase as a key materials-choice factor going forward, as brand owners, product developers and designers aim to satisfy customer wishes while minimizing the environmental impacts associated with making such goods.
A diverse, SABIC-sponsored panel at the recent NPE 2015 plastics show in Orlando addressed some of the forces driving these trends, which include a material’s chemistry, life-cycle metrics, regulation, and consumer perceptions. In a session titled “Designing the Future: How Materials Can Change the World,” author and former IDEO materials guru Kara Johnson stressed the importance of storytelling in conveying the properties and values of any material.
Johnson – who recently departed IDEO, the world’s largest design consultancy, after 14 years – has degrees in industrial engineering and material science from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in materials engineering from Cambridge University in the UK. But despite all the technical expertise, her focus tends to be on the emotional connection that materials make with people.
“I love materials that people love, and I think those materials need to have their stories told. I started with felt, I’ll do concrete next. But plastic has a story to tell, and the people and companies and suppliers who are here need to bring that love to life,” she said.
“And that is what I think sustainability is about. If you can create materials that people love, and create products that people love, people buy less of those products. People keep those products; people will reuse those products. We don’t want stuff that is useless or mindless, we want stuff that’s loved and has a great story. That’s sustainability, that’s a better world, that’s a changed world. We need to start by doing it ourselves and telling our kids about it.”
Panelist Kiersten Muenchinger – director and associate professor of the University of Oregon’s Product Design Program, and a principal of its Green Product Design Network – also likes exploring the emotional aspect of materials, as it relates to sustainability. A practicing designer before she became a teacher and researcher, Muenchinger was perplexed by a mystery related to plastics. She said she recognized both “how fantastic polymers are at solving problems,” but also “how absolutely despised they are in any talk about sustainability.” This was “a real disconnect for me and it’s a problem for me, and I want to know more about how this happens.”
So in her studies she takes polymers and other materials, gives them to people and asks them to respond to them based on sliding scales about how sustainable they think they are. She employs different sustainability tactics that are used in design to help with the assessment – asking such things, for example, as: how long you would keep such a product, how precious is it to you, how luxurious does it feel, and when its useful life is done, does it seem like waste or like something that is recyclable?
She learned that people don’t have a strong reaction to material samples, but they do have an emotional connection to specific products made from those materials. In her surveys, she provides similar products, such as drinking cups, made from different types of materials (aluminum, ceramics, glass and various plastics), and asks people to rank them (see photo and graphs – if you choose to use them).
She has discovered that various material characteristics tend to be more associated with sustainability than others. For example, the more transparent an object is, the more people seem to think it is sustainable. Another characteristic is naturalness. “If a material is seen as being natural, people respond to it much more positively as being sustainable.” She also learned that people don’t tend to factor into the sustainability equation how precious something is, or how long they are likely to keep it.
David Saltman, on the other hand, feels strongly about the chemistry of the materials he uses, and the resulting strength and longevity of the products his company makes from them. Saltman, chairman and CEO of the San Diego-based Malama Composites Inc., is an entrepreneur who now is aiming to disrupt how affordable homes are built.
Despite major advances in the fields of structural engineering and material science, Saltman claims the construction industry remains solidly rooted in the Stone Age. “Quite literally,” he noted, “mankind is still nailing sticks and stacking stones. As a result our homes and buildings are resource- and energy-inefficient, and structurally unsound when challenged by earthquakes, storms, floods or fires.” His favorite catch phrase is that “it’s high time that our homes match the IQ of our phones.”
So Malama (pronounced ma-LAH-ma) has developed a line of bio-based, rigid polyurethane foams that contain no toxic chemicals, are fire- and moisture-resistant, and can be easily recycled. The A side is still MDI (methyl diisocyanate), but the B side consists of polyols derived from castor, soy, algae or recycled PET. Saltman’s polyol of choice now comes from castor oil. He says Malama uses none of the toxic brominated or chlorinated fire retardants that are commonly found in urethane foams.
Malama has named its system ACASA, for Advanced Composite & Steel Architecture, and its mission “is to create very high-performing, low-cost, rapidly deployable, architecturally design-agnostic facilities.” Any shape of house can be made, he said –from modern to traditional, from flat to peeked, from square to round – and can be constructed in one week.
Steel beams carry the loads and provide channels for power and water distribution, and panelized doors, windows and walls slide into the steel frames. Geo-composite surfaces are then applied both inside and out, and designs can be localized to meet climates, cultures and budgets of each community.
This combination of steel framing with Malama’s structural foams – which are Class A fire-rated, zero-emission, carbon-negative material – yields incredibly strong, lightweight structures that can be built up to three stories high.
“So you’re giving the homeowner a much higher-quality home that won’t blow down, it won’t burn down, and if you detached it from its foundation it would literally float,” claims Saltman. “It’s mostly foam, but it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like cement. These panels are 9mm bullet proof. So you want to make sure that, culturally, you’re giving people concrete and not a plastic house – very, very important.”
Malama plans to build its first 11 such homes in 11 different climatic regions of the U.S. this year. And the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory will measure their performance. “So we’ll let the genie out of the bag this year — all 11 have to be built this year,” Saltman said.
Diane Turnwall, vice president of materials innovation at office furniture-maker Herman Miller Inc., shares Saltman’s keen interest in the origin of the materials used in HMI’s final products.
“At Herman Miller, we used to look at materials, now we look at chemistries,” she told the 80-strong audience at this panel session that preceded the Industrial Designers Society of America’s South District Design Conference. And HMI also is working hard to drive closed-loop recycling.
HMI’s Design for the Environment (DfE) team has initiated a protocol to guide this effort, which aims to manufacture 100 percent DfE-approved products within 10 years. In the Environmental Advocacy section of the company’s website, it also states: “One of our design tenets is durability. We design for repeated use, repair, maintenance, and reassembly using standard parts, as often as possible.”
Referencing the focus on product chemistry, Turnwall said, “The goal is to get to recycled and bio-based materials, and long-term, have that be 100 percent.”
Herman Miller is well known for the rigorous environmental scorecard that it insists all of it vendors complete thoroughly, so that it can accurately track the entire life-cycle impacts of the materials it uses – down nearly to the molecule level.
Such metrics are vital to help guide good decision making by society’s leaders as well as product developers, noted Tobias Schultz, manager of environmental sustainability services for SCS Global Services in Oakland, Calif.
Schultz, who works with the firm’s Life Cycle Assessment team, told the audience that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects in the next 20 years that we’re going to see as much global warming as has occurred in the past 200 years. Some results will be rising sea levels, destabilization of the Arctic climate, and an increase in extreme weather events.
As a result, Schultz argues, we need to get to a world with net-zero or even net-negative environmental impact levels as quickly as possible. But that is challenged by the fact that the metrics we use now to guide actions are woefully inadequate.
“We are engaged in a process to have a complete set of metrics that are going to satisfy some of these concerns that I’ve talked about. It’s going through a standardization process in the U.S. and it will soon be going to the international standardization process. I think that at least is a starting point to help designers and engineers… to help guide their effective actions.”
And increasingly, Schultz noted, greater scrutiny of sustainability claims is likely to lead to more regulatory actions on this front, which in turn will put more pressure on designers and engineers to pay close attention to such factors in the product development process.
Near the session’s end, moderator Gaylon White, who formerly served as director of design programs for Eastman Chemical Co. and now heads his own Atlanta-area consultancy called Orbiting Creative LLC, circled back to the storytelling theme espoused by Kara Johnson. He pointed out how forest products giant Weyerhaueser has developed a practical method for incorporating cellulose fiber into its Thrive brand of thermoplastic composites. The firm tells the story in this compelling YouTube video.
White told the audience, which included plastics executives as well as a number of professional and student designers, to seek out compelling – and environmentally responsible – combinations of materials, to tell your material’s story, and to strive to connect emotionally with your customers. But, above all, he stressed: “You need to be passionate about what you’re doing. Maybe you can’t change the world, but maybe you can change something in your hometown, or in your home, or with your children.” That, the panel concurred, is the essence of sustainability.
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