Does sustainable design have to cost more than using non-sustainable materials?

With daily reminders that we are destroying our planet, and ever increasing warnings on the minimal time we have left to avert global disaster, we are often found looking to government, or the key global powers for answers to a problem which seems too big to confront. However those of us working to develop new products have as good a platform as any to impart significant change, and offer our customers products which meet their demands while minimising their impact on the planet. As consumers are becoming more aware of the impact their purchases are making, so too rises their demand for us to design in a sustainable manner which doesn’t compromise on quality. But does a sustainable, eco-friendly design approach essentially equate to a more expensive product? The answer – not always! And with some forward thinking intelligent design, in some cases we can even reduce both cost and environmental impact in parallel.

Plastic it seems is one of the most guilty candidates when it comes to damaging the planet. Of all the plastic produced over the past 70 years, astonishingly just 9% has been recycled with the remainder going either into landfill or worse just into as waste in environment.1. This makes for grim reading, but the truth is that plastic is also a miracle material which has had an immeasurably positive impact throughout its relatively short life, dramatically reducing the price of products of all varieties not to mention improving product functionality and opening up possibilities which were previously inconceivable. So the answer is not to demonise plastics, and try to rid them entirely, but rather to use them more sparingly, and to use more sustainable plastics wherever possible.

From a product development point of view, one very simple way to address this is to ensure that the products we are designing are not over-engineered. Simply by reducing the volume of plastic required to produce a part, we can have a direct impact on the footprint of our products, and reduce their impact at the end of the product life cycle. Take for instance a standard plastic electronic housing. The vast majority of these are produced from ABS – a very strong, cost effective and widely available plastic with excellent mechanical properties with a wall thickness of around 2.5 – 3mm. This makes these enclosures incredible rugged and able to withstand large forces – but the obvious question here, is is this degree of strength always necessary? In some case it may well be – an electronic enclosure which is likely to be handled and therefore dropped may well require a rugged casing. But in other cases possibly not. For products which are to be handled infrequently, or are mounted in some way, there may well be scope to change the production material to an alternative with similar albeit slightly less industrial mechanical properties. Or alternatively, we could use ABS but with a lower general wall thickness thus reducing the total volume of plastic required. Attractively, this also reduces the unit cost, thus presenting obvious financial opportunities.

Another alternative lies in the possibilities which modern bioplastics provide. Bioplastics are plastics which are derived of natural (biological) resources rather than petroleum. While traditional Petroleum based plastics can take thousands of years to decompose, Bioplastics can have much shorter decomposition times with some taking as little as 180 days (obviously not desirable for all applications). While Bioplastics are still relatively expensive in comparison to traditional plastics, as the price of oil rises, they are also likely to become much more economically viable.

As consumers become more aware of the environmental impact of their purchases, the use of Bioplastics is quickly becoming a valuable USP helping companies to differentiate themselves from their competition. A recent example of such success can be found with ‘Pela’2., a company which produces phone cases made from Flaxstik – a bioplastic material which contains flax straw ‘waste’. In a saturated market, ‘Pela’ have found a niche by offering a product which provides a much reduced environmental impact as compared to traditional plastic alternatives.

At present, Bioplastics are still a way from being able to replace traditional plastics such as ABS and PolyCarbonate for the vast majority of products – a fact demonstrated most clearly by a high profile campaign by ‘Lego’ to make their product using fully sustainable materials by 2030. At present they have replaced just 2% of their products with a Bioplastic alternative to ABS – namely for non structural parts such as bushes and trees.3. As explained by a Lego Vice President, Tim Brooks “We’ve had 50 years to play with ABS and perfect it. We’re not at that stage with bio-based materials and recyclable materials. How do you control the shrinkage in the mold? How do you control processing the material? The colors?”3.. However this is certainly an area of the manufacturing industria to keep a close eye on. Change is in the air, and it won’t be long before significant progress is made, and Bioplastics are viable for a vast new array of applications.