Designers get closer to raw materials, saving money and resources

Sensemaking / Designers get closer to raw materials, saving money and resources

Billions of pounds could be saved by connecting designers to materials early in the manufacturing process.

By Lizzie Rivera / 07 Oct 2013

You won’t find the words ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ on the website for The Great Recovery. The project aims to create the kind of networks and partnerships that will drive a resource efficient economy, by advocating closed-loop design. Its creators – the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) – believe the financial returns are incentive enough.

Moving away from the current ‘take-make-dispose’ manufacturing model to a more circular system could save UK business around £23 billion a year by 2020, estimates the Waste and Resources Action Programme. While the Ellen MacArthur Foundation/McKinsey report ‘Towards a Circular Economy’ predicts that the EU manufacturing sector could make up to £405 billion a year in resource savings. That should reduce the number of profit warnings issued by FTSE 350 companies – in 2011, nearly a third of them were attributed to rising resource prices.

Designers are a good starting point for change. Often, they’re barely connected to the manufacturing process behind the materials in their products, designing these on 2D screens. Most print designers are unaware, for example, that a single A4 piece of white paper can require 10 litres of water to produce. It’s hardly surprising that around 80% of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at the concept stage, according to the Design Council.

“The root is getting designers to think in cycles”, says Nat Hunter, Co-director of Design at the RSA. They need to design with longevity and the potential for leasing or service, re-use and material recovery in mind. “But they can’t do that until they get out of the studio. The minute someone visits a factory, it’s like a lightbulb goes on in their head. It’s an instant 180-degree turn-around in thinking.”

As such, The Great Recovery places a big emphasis on trips to factories and end-of-life sites. In  June 2013, seven designers visited paper manufacturer Arjowiggins Graphic’s pulp mill, Greenfield, in France. Here, paper mostly sourced from sorted office waste is pulped, de-inked and whitened to return it to a serviceable material for paper-making. The resulting residue of de-inked sludge is used as fertiliser by local farmers and in the production of cement and bricks for the construction industry – a fine example of closed-loop design in action.

For Julian Long, National Key Account Manager for Arjowiggins Graphic, the benefits of direct contact with the designers are two fold. It allows the company to keep ahead of paper trends and adapt to designers’ needs. “A manufacturer’s environmental credentials are of increasing importance to designers”, says Long.

“Following tours, designers often seek our advice on various areas of sustainability surrounding print.” This interaction enables the company to demonstrate the importance of, and its commitment to, sustainable manufacturing. For one, its pioneering methods for turning sorted office waste into high white pulp allows for the manufacture of very clean high white recycled paper, and by using recycled fibres the amount of water used is significantly reduced.

The mill visit offered designers an insight into the resource issues surrounding paper production, as their blogs for The Great Recovery website testify. Sion Whellens, Client Services Director of Calverts, a design and printing company, says: “The powerful mental images have stayed with me and inspired me to come up with more interesting ideas.”

Tara Hanrahan, Communication Designer at think/ do and a lecturer at University of the Arts London, found “the information on the  paper-weight or stock to another really interesting”. The machines never stop, she explains, generating a “strange hybrid paper” as they rework the raw pulp. “I instantly wanted to do a project with that transitional substrate”, she recalls.

For now, closed-loop design is a choice, not a mandate, but this could change. “We’re in a transition phase”, says Hunter. “All designers will have to adapt to thinking in product life-cycles – especially because of tightening EU regulations.” Connecting designers to the manufacturing process is a first step towards a closed-loop manufacturing. The next will be to help agencies and clients recognise the benefits. The financial case should make a difference: “People complain that sustainable design is not cheap enough”, Hunter says. “But as you reduce inefficiencies, you also reduce cost.” – Lizzie Rivera

Arjowiggins Graphic is a Forum for the Future partner.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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