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The Shape of Things to Come

By: Andrew H. Dent, Material ConneXion
Posted: January 5, 2010, from the January 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.

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Sustainable design, the attempt to right the wrongs of industrial production by also considering the effect on human and environmental health, has gone through myriad iterations to get to its present state. However, we, as a whole, are relatively certain about what is necessary in order to produce a sustainable product, and how to reduce the environmental impact of its production, use and disposal.

Sustainable design becomes less a design problem and more an engineering and process problem, with the analysis of the best design conducted at the computer software level through life cycle analysis (LCA). Material and form decisions can only be made with due deference to the impact on the outcomes of the LCA; thus creativity becomes limited by the numbers resultant of this analysis. Will this stifle creativity? Will it end up with every company producing the same shape and type of product? Of course not. Design has always had to work within price limitations, so why should limitations in an effort toward sustainability be any different? It just requires more creativity from the designer, and that can never be a bad thing.

What does this mean for trends in sustainable design and new materials? It means that most are not design trends at all—they are additional restrictions on design (remember, this is not a negative thing). Here is a preview of a few important topics in Material ConneXion’s 2010 Material Technology Reports—Sustainable Design: Materials & Methodologies Driving Innovation and Advances in Materials for Consumer Products, an analysis of that which will continue to shape the way in which products and packaging are designed.

Recycling, Recovery and Re-use in Materials

High Quality Recycled and Recyclable Materials

Recycled materials are subject to the same standards as virgin materials. Designers are asking for bright white recycled papers, biodegradable plastics with high clarity, alternatives to polystyrene and compostable secondary packaging. The question remains: Does appearance need to be sacrificed to produce a sustainable product? A number of manufacturers have answered a resounding “no.” Milliken’s Millad produces high clarity polypropylene; Pace Industries’ PS-Absolve is an extruded, easily printed, yet compostable polystyrene sheet; and French company SGD introduced the first 100% recycled glass cosmetic containers in late 2008. These are but a few examples of the wider movement Material ConneXion is seeing toward attractive sustainability.