Corporate designers on the loose

David Wann

October 08, 1991|By David Wann

IT'S NOT my department where they come down," German rocket inventor Werner von Braun once said. His job in the pioneer days of space flight was simply to get the rockets up. In much the same way, many corporate managers inherited an agenda that stresses getting profits up, regardless of where discharges and pollutants "come down."

The good news is that this approach is becoming obsolete and the corporate world knows it. Government officials and environmental groups are calling one aspect of the new thinking "source reduction," the deliberate redesign of products and processes to reduce the amount and the toxicity of America's wastes. The Polaroid Corporation's significant reduction of mercury in its batteries is one example of source reduction. Before regulations required it, the company voluntarily decided that because mercury causes problems when solid waste is incinerated, an alternative must be found.

The ink industry took the same approach with the lead that has for many years been a routine ingredient in its products. Incentives for the actions on lead were both ethical and practical. The companies wanted to reduce the risks of lead poisoning to their workers and in final products such as the printing on diaper boxes. They wanted to reduce company liabilities at dump sites where ink wastes are disposed (the Superfund law provides that even a small company can be held liable for the cleanup of an entire landfill). They wanted to avoid a negative public image. Ethics and pragmatism overlapped to foster a better product.

Meanwhile, the Newspaper Publishers Association has successfully begun marketing inks made of 70 percent soybean oil. With far fewer environmental problems with wastes, a good reputation for "brighter, cleaner colors" than petroleum-based inks and good performance on presses, the new products are already being used by several major newspapers.

Corporate designer Stewart Mosberg, president of the Package Design Council, believes that nature-compatible design (what I call "biologic") is bound to claim a market position in the 1990s, and that the words Non-Toxic! and Recyclable! on packages will be tickets to product success. At the same time, he sees designers as a critical element in solving the landfill space problem, for the right reasons.

The rules are changing for designers, just as for the rest of us. Designers need guidelines for products that will more closely resemble orange peels and nut shells in function. They need to know things like:

L * Is the package even necessary? Can it use fewer materials?

* Is the package "monomaterial" or is it multimaterial and thus difficult to recycle?

* Can it be compacted to reduce the need for landfill space or will it "float" in landfills like plastic milk jugs do?

* Can the package be safely incinerated without harmful emissions?

* Does it use recycled materials in its manufacture?

* Does existing or proposed legislation affect the design of the package?

* Can the package be reused in its present form, or will energy be required to bring a second life into being?

A small company named I-Corp has developed a container that seems to be right on track. I-Corp's recyclable plastic bottles have tongues and grooves that interlock in any quantity desired, eliminating the need for plastic yokes and auxiliary packaging such as shrink wraps, cardboard dividers and basket carriers. The blow-molded bottle also has a potential "reincarnation." When compatible wall-mounted brackets are fastened to a wall, the bottles could serve as spice containers, nail organizers or refillable shampoo bottles.

A friend of the inventor even made a successful raft out of them. After a three-year wait for a patent, the interlocking bottle is now on the market and I-Corp is looking for products to bottle.

There is a growing trend to reduce the amount of packaging used in the distribution of products as well. When a company receives a truckload of production materials or a retailer receives a load of finished products, there are usually mounds of corrugated boxes, metal strapping, wooden pallets and polyethylene sheeting to be thrown away.

Since the costs of disposal have gone up so dramatically, companies are starting to rethink distribution packaging, especially when the sender and receiver are owned by the same company. General Motors, for example, has adopted returnable plastic baskets to distribute parts, which suppliers can sell back to GM. After complaints from retailing customers about disposal costs, Kimball International began shipping its custom-built office furniture "uncartoned," using a combination of blankets, straps and decks to replace packaging.

One of the most challengeable assumptions about packaging is that we will continue to demand products from 2,000 miles away. How much packaging would not even be necessary if much of our food was grown locally, and many of our manufactured products could be purchased right at the factory? We are making progress. Coming from several different directions at once, we're homing in on sensible design which costs less, fits better and feels right.

David Wann is author of "Biologic: Environmental Protection by 1/2 Design."

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