By Architect Marco Capellini
Since the second half of the ’80’s, the environmental problematic – tied to the “indefensibility” of actual lifestyles, of production and consumption, of excessive exploitation of environmental and energy resources, of pollution and of climactic change – has taken the front stage in the economic and political debate of the international community. initiating a process of strong sensitization which the institutions, the enterprises and consumers have invested in.
It is into this context which Ecodesign or Design for Environment (DfE) inserts itself, a methodology targeted at the integration of environmental features into the design and development of a product, a service or a combination of the two.
Over the course of years, environmental impact tied to production, to the large consumption of products, and to the disposal of waste has become of increased concern with the helping hand of an ever more restrictive communal and international legislation.
With the principle of responsibility extended to the manufacturer, norms have been introduced which obligate one to take on the burden, both technical and economic to recuperate and recycle those products which have reached the end of their lifecycle. It is a principle which until today has been applied to the packing industry, to the car industry, to electric and electronic products, and is in the application phase for additional compartments of production.
In the legislative realm, great relevance has been attributed to the reduction of the energy consumed by a product during its phase of use, and the exploitation of low environmental-impact materials (recycled, natural, or products with principles of environmental safeguarding).
In addition, with the “Green Public Procurement” the public administrations are impelled to adopt environmental criteria in the procedure for acquiring goods and services; Italy was one of the first countries to introduce a standard which established a requirement for the public administrations to cover their annual requirement for handwork and goods, with a quota of products obtained from recycled materials to the tune of 30 per cent.
Ecodesign is becoming the ideal instrument with which to sensibly improve the environmental performance of a product throughout its lifecycle, because it already operates in the phases of ideation and design, pushing for a rationalization of the use of materials, optimizing the techniques of production and distributive system, minimizing the consumption of energy and rendering the final disposal phase of the product more manageable.
Assessing and improving the environmental impact of a product throughout its lifecycle can in some cases be a very articulated action, primarily for complex products characterized by various components and materials such as automobiles and household appliances.
For this reason, it is important to define the strategy of intervention and the final objectives one intends to achieve before starting any ecodesign operation: reduction of environmental resource consumption, use of material derived from renewable or reutilized resources, and recycling of other products, reduction in the production of waste, energy consumption and of polluting emissions. By analyzing the lifecycle of a product (Life Cycle Assessment – LCA), from the material selection phase until that of dismission and recycling, it is possible to understand how one determines the points of a particular product’s environmental impact, and consequently define The sequential modalities of intervention.
If we analyze the lifecycle of a washing machine, for example, the phase of use represents the most critical period of environmental impact through energy and water consumption. while less complex products, like a chair the actual use of which has no environmental effect – impact the environment during the process of production. disposal and recycling.
With the strategy of Design for Disassembling one can intervene in order to anticipate and therefore facilitate the separation of all the components of the product for optimal reuse (Design for Reuse), or recycling (Design for Recycling).
One wrongly uses the term “recycle” to identify those products obtained through the “reuse” of manufactured parts and components.
Under “reuse” one understands the development of a product or a component which has become reused as a result of the reutilization of its original form: purses created out of used elastic, lamps created out of recuperated plastic bottles, seats composed of metal pieces from cars or domestic appliances.
Under “recycle” one understands, instead, the process of development of goods at the end of their life, or refuse from manufacturing, through the retreatment a new productive process, for the attainment of different materials or goods which can Transform the original function or diverse purpose. During the process of recycling, the refuse product or the waste from production are transformed into materials originally named secondary – chips, powder or granules – which can then be reworked.
During the planning phase of a new product, the choice of materials, recycled or natural, represents a relevant aspect because it can positively impact on the complex environmental balance; suffice to consider that the use of recycled aluminium allows for the conservation of 95 per cent of the energy with respect to virgin or primary aluminium, with an evident reduction in atmospheric pollutants, emissions of anhydride carbon (CO2) and discarded waste. This route, however. is not always traversable because of the technical characteristics which some components of the product must possess.
In the planning of a project using recycled materials, one must also consider its successive recyclability in order to encourage the lengthening of its lifecycle; whereas it might not be technically and economically possible, the eco-compatibility of a product created out of recycled materials, but not itself recyclable, would have to be evaluated on the basis of an attempt comparing environmental, economic and social benefits derived from the reduction in consumption of depleted environmental resources, from the least quantity of incorporated energy, from the reduction in the production of waste in initial unloading and of its potential energy development – with the relative environmental, economic and social costs.
In addition to the quality, ergonomics, safely, aesthetics and functionality, the environmental variables become an innovative criteria for rethinking the design of a product in a “sustainable” way.