Contributed by Amanda Kibbel, Student, University of Oregon.
In fall 2015, I enrolled in the chemistry course, Green Product Design, designated as a science class for non-science majors taught by chemistry professor Julie Haack at the University of Oregon. I had been looking for classes with a focus on sustainability because, I realized that I lacked knowledge about a crucial aspect of the purpose of design: how to design sustainably. If I want to create sustainable products in the future, not knowing the full environmental impact of objects is a great disadvantage to me as a designer. If designers continue to create with little thought to the greater impact of their products, eventually they will run out of resources and materials greatly limiting product design’s potential. Continuing on our current track of using non-sustainable materials or using manufacturing processes that are harmful to the earth we are essentially designing our craft/trade into obsolescence.
One of the first projects Product Design students are given is to make a stool out of one plank of wood. We are told this is all the wood we will receive that quarter, a lesson in respecting material with the intention of illustrating that wood is a precious commodity that should not be wasted. Looking back now, I realize I knew nothing about the life cycle of that piece of wood. As a designer, I need to know where the wood comes from, how it is processed, and/or benefits and limitations of using that type of wood in terms of sustainability. Today, I would also think about the type of glue I was using and how it affects the recyclability of the product or the sandpaper and how you can only use it for a certain amount of time before you have to throw it away. This course showed me how I could use Green Chemistry to design products and processes that minimize the use and generation of waste and hazardous substances. Green Chemistry became part of my design thinking. When I am designing a product in my classes, I am now able to more fully understand and think about what is involved, how the planet is impacted, and generate ideas for alternative material solutions to current problems.
Another critical skill the course taught me was how to balance challenges and opportunities of certain materials. The final group project required the culmination of all that we had learned that applied to creating a greener consumer product. My group consisted of three majors: Product Design, Business, and Environmental Studies. We chose LEGOs as our consumer product. LEGOs are an interactive toy made through injection molding of Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic. When choosing a new material, we were asked to look at the whole picture. If we chose to switch to a biodegradable product, we also had to consider the fact that biodegradation is meaningless if the toy ends up in a landfill. Switching materials pushed us to consider the tradeoffs between petroleum and biobased feedstocks; one feedstock is in limited supply while the other has large land and pesticide requirements. Finally, we examined the life cycle of different materials and asked which was making the best use of energy.
Knowing that trade-offs are important and understanding general principles of molecular design, I am now able to more thoughtfully generate certain criteria for “greener” materials. Designers spend a majority of their time researching users, defining the true issue the user is facing, and growing a more holistic understanding of how to choose materials for certain characteristics. While designers are trained at choosing the best materials for function, sometimes the materials we choose are not the kindest choice in regards to the earth.
Before taking the course I saw chemistry and product design as two subjects that could be somewhat related but were not often seen working together. Afterwards, I gained a new understanding about the similarities between the two subjects. Both are given starting materials, whether it is a plank of wood or monomers, and it is up to the designer or chemist to design the finished product with as little waste as possible and with constant consideration of its environmental impacts.
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