About the work
Eco-consultant Rob Holdway believes the environment is a great design constraint, arguing creativity thrives when constraints need to be overcome. Sue Evans reports.
“We talk about design for a one planet economy, but if we carry on consuming like we do now, we’re going to need another planet to provide raw materials and absorb our emissions. We’re living so far from being sustainable it’s untrue. So the question is how can we live within our means on the planet that we have?”
One way is to look at materials choices within a framework of resource efficiency to reduce the environmental impact of the production and consumption of products and services throughout their lifecycle.
What happens to materials at the end of a product’s life is as important as taking account of the embodied carbon in the materials specified in the first place. As well as designing something that works functionally, looks good, is economic for both client and user, designers can achieve a product with a good environmental impact by designing components that can be recovered, reused or easily recycled. Designers should avoid incompatible materials that have to be manually separated at end of life or worse sent to landfill.
Giraffe Innovation worked with Virgin Atlantic on the design of their new in-flight service, specifying materials for a more sustainable product. Rob was involved early in the design stage, advising on different material choices, including metals, plastics, ceramics and soft-touch coatings on trays. He worked with Virgin Atlantic’s in-house design team to marry aesthetic principles and functional requirements with a lower embodied carbon impact.
The new service uses recycled materials such as RPET from plastic bottles and is also lighter in weight, important for reducing fuel consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions.
“We considered all the small things that fit within the brand experience for the consumer that would demonstrably improve the carbon footprint. At the same time the visual and brand has been massively enhanced.”
Countering the perception that eco-designed products are somehow inferior, Rob points to work by Giraffe Innovation for hi-fi companies Bowers & Wilkins and Meridian. The project funded by WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) aimed to show that post-consumer plastic waste which had gone through civic amenity sites could be reprocessed and built into new high status, premium quality products. In this case the materials were plastic recyclates from discarded televisions and Playstations.
The challenge for Rob was using these materials on external facing components without detracting from the product’s appearance or technical function. A grille for Bowers & Wilkins speakers, costing £20,000 a pair, was moulded using recycled high impact polystyrene and was successful in trials.
Using recycled plastics in this way resulted in a 24.6% cost saving and a carbon footprint reduction of around 70%. Rob believes the practice is not more widespread because people are limited by their knowledge and expectations of what these materials can achieve. Something he hopes will change.
The environmental impact of plastic waste pales when compared with that of electronics. Mining and extracting what are termed ‘Critical Raw Materials’ and ‘Rare Earth Metals’ has a massive environmental cost. These materials, which include silver, gold, palladium, bismuth, antimony and tantalum, are vital for the production of modern electronic technology and their supply is running out.
“In some parts of the world they are going to struggle to produce electronics because of the absence of these materials. If we are going to build Critical Raw Materials and Rare Earths into electronics, we need to make the process more cyclic. We should consider RFID tagging of circuit boards for recovery and active disassembly using smart materials such as shape memory alloys. Reuse is a priority obviously, but we’re not reusing a lot of this stuff. It’s not designed to be reused.”
For him the figures stack up: by 2020 about 12 million tonnes of WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) will be disposed of in the UK, meaning at current prices the amount of palladium involved could be worth £1 billion and iridium £380 million.
Rob is excited about current developments in materials science, including the possibility for dematerialisation brought about by reductive electronics, conductive textiles and flexible film displays. He is also interested in Augmented Reality and what that can do for dematerialisation.
“You augment reality by virtual representation of data, so if you want to have an experiential system for flying on an airline, for example, you could do that completely through augmented reality.”
Acknowledging there’s still an energy burden even though much lower, Rob firmly believes in enhancing the consumer experience without having to create more stuff.
Rob Holdway is Director of Giraffe Innovation, described by The Guardian as one of the UK’s top green businesses. He is an associate professor at Brunel University School of Engineering Design and a former London Leader. Rob presented Dumped, a Channel 4 environmental reality programme, and directed the RSA WEEE Man project. He is an industrial designer by training and previously a research fellow at the Royal College of Art.