Eco-design initiatives gather momentum

The role of eco-design in reducing the environmental impact of consumption has received a boost with the formation of a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) working group on sustainable product development.1 The move builds on national studies in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe - and in the UK the Government has now dipped a toe in the water by sponsoring a seminar on eco-design for the telecommunications industry.

The incorporation of environmental considerations into products at the design stage is an increasingly important trend, with the Netherlands leading the way. Some major firms, such as the Philips electronics company (ENDS Report 224, pp 22-24 ), have set up formal systems to put new products through a "green filter", while the Dutch Government is sponsoring a national eco-design project.

Initial results from this project have just been published. A team of designers and environmental experts, co-ordinated by the TNO Product Centre and Delft Technical University, studied eight product systems, including chairs, car dashboards, coffee vending machines and a flower distribution system, and suggested ways in which manufacturers could improve them.

In general, the amount of material used could be reduced by 10-30% with no deterioration in product performance. Energy savings ranged between 20-50% - and in the flower distribution business reached 90% if a simple switch was made from throw-away to reusable trays.

These changes were "rather easy", according to project leader Albert Zweers. He expects further improvements to meet greater resistance as more radical changes to the product system are introduced.

Through the Dutch project and similar initiatives in Denmark, Germany and Austria, there are now many published guides for designers to improve the environmental credentials of products. UNEP has identified over 50 government-sponsored initiatives - and now hopes to disseminate this information and stimulate similar initiatives elsewhere. It is concentrating on major developing countries, such as China and India, where a massive rise in consumerism is expected.

The project is aimed at feeding information on eco-design into UNEP's Cleaner Production database in Paris. It is also hoped to create a global network of contacts, set up regional centres in each continent, and spread information via a newsletter and seminars.

The European Commission has also promoted eco-design under its EUREKA programme, although this is due to finish in 1994. Under this scheme, which encourages collaborative research and development, electronics companies - including Siemens, Sony and Philips - are attempting to develop faster methods of conducting life-cycle assessments.

Several EUREKA seminars have also been held, including one in March on the telecommunications industry organised by the Royal Society of Arts and sponsored by the UK Government. The RSA hopes to hold other eco-design seminars on buildings, transport, white goods and office machinery.

The outcome of the first seminar is still uncertain, but a number of interesting proposals were made. One suggestion was that BT should lead an industry working group to assess how it can contribute to sustainable development. A group of companies may also set up a study to examine how telecommunications can reduce business travel.

In addition, the seminar heard proposals for a standard numerical scheme to assess suppliers, and for a working group to draw attention to product standards which unfairly outlaw recycled materials. Further options include the development of a modular approach to telecommunications design, so that worn and obsolescent components can be easily replaced. For details contact Mike Harrison at the RSA on (071) 930 5115.

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