The Top Green Design Stories of 2008

The Top Green Design Stories of 2008

Green design, like all things green, has spread into companies big and small and is now found in all sorts of products, packaging, supply chains and architecture. With many actual results being made throughout the year, there was also a hefty dose of support being given to concepts that will no doubt lead to cleaner, greener design innovations.

Green Products Go Mainstream

This year saw a number of large companies embrace green design in various ways, from making their own greener version of products to pushing better packaging design throughout their supply chains.

Early in 2008, Clorox launched its Green Works product line, offering natural, biodegradable versions of cleaners. The company’s first major foray into making its own green products was boosted by an endorsement from the Sierra Club.

Previously, Clorox made a major step in supporting safer products by purchasing personal care company Burt’s Bees in late 2007 for more than $900 million. Those two actions helped push up Clorox’s revenue, and sales research showed that Clorox’s new offerings are not stealing sales from companies like Seventh Generation, but are instead helping convert people away from harsher cleaners.

Although Clorox’s actions, and similar actions by other companies, have been labeled by some as greenwash, it shows large companies are realizing the need to change their product offerings. It also puts more environmentally friendly products in the marketplace, and gives smaller companies the ability to spread their green products further across the nation.

Arm & Hammer also introduced greener cleaners, but with the additional aspect of reduced packaging. The company’s Essentials line includes reusable bottles and small refills of cleaner concentrate.

And two businesses with extensive ability to influence other companies – Wal-Mart and Amazon – took steps to reduce the environmental impacts of packaging. Wal-Mart announced new changes to its packaging scorecard, which was introduces a few years ago, and Amazon introduced “frustration-free packaging,” which is both easier to open and uses fewer materials.

Recycling and Reusing More

Although some places in the U.S. don’t even have recycling programs, this year saw an expansion in the range of items that companies are able and willing to recycle, as well as an increase in the use of recycled content in packaging.

While plastic water and soda bottles are easily recycled, their bottle caps get tossed out during the recycling process, leaving those small bits, which can add up to a large mound of plastic, in the trash. Aveda, though, created a recycling program for just those items, collecting all sorts of plastic bottle tops to turn into packaging for its own products.

Terracycle is a company that has been making new items from trash for several years and this year set up a partnership with Kraft Foods to turn its snack wrappers and drink pouches into new items. Along with expanding its “upcycled” product offerings, Terracycle also now has programs for reusing corks, yogurt containers and soda bottles.

After almost a year of pressure, Brita’s North American operations have set up a system for recycling its water filters. While filtering water is a greener and cheaper choice than bottled water, it still leads to waste in the form of plastic filters. Brita’s filters will now be collected by Recycline to turn into toothbrushes, cups and other items.

And in showing that practically anything can receive new life, a Florida company called Dreamscapes has begun collecting and taking apart sex toys so that all of their individual materials can be reused or recycled.

Biomimicry Gets a Boost

A relatively recent hot topic, biomimicry gained some major support throughout the year. Using nature as inspiration for products, buildings and systems has existed for years; Leonardo da Vinci’s “flying machine” sketches were based off of bird wings, and products as diverse as barbed wire and Velcro have been modeled on nature. Many originations are now pushing to integrate biomimicry further into design, and researchers throughout the country have recently announced innovations such as superglue based on sea worms’ natural secretions and ceramics as strong as mother of pearl.

The Biomimicry Guild has developed a partnership with architectural firm HOK to help HOK better use biomimicry in designs. The Biomimicry Institute, which is the not-for-profit side of the Guild, launched an online database of biomimicry-based solutions, The Guild and Institute also helped develop Nature’s 100 Best, a compilation of nature-inspired ideas.

While not all biomimicry-related ideas are necessarily green ideas, many examples from the world of architecture have shown nature can provide ways to cool buildings without complicated machinery and make walls more dirt-resistant and easy to clean.

Cleaner Chemistry

Another concept that garnered support in 2008 and which, like biomimicry, could lead to major green design innovations, is green chemistry. The idea calls for the elimination of chemicals that are dangerous to humans or the environment, and the use of safer alternatives.

California has made the biggest strides in green chemistry in the U.S., launching the Green Chemistry Initiative to figure out ways to integrate green chemistry into education, manufacturing and other aspects of business. Two parts of the final green chemistry framework are already in motion due to legislation: an online listing of chemicals and hazards associated with them, and the use of a science-based process for evaluating chemicals at the state level, instead of making individual laws to deal with them.

While the idea of “green chemistry” is still in its infancy, its already in use in products widely available, ranging from cleaning products that use only natural ingredients to consumer products that have eliminated ingredients like lead and PVC.

The Year of BPA

One chemical that was especially talked about was bisphenol A, or BPA. The chemical is present in a myriad of items, but most concern about its use is centered on its inclusion in hard plastic bottles and children’s items.

With Canada and Taiwan each declaring BPA a toxic chemical, and Canada on the path to ban its use in certain cases, groups increased efforts to get the chemical regulated within the U.S.

Although the Food and Drug Administration declared that the current level of BPA in products is safe, it conflicted with the conclusion of the National Toxicology Program.

Many companies willingly started pulling bottles and kids items that contain BPA, and product makers either switched some products wholesale to BPA-free or developed BPA-free alternatives due to consumer demand.

The FDA is now renewing research into BPA, and legislators in both the House and Senate have declared they will reintroduce bills that would regulate BPA’s use.

Lead, too, continues to be a major issue in kids’ products, with the second database finding lead in 20 percent of the 1,500 toys they tested in 2008.