The End is Near

The End is Near

Product manufacturers worldwide have invested millions to improve the sustainability of their production processes. From the harvesting of raw materials to packaging on the final product, innovative changes are enabling companies to significantly reduce their carbon footprints.

That cradle-to-grave approach has resulted in novel front-end thinking about the impact products have on the environment. But it's not enough. Until companies approach product design with end-of-life in mind, landfills will continue to overflow with these “sustainably-designed” products whose usefulness have come to an end.

“Cradle-to-grave thinking creates incredible waste,” says Jay Bolus, vice president of technical operations for McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a private consulting and Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) certification firm in Charlottesville, Va. “The concept has always been to throw things away when we are done with them, but there is no 'away' anymore. Unless we design with the end in mind, our legacy will be our landfills.”

This end-of-life design approach is gaining popularity in many green organizations where designers are incorporating characteristics into new products that allow for easy recycling, repurposing and dismantling when their current usefulness ends.

End-of-life design decisions must happen at the outset of product development for them to be effective, Bolus points out. “That focus informs a lot of other product decisions with respect to materials, how things fit together and how they come apart,” he says.

While this is a fairly new approach for some designers, industries such as floor coverings and automotive manufacturing have been leading the trend to identify and incorporate end-of-life choices that promise reduced waste for generations to come.

Driving A Trend

When people think of innovative green companies, they may not immediately think of the automotive industry, but auto manufacturers have been designing with end-of-life in mind for decades.

“Cars have been recycled for a very long time,” notes Dan Adsit, manager of vehicle environmental engineering for Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich. “We are very aware of what materials we use and how to bring them back at the end of a vehicle's life.”

Ford has strict requirements for recyclability in vehicle designs that starts at the drawing board and cascades across the development process. From using recycled materials in new vehicles and minimizing the use of restricted substances, to establishing processes and networks to dismantle, sort and repurpose up to 95 percent of any vehicle at the end of life, the auto industry has gotten end-of-life strategies down to a science.

And a big part of its success is industry members' willingness to collaborate with the competition.

“We believe that collaboration is the way to get things done,” says Claudia Duranceau senior research recycling engineer at Ford. “It allows us to be proactive, to work together to phase out materials, and to make sure we don't duplicate our efforts.”
Even in such a competitive market, all of the players in this industry agree that when it comes to end-of-life processes, there is more money to be made working together rather than apart. And the auto manufacturers benefit from being able to reclaim those materials for use in future vehicles.

“When we recycle cars, you can't tell where the material came from,” says Duranceau.

Ford works with the other major automotive players and regulators to help develop networks of dismantlers and to define processes for removing fluids, collecting and redistributing all of valuable materials, and shredding what remains for use as landfill covers to reduce dust and vermin.

Adsit notes that end-of-life dismantling services are privately-owned, not by auto manufacturers, but by independent entrepreneurs.  Ford encourages these entrepreneurs and helps get them off the ground in order to build a stronger network and improve the efficiency of the material collection process.

“There is inherent value in any material, but you have to have enough quality in the same place to run an efficient recycling process,” Adsit points out. “In the automotive industry, we all have the same end-of-life issues with our products. When we all get together and pool our resources to deal with those materials, we get the biggest bang for our buck.”

Floor It

While the automotive industry may have been thinking about end-of-life longer than most industries, it is certainly not alone in recognizing the value of industry collaborations to ramp up end-of-life recycling efforts.

The flooring industry has been thinking about end-of-life design for a long time, according to Bill Gregory, director of sustainability for Milliken, a privately held chemical and textile manufacturer based in Spartanburg, S.C.
Getting Started with End of Life These experts offer advice on how and why to make end of life a priority in new product design.

End-of-life design decisions are easiest to incorporate if they are made at the beginning of the project. “If you design end-of-life choices early on in the development process you have the best chance to delight customers and not have a devastating impact on the environment,” says Charles Ruffing, of Kodak. “If you wait until the end of the product cycle to think about end of life, it's too late, and people will see it as a burden rather than a value add.”

The hardest part of end-of-life design is getting the materials back. To ease the challenge, considering partnering across the industry to establish nationwide take-back networks. “Industries should cooperate on end-of-life collection because it's the right thing to do,” says Bill Gregory of Milliken. It's also a more efficient approach, says Ford's Dan Adsit. “There is no value in everyone duplicating the same effort.”

For take back programs to succeed, they have to be easy for consumers, advises Bolus. That means educating consumers, putting a toll free number on everything you make, and offering free pick-up, or making drop points easy and accessible. “You need to go to the lowest common denominator to make it work,” he says. “Make it easy, make it painless, and give consumers incentives for participating.”

Milliken has been investing in sustainable design and practices since its inception 35 years ago, and achieved a “zero waste to landfills” goal in 1999. Designing with end-of-life in mind is core to the company's sustainability initiatives.

“End-of-life design and recovery is an achievable goal,” says Gregory, who notes that floor covering companies have led the trend to find design solutions that allow for repurposing of old flooring materials. “There has been a big change in how floor coverings are made in the last five years to support end of life.”

In fact, one of the biggest challenges this industry faces is not how to design for end-of-life, but rather how to collect products for reuse rather than having consumers toss them into landfills.

“Getting materials back is a complicated part of end-of-life planning,” he admits, adding that collaborative efforts across the flooring industry are helping overcome that obstacle. Milliken is a member of Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), a joint industry-government effort to increase the amount of recycling and reuse of post-consumer carpet and reduce the amount of waste carpet going to landfills. Like the automotive industry, flooring companies set aside their competitiveness to find global solutions for end-of-life collection.

“Sustainability and end-of-life shouldn't be a marketing platform. It should be done because it's the right thing to do,” Gregory says. “That's why we are working on these challenges as an industry to develop the best solutions for collection.”

He also acknowledges that it is counter-productive for each company to have it's own collection and redistribution networks to recover old flooring. Part of Milliken's approach is a promise to consumer that if they replace their flooring with a Milliken product, Milliken will pick up any old flooring, and will reuse or recycle it free of charge.

“It's nonsensical to have independent organizations doing the same thing,” he says. “Working synergistically is the best decision.”

Along with strong collection strategies, Milliken and others in the flooring industry are finding innovative design solutions to make flooring material easier to reuse once it has been collected.

At Milliken, end-of-life decision making comes at the outset of the project, along with choices about durability, health and human safety, performance and cost. That approach has resulted in many sustainable products, including its Earth Square product line, which features carpet tiles that can be super cleaned, retextured with new designs, and sold with a new guarantee.

That's just one of many products Milliken designs with sustainability and end-of-life in mind. “Being green is an important part of the business and it is part of everything we make,” says Gregory. “We don't just make one or two green products. We factor sustainability and environmental concerns into everything we do.”

Photo Finish

Kodak, the global film and camera giant based in Rochester, NY, has also been committed to end-of-life design for years. In the early '90s the company implemented the one-time-use camera take-back program, which set the stage for a corporate commitment to end-of-life thinking in product design.

“The one-time-use camera was a very successful product when it came out, but our stakeholders started talking about how these products were ending up in landfills and what our responsibility was,” says Charles Ruffing, director of health safety and environment for product stewardship at Kodak.  “We realized it might not be the right approach.”

In response the company launched a recovery program for the cameras at film developing labs. Unlike flooring or automotive companies, the lab-based collection program was an easy and obvious way to recover the cameras, because users brought them to film labs to develop their pictures.

“Our recovery rate is very high,” Ruffing says.

Along with avoiding landfill waste, Kodak soon realized there was a tremendous economic case for recycling the cameras, and other materials from its disposable products. “The economic case for closed loop recycling can be favorable for many materials once you take a closer look at them,” he says, noting that commodity prices for materials such as plastics is rising, making reuse of plastic components a viable economic choice.

The company also redesigned the one-time-use cameras for easier disassembly, achieving a 75-90 percent reuse rate of all the materials in the product.

And Kodak didn't stop there. Product stewardship and end-of-life design concepts are part of every new product development process, and one of the chief environmental attributes the company strives for is end-of-life design. That includes choosing snaps over screws, using rechargeable batteries that can be recycled, and making recovery of silver, which is a key expensive ingredient in photo films, easier to accomplish.

It also delivers sustainability training programs to employees across the company, says Ruffing. Kodak trains engineers, lab workers and everyone else who is involved with product development on how and why to make choices with end-of-life in mind.

“Training is the most important part of our approach,” he says. “There is a lot of innovation going on across the company, and I can't be at all the tables. But if you train people to think about end-of-life as an inherent part of the product design you've got a big leg up.”