ZWC 2014 – From Diapers to D.I.Y, Redesigning Products and Systems

A panel discusses how rethinking design and manufacturing systems can shift the linear economy to a circular or cradle-to-cradle model. From dealing with disposable diapers to building a better framework for do-it-yourself  projects, this wide-ranging conversation explores the ways business goals and sustainability principles can work together to deliver new opportunities within a zero waste world. The panel discussion was moderated by Bridgett Luther, President of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

The panelists were Jason Graham-Nye, CEO & Co-founder, gDiapers, Saskia van Gendt, Captain Planet, Method Products PBC, Joseph Chiodo, Designer and Inventor, Active Disassembly, Rich Gilbert, Co-founder, The Agency of Design, United Kingdom (via video link), and Dayna Baumeister, Co-founder and Keystone of Biomimicry 3.8. Numbers in brackets in the transcribed text indicate the time code for each section for those who wish to jump to a particular section of the video.

He liked the product so much he bought the company

Jason Graham-Nye

Jason Graham-Nye

(oo:28) Jason Graham-Nye opened the discussion with an overview of his company gDiapers. He recounted how he and his wife became aware of the waste impacts of disposable diapers and decided to find a way to address the issue.

“We happened upon a product that was already in existence in Australia, but was poorly marketed,’ explains Graham-Nye. “The solution that we found, was a gDiaper. It’s an outer pant that is reusable and an inner liner. This (liner) is plastic-free, flushable, recyclable and cradle-to-cradle certified. It’s home compostable (wet ones only) and commercially compostable. We thought it was a pretty neat solution to a pretty big problem.”

In fact, Jason and his wife liked the product so much that they bought the company, moved to America and launched gDiapers in North America and England. Their reusable products reduce the impact of diapers on landfills and at the same time provide raw material to create high quality fertilizer.Graham-Nye  also pointed out that while diapers for babies are a major issue in terms of landfills, the market for adult incontinence products in some countries is actually larger than that for children.Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 3.11.07 PM

He went on to outline how gDiapers has started a new pilot project called gCycle, in which the company works with 7 day-care centres in Australia to drop off clean diapers, pick-up soiled diapers, and create high-quality organic fertilizer that is used in the day-care gardens to grow food for the children.

“We discovered the number one issue for daycares was smell. The smell of all those disposable diapers sitting in their facility. So we drop off the product every week, pick up the soiled diapers, we get them commercially composted, and in seven days that high-quality compost is delivered back to them where they use it in their little market gardens where they grow food for the kids.”

Graham-Nye explained how they are now working with parents in Portland to create a network for diaper pick-up/drop-off that has an ultimate goal of deriving income from the fertilizer manufacturing.

“So we have created a couple of cycles there where you can actually monetize the result and the ultimate objective, looking at Millenial Moms who don’t want to spend $3000 on disposable diapers, is if we can market the end result (fertilizer) sufficiently, we can end up actually giving the diapers away.”

Working with natural ingredients helps Method find sustainability rhythm

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 3.16.13 PM

Saskia van Gendt

(5:50) Next up was Saskia van Gendt, speaking about Method – a company which makes non-toxic, bio-degradable cleaning and personal care products. She began by explaining how the company operates now, and where they are headed.

“Our current situation is designing for the existing systems, designing for recycling systems and wastewater treatment facilities, and also designing for consumer behavior.”

She explained that Method primarily sources natural materials and plant-based ingredients that will be compatible with commercial wastewater systems as well as septic systems. For packaging Method uses a lot of post-consumer recycled material.

“One of the main reasons is that it keeps the ‘engine’ of recycling going,” explained  van Gendt. “By sourcing post-consumer material you really incentivize recycling to begin with.”

The company also designs products for durability so they can be re-used, such as a 50 load bottle for laundry detergent that can be refilled to avoid unnecessary waste. Van Gendt said that they get letters from customers saying that they have been re-using the same bottle for as long as seven years (since the product went on the market).

van Gendt also highlighted their Ocean Plastic project.

“We actually harvested plastic from the Pacific Gyre that was on the beaches in Hawaii and developed a bottle using that material. (We’re) trying to really challenge the waste systems and how we use the plastic that we have.”Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 3.20.20 PM

Next van Gendt discussed the company’s future goals. She explained that Method currently uses many materials that come from food-based sources. They want to move towards utilizing materials that originate from waste or cellulose. She pointed out that industries such as electronics and chemicals will often have a lot of waste byproducts as a part of the manufacturing process and they hope to address that issue.

“How can we use byproducts to create ingredients in the first place? Instead of packaging, how can we literally tap into the tap and allow consumers to refill their bottles in the same way a brewery can fill a ‘growler’ with beer, or integrating systems so your washer may actually have product integrated into the machine?”

Facilitating reuse means designing so things fall apart

Joseph Chiodo

Joseph Chiodo

(10:50) The third presenter on the panel was Joseph Chiodo of Active Disassembly, a company focused on disassembling products into their separate components and designing products to facilitate this process. Dr Chiodo opened his presentation with a bold statement.

“The overwhelming majority of the environmental impact of a product can be determined at the design stage. And it is with this we can design with new tools, for example, design for reuse, repair, upgrades in software, modules, even design for remanufacture. We want to add to this wish list. We want products whose components can be reused over and over again. We want perpetual life cycle use.”

Chiodo pointed out that these goals sometimes require strategic decisions based upon market realities; identifying the best opportunities for maximum impact.

“For example, in the design of electronics there are some portions that have a higher environmental impact. In consumer or automotive electronics you might want to isolate the circuit board, you want to cherry-pick it because this is where over 80% of the environmental impact of the product tends to be.”

According to Chiodo, one of the most important innovations to facilitate this process is design for disassembly.

“But this has high costs,” he notes. “Such as labour, complexity, and machinery. It was with this backdrop that I invented a technique called active disassembly.”

Chiodo outlined some of the projects he has worked on, for companies such as Motorola, Nokia, and Sony, including specialized fasteners and phone casings that make it easier to disassemble their products.

“It facilitates clean and fast dismantling. It’s non-destructive, it’s hierarchical, it also retains the components and their added value. How does it work? Think fasteners. Fasteners that pop apart the product with no destruction to the components so they can be used over and over. It’s about facilitating constant reuse of the components.”

Chiodo says one way to think about active disassembly is as manufacturing in reverse.Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 3.26.57 PM

“Instead of machines and labour, it’s activated by heat and energy. You can think about it as a screw that loses its threads, glue that loses its stickiness, or even a fastener that lets go.”

He highlights a phone casing he developed for Nokia.

“Not only is this casing self-releasing, with the right equipment you can reshape it to accommodate new shapes with each iterative life cycle.”

Chiodo goes on to describe work he is doing in the medical arena.

“I’m currently working on therapeutic products that can be rewashed over and over again. At the end of life they require a smart liquid to trigger disassembly. The liquid comes in the solution that is part of the treatment. It is benign to the human and can be applied by the consumer so all the products dismantle non-destructively.”

But this shift in thinking requires knowledge on the part of product designers, engineers, and consumers. To this end Chiodo has developed a range of design strategies he has published on his website

By next year he expects to have published guidelines for active disassembly and other eco-design tools in a book. Chiodo closes his presentation by with the observation that technologies such as the ones he is developing will be an important part of closed-loop suppy chains. They also bring other benefits.

“This type of technology can help create new jobs in areas of repair, reuse, upcycling, and remanufacturing industries.”

Renting lightbulbs and DIY tools illuminates a new approach

Rich Gilbert

Rich Gilbert

(16:35) The final panelist was Rich Gilbert, co-founder of The Agency of Design appearing via video link from London, England.

Gilbert opens his presentation by pointing out that with a background as a product designer, the idea of designing for zero waste comes fairly naturally, but it was the systems-based thinking that offered fresh insights for his company.

“It was at an electrical waste facility in London that we had our first systems ephiphany,” says Gilbert. “At this facility they take electrical products and put them through a big shredder basically and you end up with small bits of products. At the time I saw this I found it quite shocking.  I was used to a world where a huge amount of effort goes into designing and manufacturing a product and the recycling process by comparison was shockingly crude. We are really not getting high quality recycling from that. And it hit me… if it’s going to be shredded what’s the point of trying to fix the problem from a design perspective?”

Now Gilbert and the Agency of Design try to think about products and systems at the same time.  One example of this approach is the light bulb service the company is working on, where a consumer pays an annual fee, lightbulbs are delivered, and if anything goes wrong with them the supplier takes them back. This keeps the used products out of the landfill and allows for technological upgrades along the way.

“The whole premise is that you don’t own the lightbulb anymore. We just give you the function of the bulb. And because it’s a one-in/one-out process where the customer mails back the old bulb, it brings the return rate up to 100% and the supplier can take it apart and remanufacture or refurbish it.

agency of designThe do-it-yourself home improvement market is another area where the Agency of Design is hoping to bring systemic change. They worked with a home improvement retailer in England to create a tool and supplies rental service that allows customers to access the tools, consumables, and knowledge base they need to do common DIY projects. But instead of ending up with a cupboard of unused tools and leftover supplies at the end of the project, the items are all rented and the retailer takes them back at the end of the project so they can be reused by the next customer doing a similar project.

According to Gilbert, not only does the consumer end up with a better finished product, because they get access to the right expertise and equipment, but the retailer benefits from getting the materials and tools back to reuse. It also encourages a long-term approach to things such as tool selection, because it now makes more sense to stock higher-quality, longer-lasting products, and consider ways to minimize waste.

“With this kind of approach you are really thinking about the product and system at the same time. The two are tightly intertwined and you can’t change one without the other,” he says.

Following Gilbert’s presentation, the event moved
into the question and answer portion of the program.

(23:00) It began with moderator Bridgett Luther asking each of the panelists how long it took to move the project from inspiration to reality.

(30:30) Luther’s next question was directed to Dayna Baumeister, cofounder of Biomimicry 3.8, who had opened the Innovation in Design session with a presentation entitled Achieving Zero Waste: Design Lessons from Nature. Luther asked Baumeister to talk about toxins and the strategies that can be employed to reduce or eliminate them from our products. (at 30:30)

(32:45) Next up was the topic of obsolescence. Luther turned to Saskia van Gendt to discuss how manufacturers can be encouraged to give up the notion of planned obsolescence, when it offers obvious benefits in terms of encouraging consumer purchases.

(36:30) Building on van Gendt’s answer and comments from Dayna Baumeister on the importance of reframing our values to place less importance on the accumulation of goods, Luther asked gDiaper’s Jason Graham-Nye about the challenges of designing products that must compete with lower-priced, but less sustainable options.

(38:00) Following Graham-Nye’s answer, Luther asked van Gendt to explain Method’s approach to manufacturing with sustainability as a ‘top-of-mind’ consideration.

(39:46) But what business opportunities exist for designers who want to reduce waste and embrace cradle-to-cradle concepts? Luther put this final question to Rich Gilbert.

Can’t wait for the next blog post to enjoy more videos from the 2014 Zero Waste Conference? Visit the Presentations & Videos page of the ZWC 2014 website to access all the presentations from the day-long event.




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