The Keep Cup, a reusable cup for the takeaway espresso market.
What a great idea: a 'green' product to make a difference, make one happy, and assist in performing the menial tasks that litter an otherwise hectic day. Or is it? Consumer decision-making is beginning to follow a distinctly 'green' trend, which is fantastic in principle but often contrived in reality. What does this mean for the designer who imagines, designs and creates these goods that cater for growing consumer demand in 'sustainability?' There lies the contradiction between designing for the consumption obsessed market and designing to the core principles of sustainability, where environmental, economic and social aspects are somewhat detached from a consumer driven market.
According to Ezio Manzini, design theorist from the famed Politecnico di Milano, we have a crisis of the commons (common areas, goods, etc), a lack of contemplative time (a time poor existence, longer hours at work, etc), and most relevant to designers, a proliferation of remedial goods (Manzini 2003). The latter sees products solving every perceived problem imaginable. Whether it is a toothbrush that oscillates the plaque off in half the time, or a breakfast bar filling the five-minute bus ride, we have become increasingly, unconsciously used to products feeding our increasing wants, without a thought as to how that consumption impacts the environment. Last century, the raw materials consumed by one person in the US increased five fold (Matos and Wagner 1998). This looks more ominous when combined with the fact that only around 15-20 % of the world is highly developed to a US or western style of consumption (UN, 2009). One approach is for design to lower the user's consumption, without degrading the consumer's experience. The question is whether the new breed of 'eco' products adds to the crisis, or makes a real difference.
They may be adding to the crisis if the design method follows the 'rules of thumb' for that infiltrated the design community in last two decades. The reality is that these techniques do have potential to make a difference, but are often ineffective. Take design for disassembly. A designer in an appliance company designs a product for disassembly although there is no effective product stewardship scheme to collect the parts from reclaimed models. The design driven benefit is not delivered, rendering the methodology a waste of time. It is also well and good to reduce the weight of components and thus the embodied energy of the same appliance, however if the bulk of the impacts are generated during use from electricity (like an electric kettle), then the strategy most likely has negligible benefit in reducing environmental load. Likewise by making parts from commonised, recyclable materials, the likelihood is that there is no post consumer recycling stream or infrastructure in place to handle the majority of parts and materials, due to the commercial reality of recycling. This design for environment mentality has long been detached from the benefit it has aimed to deliver upon.
There is a light at the end of this tunnel. There are ways to make a difference, and there is evidence these methods are filtering through the design world. Life cycle thinking or applying a 'whole systems' approach can make 'paradigm shifts' in the reduction of environmental impacts of a product or service, without reducing perceived quality, or increasing cost.
As these ideas infiltrate design methodology, certain products shine as considered, sustainable shifts in the current 'wash of green'.
Cheviot Bridge's sustainable wine packaging.
The romantics among us would never have thought Shiraz would prosper in a Tetra Pak, a packaging form traditionally reserved for juice and milk. However some producers such as Cheviot Bridge have, with a reduced packaging weight of almost 10 times a conventional bottle (unfilled). This dematerialisation enables huge embodied energy, carbon and water use reductions on the packaging, not to mention reduced haulage impact after filling (particularly for export, 1.05 kg rather than 1.5 kg per unit), and a smart palletisation shape for shipping and storage. The decision to move to a paper board packaging mode derived from extensive life cycle research, cost comparison and product testing (which funnily enough, contrary to some stigma, highlighted longer shelf life) to measure the potential benefits. The weight reduction, combined with an additional 250 mL of wine to the customer (the product is delivered in 1 L), delivers a quality driven outcome, with a raft of environmental and economic benefits due to life cycle thinking.
James Dyson didn't go places by creating a better bag, he decided to create a cyclonic vacuum cleaner based on a saw mill, and the rest is history. This whole systems approach led Dyson to design highly efficient, miniature digital motors for the appliance market around ten years ago. The use life cycle impacts of an electrical appliance generally dwarf the respective material and manufacture impacts. This relates back to the energy, fuels and raw materials consumed in operation of an appliance. By identifying the original motor as a major contributor to inefficiency within the product system, an opportunity for a technology leap was found. Carbon producing, large, heavy, inefficient, failure-prone, brushed motors were replaced by highly efficient, light, fast, small, digital ones.
Last year saw the latest Dyson products incorporate a tiny Dyson Digital Motor (DDM) V2 resulting in substantial dematerialisation coupled with ergonomic weight benefits. Handheld vacuums were launched with the DDM, replacing the traditional carbon brushed motor. The cost difference between base models is negligible, while functional and environmental credentials have improved markedly. The new models are smaller and lighter, and remain almost half the weight of competitor machines. The DDM V2 size allows for high speed rotation, not achievable in larger, heavier motors. This produces around twice the power output at around half the weight of traditional motors, the new base model handheld pulling the same suction power as the previous model, using two less batteries.
The Dyson Airblade™, which incorporates the first iteration of the DDM, is the first hand dryer to earn the coveted Carbon Reduction Label from the UK Carbon Trust. This achievement relates back to efficiency and whole systems design. By reverting to a polymer chassis compared to aluminium on the first Airblade™ release, Dyson cut carbon emissions in raw material, product manufacture and transport by over half, however this is not the preeminent story. Airblade™ 'strips' the water off the hands, rather than heating air up and 'evaporating' water like a conventional warm air hand dryer. Airblade™ drops the drying time to around 10 seconds, as opposed to up to 30 seconds with competitors which use inefficient carbon brush motors and heated air. Things start to look substantially thrifty without even crunching the numbers. In a press release, the comparison is up to 80% less energy used compared to traditional warm hand dryers (Carbon Trust 2010), which directly relates to carbon emission reductions. This giant gap in energy consumption, combined with product longevity, and a product stewardship scheme, delivers environmental benefits that directly reduce impacts in new Dyson models.
The Keep Cup and its many color combinations.
Keep Cup: An LCA Case Study
Whilst operating a chain of cafés in Melbourne, Abigail and Jamie Forsyth saw a need and responsibility to address disposable packaging waste generated both to reduce environmental impacts and costs. They estimated that in Australia at least 500 million disposable cups are used and discarded each year with large numbers of adults in urban communities consuming a disposable coffee on a daily basis (National Coffee Association of America found that in 2007, 14% of adults in the United States drank gourmet coffee daily). Although disposable cups are a low margin, the wider impacts of the daily 'take away coffee set' seemed one problem that did not justify the convenience. Others have attempted to either incorporate Post Consumer Recycled (PCR) content or sell reusable products such as 'travel mugs' designed to keep coffee hot for hours. The former has issues with food regulations; the latter is cumbersome and impractical for the savvy, on-the-go consumer, not designed to fit the needs of quality café baristas. The duo engaged industrial design consultancy Cobalt Niche, with government funding, to create a solution dropping environmental impacts without reducing the consumer's experience.
The result was KeepCup, a reusable cup for the takeaway espresso market. It is the world's first barista standard reusable cup, consisting Polyethylene (PE) lid, Polypropylene (PP) cup, Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) plug, and Silicone ring. It mimics the core geometry and functions of disposable paper cups, including coffee machine modularity, waterproofing, sip slot, lid, individual coffee detailing, and adds hand insulation (avoiding double cupping), steam plug, branding, and most importantly ergonomics to allow for convenience ie light weight, bag storable, etc. The concept has gained momentum, the cup used all over the Melbourne CBD, Australia, and now globally. 300,000 KeepCups have been sold in twelve months of trading, as adoption of the KeepCup by end users has generated revenue and costs savings for café owners. But is it really making a difference?
We did some research here at RMIT Centre for Design. Disposable paper cups (combined with a PE film) have little post consumer demand from reprocessors, and generally end up in Australian landfill. Although the KeepCup promotes recyclability, the fact still remains that the same system is more likely going to spit the various polymers it is made from to landfill, even if the components are separated by the consumer. With this in mind we modeled the 8 oz KeepCup (it is available in various sizes) against a comparable disposable paper cup using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology in a streamlined fashion. The functional unit was 1 take away coffee per day delivered to the consumer over a year, with the cups disposed of to landfill over or at the end of that period. We used raw material, manufacturing, transport, and end of life data from the Australian Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) 2009 and European Ecoinvent 2.0 database. Regional transport routes were considered (shipping from Asia for the disposable cup, lid, and the ring from the KeepCup, trucking from port to consumer), as well as tertiary packaging, and a wash cycle per use for the KeepCup, ranging from a quick rinse with warm water, a fully loaded dishwasher, half loaded dishwasher, and sink washing, the latter three with detergent. We also modeled coffee cultivation, production and brewing in Spain from a study out of Switzerland (Humbert, Loerincik et al. 2009) to see what bearing the KeepCup had in context to the 'whole product', or a 100 ml shot of coffee, delivered to the consumer (we assumed coffee grains were not landfilled).
The results were determined using the LCA Australian Impact Method. The KeepCup compared to the disposable paper cup (not including the coffee) depending upon the wash type (the sink seeing the smallest through to quick rinse seeing the biggest environmental impact reductions), sees a 71-92% reduction in global warming potential, a 71-95% reduction in water use, and a 95-96% reduction in landfill waste over the year. Although the 'take away latté set' consumer will still purchase the coffee whether in a disposable or reusable option, it is interesting to see how the previously stated savings compare when included with the impacts relating to coffee, which would in general dilute the savings of the container on its own. The KeepCup compared to disposable paper cup (including coffee) sees a 36-47% reduction in global warming, a 64-85% reduction in water use, and a 91-92% reduction in landfill waste annually.
Although these are streamlined results using existing LCI data (a full LCAs may be more accurate, although often results are of a similar quantum), the figures indicate Keepcup would drastically reduce environmental impacts of consumers in drinking coffee, although in the grand scheme of things this would account for a very small proportion of a consumers overall impacts annually. This just seems like common sense, reusing rather than disposing, although this begs the question how the Keepcup strategy could apply to more resource intensive services such as heating, cooling, cooking, food, housing, and transport; if social rituals adapt. The KeepCup aesthetics are clean, and functionally it is thoughtfully designed, evident in the now global appeal. Although KeepCup is most likely not going to be recycled in the Australian context, the shift from disposable to reusable adds environmental credibility, significantly reduces waste, cuts the economics down to size, and enables a social shift, a welcome change for a society now used to throwaway culture.
Paris Vélib bicycle rental system. Picture by austineven.
Wide spread change in avoiding behaviours that embody high consumption may be some way off. Design has been instrumental in delivering some of the first tentative steps in facilitating individual and community action in this respect. Take the Paris Vélib, a bike share program introduced in 2007 to promote cycling as opposed to other transport modes throughout Paris for short journeys. By diverting investment traditionally earmarked for carbon intensive transport modes, like more roads, a highly design oriented system delivers the low consumption alternative. If success is measured in use alone, 42 million rentals by 2009 speak loudly. The system works as a whole, with infrastructure, communications and servicing the key in delivering this success, producing a product that would continue to be used and reduce impacts inherent in other transport modes.
The bikes, stands and 1451 bike stations (one every 300 meters) designed by JC Decaux stay true to core design principles of 'form follows function' and user centred methodology. Stations release only functioning bikes to users, a smart system alerting well resourced and mobile service staff of faults through diagnostic checks when bikes 'check-in'. This computer monitoring system is also used to monitor bike location for potential theft and station overloading, with bikes actively moved too and from understocked and overloaded stations. Locks guarantee integrated bike and station security. Bespoke components and economic deterrents dissuade potential thieves; with credit cards debited a deposit on a user's non return of a bike. Economic incentives also drive timely travel, with free bike use in the first half hour. Compared to short trip alternatives such as cars or public transport, this product driven system delivers substantial dematerialisation through lower embodied energy and shared amenities, as well as massive comparative drops in fuel and electricity use. Social interaction is generally inherent in the cycling fraternity; however this is also aided through infrastructure design (station layouts and convenience through sharing and station drops). Finally, the Vélib negates the problem of storage required when a bike is owned in a bustling city. Like any public system, there have been problems with vandalism and theft; however the success of the Vélib is evident as use patterns remain high and similar bike sharing schemes flourish across Europe, and are proliferating globally.
Vélib is an elegantly integrated, cost effective design solution allowing users to enact behaviours needed if environmental impacts are to be reigned in, as well as reinvigorating the social fabric of the city. Vélib rejects the remedial with long lasting functional infrastructure, claims back the common in a shared public service, and provides amenities that go some way in reducing congestion and providing a convenient, communal conveyance that gifts back the free time Manzini believes we have long being lacking in our fast paced, consumer oriented urban existence.
People are not going to stop consuming any time soon; however behavior will eventually need to shift if society is serious about being truly sustainable. In the interim, analyse the bigger picture, both as a designer and a consumer. So often designers get caught up in the details, but now stepping back and taking a life cycle and whole systems approach facilitates a future in delivering functional 'paradigm shift' benefits for a product, service, client, and the environment. Ecological parameters are 'locked in' at the design stage, so designers can reduce impacts through materials, efficiency, or in some cases the grander scenario of changing consumer behavior. Designing for low consumption, without increasing price or reducing quality is achievable, and presents a powerful and bright design landscape. To achieve this, designers will have to draw upon their ability to combine technical skills in research, conceptualization, prototyping, and testing, with their greatest weapon, their creativity, because that's what they have done, and will always do best.
Acknowledgments to Thomas Blower (Dyson, UK), Hugh Cuthbertson (Cheviot Bridge), Abigail Forsyth (KeepCup), Andrew Carre (CfD), and Stephen Clune (CfD)
Simon Lockrey is a Research Fellow at RMIT Centre for Design in Melbourne, his work primarily focusing on bringing practical experience to sustainability projects by engaging industry and wider community sectors in activities incorporating efficiency, life cycle thinking, whole systems design, and effective embedded sustainable design methodology. Simon has worked as a Product Design Engineer both in Australia and Europe, covering all stages of the design process, crossing a large range of industries, with roles at design consultancies, commercial interior and furniture manufacturers, and is recently departed from multinational appliance company Dyson. He continues in a design role as Director of Froth Design.