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Sustainable Answers:
Taking no prisoners with Tom Seager
By Xanthe Matychak


I currently teach a Materials and Processes class in RIT's School of Design. This class has traditionally focused on the material properties of different plastics...and all of the wonderful ways that we can shape them into products. Breaking with tradition, I'm teaching the students about product life cycles—of which materials and processes are certainly a part.

Product life cycle analysis quickly leads to questions about sustainability, so I took the opportunity to bring in an expert to talk to the students. Tom Seager is a civil engineer and a new faculty member at RIT's Sustainability Institute. He's currently developing course materials for a new, interdisciplinary PhD program targeted for the fall of 2008.

In preparation for his visit, I asked my students to write some questions for him. When his answers came back, they were honest and impassioned, provocative in the most positive sense, and cut nicely (sometimes brutally) to the chase. I wanted to share them with a larger community, so here they are.

Oh, and his class visit was great, for the record.

The question about whether it "costs the consumer" implies that sustainability is like some kind of add-on feature—like power windows or side-impact air bags. That's not the right way to think about sustainability at all.


What are some of the more innovative firms practicing sustainability?
I don't know. I don't know what you mean by "innovative firm" or by "practicing sustainability?" I don't think sustainability is a musical instrument, a sport or a religion. So I'm not sure how you "practice" it.

Also, I'm interested in the idea of what an "innovative" firm does, or examples of innovative firms. It would be a good conversation to have, but it would eventually get around to the firms that have completely missed sustainability and the reasons why.


Does sustainability end up costing or saving the consumer?
Sustainability requires cooperation. You have to discard the idea of Adam Smith economics, which says that it's better for society if everyone is working in their own self-interest, and move towards the economics of John Nash, which says we can find a better outcome if we work collectively. The question about whether it "costs the consumer" implies that sustainability is like some kind of add-on feature—like power windows or side-impact air bags. That's not the right way to think about sustainability at all. For example, it is true that abandoning coal-fired power plants would require an increase in electricity costs. But if everyone did it, we'd all be better off. The only way it "costs" is if some people do it, but others "cheat." Our economic system can't handle a cost discrepancy between green and black power. But it can handle a uniform cost increase for all power. Think of it this way: If you could run your manufacturing firm today on $25/bbl oil—which is what we had just a few years ago—you would have an incredible competitive advantage. But you can't. All firms have to pay $80/bbl. That's more than triple the oil cost in three years. We still have rapidly expanding economies all over the world. So "cost" is not the big issue, at the moment—it's "comparative costs."


What practical and economically feasible first steps can a firm take to implement sustainable practice?
Most firms are ready to start with eco-efficiency, because it's directly analogous to huge cultural and managerial shifts that took place with regard to safety and quality. Now, everybody recognizes that it's cheaper to prevent injuries than to treat them. Everyone recognizes that it's cheaper to make a product right the first time than it is to try and repair it or recall it later. And many firms are coming around to the idea that it's cheaper to reduce pollution than remediate it. On the energy side there's still lots of low-hanging fruit: swapping out lightbulbs, installing variable-speed pumps and compressors, combined heat and power generation, increased insulation, automated control systems.... In chemicals and materials processing, there's more going on in terms of green chemistry and green materials than ever before—reducing solvent use, solvent recovery, moving from halogenated hydrocarbon materials to non-halogenated alternatives and recycling where it makes sense, like base metals and some plastic. However, eco-efficiency is not the same as sustainability. There are far fewer firms that are ready to move to wind or solar electrical power—although there are some and more every day. There are very few firms that are asking themselves about deeper social questions about how their products, infrastructure, and administrative structures impact the quality of human relationships.

Now, everybody recognizes that it's cheaper to prevent injuries than to treat them. Everyone recognizes that it's cheaper to make a product right the first time than it is to try and repair it or recall it later. And many firms are coming around to the idea that it's cheaper to reduce pollution than remediate it.

Should a designer consider sustainability at the beginning or the end of their design process?
If the designer misses sustainability at the beginning, the end of their design process may come a lot more quickly than they expected.


What is the most recycled material that we can use for products?
There is no physical, thermodynamic or theoretical limit to recycling of inorganics, such as metal, glass or plastic. The limits are economical and environmental; they result from the energy expense of recycling. There are some materials where recycling just doesn't make environmental sense—glass, for example. The raw materials are abundant; the waste is environmentally benign. But it's dangerous to work with and expensive to transport around. For glass, reuse is probably viable in many instances; downcycling (e.g., use of crushed glass) is sensible, but I don't think recycling is worth the trouble. If your goal is to save landfill space or reduce litter, then recycling might be a good alternative. But remember than it's far from the preferred strategy. Even in the USEPA mantra, recycling comes after reduce and reuse.


What is the simplest area of sustainability?
The idea that we should be making the world a better place for future generations is pretty simple.


What is the hardest area of sustainability?
Understanding what "better" means from multiple perspectives is tough. Different people will have different ideas. Global climate change is an excellent example. There will be "winners" in global warming in some senses. The southern Canadian growing season will be longer. The winters will be far less harsh there and heating costs will be reduced. So Canada may reap some economic benefits. But there will also be enormous ecological and social upheavals. It's not clear that one person's idea of "better" agrees with someone else's. Exactly how much carbon dioxide should we have in our atmosphere? We're deciding that question right now—whether we want to admit it or not.

Instead of communicating an appropriate speed limit to drivers with design, such as use of cobblestone instead of asphalt, we build beautiful pavement structures, wide travel lanes and straight alignments appropriate for driving 60 mph or more—then we post a 25 mph speed limit. No wonder we have "road rage." The design message and the legal messages are inconsistent, which is frustrating.

How effective are current "green designs," and how worthwhile do you feel additional focus is?
What makes the design "green?" If it's been designed within environmental constraints, even if the product has no environmental purpose—is it still "green?" Does "green" have to be represented in all phases of the product life-cycle, including materials extraction, manufacture, use and end-of-life? Or is it enough if you make something green for only one stage? Take solar cells: they're undoubtedly "green" in use, but what happened in manufacture? Water or the water quality impacts? Where did the trace metals come from? Where will they go when the solar cell is disposed of?

As an educator and designer, I believe that the choices we make teach people things. You learn from your microwave, your dishwasher and your ball-point pen. There are some products that "teach" green and there are some products that merely "provide" green. I'm more interested in the former than the latter. In my field, which is civil engineering, there are fantastic examples in transportation. In the last fifty years, there's been an enormous improvement in understanding of how drivers relate to the roadway infrastructure. That is, what the roads are training the drivers to do. As a result, there have been improvements in signage, alignment, lighting, striping—almost every aspect of highway safety. However, there's been little change with regard to the social and environmental aspects of highway design. People are very dissatisfied with the quality of our streets and highways from social, ecological and environmental perspectives.

For example, instead of communicating an appropriate speed limit to drivers with design, such as use of cobblestone instead of asphalt, we build beautiful pavement structures, wide travel lanes and straight alignments appropriate for driving 60 mph or more—then we post a 25 mph speed limit. No wonder we have "road rage." The design message and the legal messages are inconsistent, which is frustrating. The best example of this, in my opinion, is the speed bump—which is universally unpopular. In this case, it's painfully obvious that the design is incongruous. The speed bump vandalizes the roadway design, which is a criminal waste. But it's also an admission that the roadway design is drastically inappropriate for the setting, and that no one knew exactly what they were supposed to do.


Will the Sustainability Institute collaborate with the industrial design program and offer courses in sustainable design?
I hope so. But courses in sustainable design don't really require an institute structure. The industrial design program faculty can do that without the institute if they want to.


Do you think that other schools will want to replicate your sustainability program?
Replicate? No. Other schools are doing their own experiments. Different people are trying different things. No one will be interested in replication until there are actual graduates out there to carry their experiences to new institutions. Besides, we haven't done anything worth replicating yet.


What is the biggest problem with sustainability today and where do you see the biggest improvements needing to be made?
Despite our increased sense of urgency, there are still precious few individual incentives to challenge existing comfort zones. Moving beyond simplistic notions of sustainability still requires tremendous courage and leadership. Can you imagine designing a public school that was easier and safer for pedestrians and cyclists than drivers? What would that look like? Now try and picture getting such a school through a public approval process.

Dr. Thomas P. Seager is an Associate Professor at the Golisano Institute for Sustainability in Rochester NY. He teaches graduate courses in Industrial Ecology, Fundamentals of Sustainability Science and Understanding Risk from a Sustainability Perspective. He can be contacted at thomas.seager[at]rit[dot]edu.

Xanthe Matychak is a designer and writer living in upstate New York. She teaches industrial design at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She can be contacted at ehtnax[at]yahoo[dot]com.