Understanding Eco Design Fundamentals

The Use Of Sustainable And Recyclable Materials In Our House, Building and Product Designs

Eco design is a way of designing products with special consideration for the eco friendliness and environmental impact of a product during its entire lifecycle, including sourcing, manufacturing, use, and disposal at the end of the product's life. Eco friendly design is also sometimes called bright green environmentalism or sustainable design.

The term eco design was coined by Victor Papanek, an eco friendly designer and philosopher of design who truly hated irresponsible products. He first introduced the notion of the triple bottom line, which equally balances people, the planet, and profit. Eco design can be applied to virtually everything, from small objects for everyday use to the design of buildings and cities.

Eco friendly design takes into account the entire life cycle of the product being designed, including:

  • The amount of resources that are actually consumed, such as materials, energy, and water.

  • Eco friendliness of materials used, like non-toxic, renewable or previously recycled attributes.

  • Emissions from the manufacturing process.

  • Waste created in the manufacturing process, which can be 10-50 times as much as the product itself.

  • Quality and durability of the final product.

  • Product design, from the conceptual beginning, for reuse, recyclability, or biodegradability, rather than an afterthought.

Of all these factors, waste reduction is the easiest and possibly the most important area for eco design products to focus on. The US generates over 190 million tons of solid waste a year. That is between 3 and 4 pounds of solid waste per person, per day, everyday. US residents throw away more garbage per individual than any other country in the world...

Is the convenience of just "throwing it away" really worth it?

If we were also the happiest, healthiest and least stressed people on earth, one could make the argument that our hyper-productive, hyper-consume and discard culture is the best method or way of life available. However, we know that this is not true.

What's more, there isn't a completely safe way to get rid of all that garbage. Every form of disposal we have had a negative effect on the environment, including human health. Garbage incinerators put carcinogenic chemicals in the air, about 8 pounds out of every ton of garbage contains toxic materials, including cadmium, lead and mercury. Landfills contaminate drinking water. Water treatment systems impact the local ecosystems.

Therefore, figuring out how to minimize waste in the creation of a product and creating products that will not become garbage themselves are very important elements in eco design. Products created through eco friendly design should be recyclable, reusable, or biodegradable. Many items that people have traditionally used and thrown away can be designed to be recycled or to biodegrade, such as detergents, newspapers, and food packaging.

If they are biodegradable, they should be designed with a degradation plan in mind. Contrary to common belief, it doesn't help anyone to put a biodegradable product in a landfill! When we do, it simply does not biodegrade. Even the best biodegradable products need the right conditions to decompose at a rapid rate. Eco friendly packaging design is one of the biggest areas of impact in product design—conventional packaging is usually extremely wasteful.

Hannover Principles / Bill of Rights for the Planet

A terrific model of the ecological design principles necessary for truly eco friendly design is laid out in the Hannover Principles or Bill of Rights for the Planet, which was developed by William McDonough Architects, an influential group of eco friendly designers.

Here are the main principles in the Bill of Rights for the Planet:

  • Insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse, and sustainable condition.

  • Recognize Interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend on the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects.

  • Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement including community, dwelling, industry, and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.

  • Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems, and their right to co-exist.

  • Create safe objects to long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creations of products, processes, or standards.

  • Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems in which there is no waste.

  • Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.

  • Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.

  • Seek constant improvements by sharing knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers, and users to link long-term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and reestablish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.

Applications of Eco Friendly Designs

Because eco designs can be applied to the design process of well, anything, it includes things that are not products. Urban planners use eco friendly design, for instance, to plan developments or cities that minimize waste, create wildlife corridors, and take advantage of eco friendly transportation opportunities.

Designing eco friendly buildings in those cities is an essential piece of the puzzle. Eco friendly house design takes into account the lifecycle of the building materials, the use of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar, rainwater harvesting, and similar eco friendly measures.

Eco friendly home design also applies to landscaping. Eco friendly landscape design techniques include using trees to protect buildings from wind or shade them from the sun. Putting drought-resistant and native plantings in the ground that will not need to be watered beyond regular rainfall, and using only organic means to fertilize and protect plants from pests.

Eco friendly interior design, including eco friendly bathroom design and eco office design is another important aspect of eco house designs.

The field of eco friendly graphic design is a particular leader in eco friendly design these days. It includes carefully thought-out, minimalist packaging, environmentally friendly papers and printing materials (including low-VOC inks), and production/distribution methods that minimize the amount of transportation necessary.

What To Look For When Shopping for Eco Friendly Design

With so many kinds of products that are designed in an eco friendly way, it's impossible to list all them or even the places to buy them, although I have posted many of them in the Eco Stores Directory.

For this section below, I give you a few guidelines and tips for quickly identifying eco friendly designs for yourself. Once you start looking for these, you'll probably begin to find them everywhere.

Symbol for a recyclable productThis is the icon for a recyclable product. It means that the item can be recycled into a different product at the end of its life, like soda cans or many plastics.

Symbol for a biodegradable productThis icon means the product is biodegradable. If properly disposed of, it will break down in the same organic process that breaks down leftover food, or dead wood on the forest floor.

Symbol for a previous post consumer product that has been recycledThis icon means a product has been recycled already. In other words, it is made from materials that used to be something else. You may see this on common products such as paper goods or plastic containers.

Symbol for a reused or salvaged materialsThis icon means either reused or salvaged materials were used for the product. It gets used when designers use something that was meant to be disposed of or used for another purpose, such as handbags made out of old bicycle inner tubes.

Symbol for a renewable productThis is the icon for renewable products. If natural resources can be replaced at the same rate it is used up (or faster), it is considered renewable. Bamboo is one of the most popular renewable products on the market right now, but there are many others.

Symbol for a sustainably harvested productThis icon means that the product is made of sustainably harvested materials. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood is one example of a sustainably harvested material. Bamboo, while renewable, may or may not be sustainably harvested, so be sure to check!

Symbol for a renewable energy powered productsThis icon means that the product is powered or produced by renewable energy, such as wind or solar. You might see this icon on an eco friendly designed solar-powered calculator, for example.

Symbol for an organic productThis is the icon for organic products. This means that the design includes only materials grown without conventional pesticides, sewage, or artificial fertilizers and processed without chemical additives.

Symbol for a product where minimal resources are usedThis is the symbol for a product that generally minimizes the use of natural resources with its use or during its sourcing and manufacturing.

Symbol for an energy efficient productThis symbol means the eco friendly design of the product is particularly energy efficient, using technology to minimize energy use. It is most commonly found as part of eco friendly kitchen design appliances and gadgets. Eco-design of energy using products is one of the most efficient areas for conservation.

Symbol for non toxic productsThis icon means that the labeled eco friendly design products are non-toxic and will not cause harm. This is a good symbol to look for on household cleaners, for instance.

Symbol for a disassembled components productThis eco friendly design icon means that the product and its parts are designed for disassembly, so that each component can be reused, recycled, or otherwise disposed of as appropriate for it's material make up. Many mixed material products are difficult to recycle and this concept helps solve these issues.

Symbol for a fair trade productEco designs include a consideration of fair trade, which is what this sign means. Fair trade means that the people involved in making the product were paid a fair price for their work, in addition to other eco friendly considerations.

Symbol for a cradle to cradle designed productAmerican architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart together coined the term cradle-to-cradle, artistically portrayed in this advanced eco design symbol. Cradle-to-cradle products are designed to be infinitely renewable or recyclable they never become garbage. Eco building design is one of the largest growth areas for cradle-to-cradle products.

Want to learn even more or start shopping? The following list is an excellent source of public information about eco friendly design and eco design products coming onto the market.

Eco Design and Product Certifications

  • USDA Organic

  • Forest Stewardship Council

  • Transfair Fair Trade

  • Biodegradable Products Institute

  • Cradle to Cradle

  • ISO 14000

Eco News Resources

  • Treehugger

  • World Changing

  • Ecopreneurist

  • Inhabitat

  • Idealbite

  • Grist

  • Mother Jones

  • Plenty Magazine

  • Environment Magazine

Eco Design Resource Organizations & Movements

  • Think Cycle

  • Net Impact

  • O2 sustainability network

  • Buckminster Fuller Institute

  • Design 21 SDN

  • Designer's Accord

  • Biomimicry Institute

  • Ecological Design Institute

  • Slow Design

  • The Long Now Foundation

I hope that you find the information that I gathered for this page useful and entertaining. I will be adding even more content and updates soon!