A University of Oregon educator asked young adults what material- and design-related factors they consider most important to a product’s overall sustainability. The results may surprise you.
By Robert Grace
Just what constitutes an environmentally friendly, sustainable product? What determines whether a consumer views a product as sustainable or not? Kiersten Muenchinger is keenly interested in such topics, so she decided some time ago to investigate further.
Muenchinger, an associate professor at the University of Oregon, is head of product design there. Named “Young Educator of the Year” in 2011 by the Industrial Designers Society of America, she also is a principal of the school’s Green Product Design Network.
Muenchinger likes to research new materials and their processing methods to understand when and why the newest materials technologies are accepted in mass-produced consumer products. She notes that several approaches can be used to create more sustainable products.
Long-time qualitative strategies
“Seven qualitative design strategies have been used for the last 20 years as guides to help design more sustainable products,” Muenchinger notes. “These strategies are to choose materials that are 1) abundant, 2) non-toxic, 3) natural, 4) minimal and minimally processed, and to minimize waste by using 5) recyclable materials, 6) extending the product’s life, and 7) minimizing the impacts of disposal1,2. These qualitative strategies are all based in materials selection,” she adds, and aim to assist designers to consider sustainability factors early in the design process.
She is particularly curious as to what individuals the age of her typical students — millennials — consider to be sustainable.
“Over the past 10 years,” she wrote in an article recently for Plastics Engineering magazine, “I have been asking millennials how they emotionally relate to the sustainability of products in their lives. I run Kansei engineering analyses to discover which of the seven sustainability strategies are the most effective for consumers to understand. Kansei analyses quantify the emotional connections people have to product features, so they are perfectly suited for understanding how people have assimilated the complex, misunderstood, nascent issues of sustainability with which designers and engineers currently grapple.”
Muenchinger went on to explain the concept further, noting that Kansei analyses require individuals to rank where an object falls on a linear scale between two verbal descriptors of the thing. She asks her millennial subjects, for example, to rank an aspect of an object (such as durability) on a scale of one to seven (i.e., from delicate to durable), and then analyzes their statistically significant responses to ascertain their attitudes or understanding about sustainability.
Her most recent study – completed early last year – focused entirely on polymers. The research targets were a set of 10 similarly sized drinking cups that had been injection molded for the study. Each cup was made from a different polymer. The chosen materials were:
- polypropylene (PP)
- polystyrene (PS)
- high-impact polystyrene (HIPS)
- high density polyethylene (HDPE) made from petroleum stock
- HDPE made from sugar stock
- polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified (PETG)
- polylactic acid (PLA)
- polyoxymethylene (POM)
- polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA)
Muenchinger – who previously worked as a design engineer with IDEO, Fitch, Sottsass Associati, Walt Disney Imagineering, the Long Now Foundation, and Parapluie – did a statistical analysis of the ratings provided by 139 millennial respondents, and the results showed that those individuals found only four material design strategies to be indicative of a product’s overall sustainability:
- durability (extending the product’s life);
- degradability (minimizing the impact of disposal); and
- rawness (minimal processing) of the product.
Assessing millennials’ top 4 factors
Let’s look in greater depth at each of these material design strategies.
Durability: Muenchinger says that, while durability or toughness is a relatively easy concept for a designer or engineer to understand, that property is seldom used as a marketing tool, except perhaps for products in construction or industrial applications. She points out that lifestyle or kitchen products, even if they have tough coatings or surfaces, often do not focus on their ruggedness or likely longevity. That creates an opportunity, she suggests, since “designing and marketing lifestyle products as durable products should connect with the millennial market.”
Naturalness: She notes that “natural” is a hot marketing buzzword, but mostly for consumables. The term proliferates on packaging and in ingredient lists of everything from food to shampoos. But the true meaning of “natural” is unclear. “It could mean plant-based or bio-based,” Muenchinger says, or “it could mean ingredients that are vernacularly used and recognized.” She again asserts that the naturalness of the polymer materials that make up many other types of consumer products was important to the study’s millennial participants and could be used more effectively as a marketing tool.
Degradability: Muenchinger adds that “Degradability may be the single-use counterpoint to a durable product. Millennials are concerned about the toothbrushes and water bottles found floating in the North Pacific Gyre, so focusing on degradable materials choices for single-use or short-use products is the most direct way to use this sustainable design strategy.” And degradability can take different end-of-life forms, from depolymerization to composting. She predicts that “the design strategies for durable products will increase to include degradable options within the next 10 years.”
Raw: The antonym of “processed,” “raw” could viewed in different ways, and it’s unclear exactly how the millennials in the study interpreted the term. This is a conundrum to Muenchinger. Citing the example of a cell phone, she wonders whether the respondents interpreted rawness as something such as minimal features, like buttons, or minimal textures used on each of the surfaces. While her latest study clearly suggests that rawness was seen by respondents as a driving factor in their perception of the drinking cups’ sustainability, she remains uncertain how to assess that, adding that “both rawness and naturalness would be interesting to further define in future studies.”
Efficiently Search for Plastics by Material Properties
With Prospector's Property Search, you can effectively and efficiently search by properties to find the right plastics for your project.
“Interestingly,” Muenchinger notes, “the recyclability of the product does not factor into the sustainability-consciousness of the participant at all, which is remarkable considering efforts to strengthen municipal recycling programs, label products, and teach elementary school children how to lessen their impact on the earth.”
She also noted that toxicity did not factor into participants’ sustainability-consciousness.
“My guess, for both these issues,” she suggests, “is that the experience of millennials is that their attentive efforts to recycle have not saved the earth from environmental destruction yet, and that their health has not been directly compromised by their products, so these issues don’t seem like drivers of their experience with sustainability.”
In a recent follow-up interview by email, Muenchinger also noted that “fear about contamination of food products by polymer containers is a conversational topic that occurs regularly in my day-to-day life. It is a common reason given for choosing products made with non-polymer materials. The results around toxicity could indicate that polymer products are so often used in day-to-day life that people actually are comfortable with them, and assume they are not toxic.”
She notes that the survey participants were not provided the names of the materials used to make each of the cups. The very common, frequently handled HDPE was one of the cup materials, and even it did not stand out to people as being a strongly recycled or recyclable material. Three areas help to could clarify recyclability to consumers – what makes a material recyclable; what materials are commonly recycled; or what post-consumer materials may become raw material feedstocks.
“It would be interesting,” she suggests, “to test in future studies if molding a triangular recycling symbol into the cups would change the results. I’ve added such symbols in design studies, but not on any physical cups that I’ve used for testing.”
For long-lasting products, the most directly sustainable design strategies that will reach millennial consumers appear to focus on durability and naturalness, said Muenchinger, who received her M.S. and B.A. degrees in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and Dartmouth College, respectively.
“Engineers and designers should work more with their marketing colleagues on how the materials used in the product make a high-quality, durable, sustainable product. The naturalness of a product could be targeted through highlighting materials selections like sugar-based HDPE, corn- or potato starch-based polymers, or composites of cellulosic fibers with polyethylenes or polypropylenes.”
Data on the next generation of products that market the naturalness of these materials will drive how best to use this strategy in the foreseeable future, she adds.
1 Graedel, T.T., Allenby, B. R. (1995). “Industrial Ecology.” Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
2 Lewis, H., Gertsakis, J. (2001). “Design + Environment: A Global Guide to Designing Greener Goods.” Sheffield: Greenleaf Publishing Ltd.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kiersten Muenchinger will be part of a panel discussion exploring this topic in greater depth at the Society of Plastics Engineers’ Nov. 6-8 Design in Plastics 2017 conference at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Joining her will be Dr. Gary Wnek, a professor of both Engineering and of Macromolecular Science & Engineering at Case Western Reserve University, and Mike Maczuzak, founder and CEO of SmartShape Design in Cleveland, Ohio. Together they will explore the “importance of the synergistic interface between design and engineering,” with a strong focus on sustainability and packaging. Learn more at www.4spe.org/designinplastics.
The views, opinions and technical analyses presented here are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of UL, ULProspector.com or Knowledge.ULProspector.com. While the editors of this site make every effort to verify the accuracy of its content, we assume no responsibility for errors made by the author, editorial staff or any other contributor. All content is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced without prior authorization from Prospector.