If you’re lucky, you work for people who care about the environmental impact of your product as much as the financial bottom line. But often, the environment isn’t even an afterthought, especially if someone says the words “time to market” or “cost.”  Don’t worry though, you don’t have to be forced into killing the planet! With our powers combined… here are five tips any designer or engineer can use to reduce the environmental impact of any product.

1 | Do More With Less

Let’s start simple with the first of the 3 R’s: reduce. Products designed to use less material cause less impact on the environment. Optimizing material usage should be a part of any product development process, as this important first step cascades to many other areas. Less material in the design means less raw material needed, less fuel to transport that raw material, less energy to convert the raw material to the finished part, and less fuel when moving that product around. As the life of the product ends and we consider disposal, these reductions in material usage continue to reduce potential environmental impact.

Even better, this approach often leads to less obvious efficiencies and effects during the manufacturing process. For example, a thin wall injection molded part will cool faster than a thick wall part, reducing the time on the injection molding press. Fortunately for you and your product owner, this results in lower part cost. And since the thin wall part uses less material, the impact on the environment is reduced. It’s a classic win-win!

Thick Wall vs Thin Wall With Ribs

2 | Choose a Less Harmful Material

All materials are not created equal with respect to performance, and the same is true with respect to what it takes to bring that raw material to the production floor. We all have our favorite materials to use when the application environment isn’t particularly demanding. Here at Synapse, we have a history of defaulting to a certain PC/ABS blend because it hasn’t let us down and we know what to expect from it, which enables us to move faster in development.

But we can make a big difference by selecting a resin that not only meets our application needs, but also comes with less embodied energy to make it to pellet stage. Here, a secondary material—a material made with recycled materials—is a great option. These materials might be repurposed from the manufacturing process, such as regrind of runners or scrapped parts. Work with your molder to set up boundaries on regrind percentage and quality control.

Another great option is to use material that’s already made it to a consumer and back to the manufacturing line; Trinseo’s ECO line of resins uses this post-consumer recycled content. If secondary materials aren’t the right fit, bioplastics might be worth a try. EcoPaxx from Chase Plastics is a polyamide made from castor beans and features certified carbon neutral status to the pellet stage.

The graphic here is an indexed view of the environmental impact of a selection of resins. If we choose primary polycarbonate when we could have chosen POM (acetal), we unnecessarily double our environmental impact. If for some reason you chose an Emulsion PVC (E-PVC) when General Purpose Polystyrene (GPPS) would work, that’s 280 times the minimum damage. 280 times—let that sink in.

3 | I Saw the Sign

Symbols on the bottom of food containers are a familiar sight, but I encourage you to get to know the variations a bit better, then use them—properly—on your products.

First, let’s talk about the variants. To identify products made from recycled materials, three versions have been used by the fiber industry. These are great symbols to use if you have the ability to reproduce them:The first indicates that the part is made from recycled materials. This should mean that it’s made from 100% recycled materials.  

  • The first indicates that the part is made from recycled materials. This should mean that it’s made from 100% recycled materials.  
  • The middle symbol is intended for parts made with some recycled content, but not 100%. The specific percentage, if known, can be added under the logo.  
  • The third is the typical version, used for almost anything related to recycling. This does not mean the product is recyclable; instead, it’s really more about identifying the material than it is about identifying whether or not it is recyclable.

Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s be sure to add them to our products! Once the material selection is complete, this identification is an easy thing to add near cavity identification, date indicators, or part number markings. While adding the symbol doesn’t mean it will be recycled (or that it is recyclable), not having the symbol almost guarantees that it won’t be recycled.

4 | Don’t Make It Last

Which is the right answer?

A: You design a product that breaks after 1 year when it was planned to last for 10 years.

B: You design a product that doesn’t break under normal use for 10 years, but is only used for 1 year.

Trick question—they’re both wrong! In scenario A, an increase in robustness results in less environmental impact, plus customers who don’t hate you. In scenario B, a decrease in robustness results in less environmental impact with a bonus of lower cost.

“I want to design junk.” — No One I’ve Ever Met

When pressured to reduce cost or bring products to market faster, bad decisions are possible, even though no one I know wants to put their name on a low quality product. Understanding how people will use your products and the resulting requirements, coupled with proper test planning and execution of that testing, is imperative. Following the product development process to ensure relevant, robust, and reliable designs prevents Scenario A above.  

More often, designers and engineers make a product more robust than necessary “just to be safe”. This is why it’s important not to just test to a pass/fail level, but instead to test to failure.  If you find you have excessive design margin, take that as an invitation to modify the design.  As a result, you will likely reduce both financial and environmental cost in the process (see tip 1!).  

“I want to design junk.” — No One I’ve Ever Met

Another option is to keep that overbuilt design and select a material that lends itself to a future life through easy recycling. The humble but trendy cast iron pan is a great example. Even if these pans didn’t last seemingly forever due to their robust construction, the single part made of a single material can easily be put into the scrap iron bucket and end up as raw material for another product. This allows an extremely long life, potential second-hand use, plus easy recycling at end of life.

These decisions require knowledge of how people will use the product you are developing. If this is a single use item, you could opt for a minimum amount of a material that readily breaks down (compostable) or is easily and completely recyclable. If you are designing something to be reusable but you don’t expect the consumer to use it for more than a few years, choosing a recycled and recyclable material is a great choice; but make sure it’s robust enough to last that intended lifespan. And if you are making a product that the purchaser will almost never replace, go big with a robust design and the ability to be recycled at end-of-life.

5 | Now, Spread the Word!

Just because no one asked you to design something that is better for the environment doesn’t mean you need to keep it a secret. In fact, since so many of the principles of Design for the Environment (DfE) result in reduced financial cost, plus the bonus of reduced unrealized costs; we should all advertise this correlation when possible.  So tack on one extra slide to that presentation or even just add another bullet in a list of features to spread the word that Designing for the Environment means everyone wins.