Product Design

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This page describes our views on product design. Two practices we have discussed are open specifications for products, and end of product life considerations which include recyclability. Many of these practices are related to sustainability.

Contents

Open specifications

We support the design of products with open specifications, specifications protected by copyleft or "open source" licensing, like Creative Commons or GNU licenses. Some advantages of this approach include:

  • Enabling replacement parts - If a product, or replacement parts for the product, is discontinued by the original manufacturer, new manufacturers can create replacement parts by using the open specifications. This makes it more likely that products will be able to be maintained and repaired for a low cost, for a longer period of time, which helps promote sustainability through allowing people to use products for longer.
  • Encouraging improvements in design - If a design is open to the public, anyone can study the design and suggest potential improvements.
  • Preventing planned obsolescence - Planned obsolescence refers to a practice whereby companies design a product to wear out or break sooner than people would normally want it to, in order to make more money by selling replacement products. This generates unnecessary waste of resources, production, and disposal. Open design can help prevent this problem.

The practice of using open specifications also fits with aspects of the spirit of our group and how we approach discussions, in which we discuss ideas on their own merit, and people do not have ownership of ideas.

End of product life considerations

Often, in our society, products are designed without consideration of, or with minimal consideration of, impacts of the product after it has outlived its usefulness. This is true not only of longer-lived products like appliances, but also of disposable products, including packaging of other products.

Some of the problems posed by discarded products include:

  • Trash and litter as a public nuisance - Plastic bags, wrappers, and all sorts of other trash litter both urban and rural areas.
  • Problems for wildlife - Animals can get caught in plastic rings or other pieces of trash, and can also be injured by swallowing trash.
  • Toxins and environmental contaminants - Synthetic polymers like plastics, which are common in discarded products and packaging, can carry toxic chemicals, see [1], which can cause problems for wildlife and even cause health problems in humans through bioaccumulation, when humans eat animals containing these chemicals.

Even when products are not littered or released into nature at the end of their life of use, they can create problems in landfills. Landfills come with a whole series of environmental problems, including leaching of toxic chemicals, including both heavy metals and organic chemicals, into the groundwater, and leaching of gases into the surrounding area. Landfills are also costly, requiring expenditure of resources to maintain for years after garbage is dumped in them.

Our practices

Our practices on end-of-product-life design include:

  • Design products to be biodegradable, recyclable, or inert - Pieces of ceramic may not break down much in the environment, but it will function more or less like other inert parts of the environment.
  • Design products to be reusable
  • Do not assume that products will be disposed of in an optimal or ideal fashion. It is important to consider the potential impact of products that are littered in cities and products that are dumped in wild ecosystems, including both on land and in the ocean.

Reusability, biodegradability, and recyclability are different parts of the end-of-life considerations for products, and often, one or two of them alone is not sufficient to ensure sustainability. For example, a tupperware container or plastic water bottle might be reusable and recyclable, but can still pose problems if it is non-biodegradable, as it will not break down if it ends up as litter in a city or in nature. Similarly, glass bottles that are not reusable may not be as efficient a use of resources as reusable glass bottles, even if they are recycled, since the recycling process is more resource-intensive than reusing the bottles.

Packaging

In order to minimize unnecessary resource use and environmental impacts of disposal, we have talked about the following practices for product packaging:

  • Minimize the amount of packaging used.
  • Make disposable packaging biodegradable if possible.