The Greener by Design conference, held last week in San Francisco, was actually the best conference I've been to in a while. For whatever reason, the conversations I had with people were unusually excellent, and the number of people I met was large. Kudos to organizer and Worldchanging ally Joel Makower for putting on a great event. Here are a few notes from the event:
Perhaps the most tangible green innovations described at the conference were Method's. First, Adam Lowry described how the laundry detergent market hadn’t changed in 50 years; however, after Method's introduction of extra-concentrated liquids a few years ago, the industry changed to the point where now you literally can’t get non-concentrated detergents at Target or Walmart. Another example he mentioned was that Method did an LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) of plastic bag packaging vs. a recycled plastic bottle (they're leaders in using 100% recycled PET for many of their bottles), and found that virgin plastic bags were better, not necessarily an obvious conclusion. So they invented recycled and recyclable bags. The only trouble so far is that most recycling centers just think the new packages are potato chip bags and don’t recycle them (currently no bags like that are recycled, at least not in the US). Taking the initiative a step further, Method sent samples of the bags to many big municipal recyclers to explain their recyclability. It's unclear how effective that has been so far, but in time hopefully it will produce another industry-wide shift.
On a related note, Tony Knoerzer of Frito-Lay described how his company is working its way towards making their Sun Chips bags entirely out of PLA so they can be composted instead of landfilled. He said the bags will even be compostable in your own backyard -- something that's not true of PLA bottles. Presumably, the difference is that the thinness of the bags allows for faster breakdown.
Both Sustainable Minds and Greenfly were there, the only two LCA software companies whose tools are pleasant and easy to use, rather than a foray through 1990s engineering-tool clunkage. They're the next generation of LCA tools, and it's the first time I've seen both at the same conference. Hopefully the rest of the industry will follow them into making analysis tools that "normal" designers can use.
Sam Lucente and Uri Kogan of HP each talked about green innovations they've been playing with. They've done some very creative things with packaging (such as using a laptop bag in place of a carboard box). I'd like to see HP apply its creativity to reducing bigger impacts, like lifetime energy use or circuit board size. Granted, in the laptop market it's hard to stand out from the competition, because these factors are already desirable for performance and form factor, but as the One Laptop Per Child initiative showed, it can be done. Even better would be to see laptop market improvements rolled out as standard on desktop markets as well. Still, as Kogan pointed out, innovation in packaging helps build consumer awareness of sustainability, and hopefully acts as design practice for larger-impact changes. HP has done some great green projects over the years (whatever happened to 2003's HP printer with the PLA case?), but so have Dell, NEC, Toshiba, and some others; there isn't an obvious winner in the space.
Adventure Ecology founder David de Rothschild talked about Plastiki, his fun publicity stunt to make people rethink waste by sailing across the Pacific on a boat made out of used plastic bottles. It's a more swashbuckling version of other projects we've seen like the casa de botellas in Argentina. Amusingly, he said the thing that impresses people the most about the boat is not the engineering it took to design and build the thing, but the fact that they have a garden on board.
William McDonough delivered the keynote. While he didn't say anything particularly new, it was good to see him in person, since he's so much in demand these days -- the biggest single name in sustainability. There was a pre-conference workshop on Cradle to Cradle design by EDG; it just covered the basics of it, but a couple people from MBDC were on hand to answer questions. Most of the workshop was an exercise in EDG's innovation methodology, with standard brainstorming but then a more structured form of giving feedback, that encourages people to have more substance to their comments rather than just "like it" or "don't like it." Interestingly, the structure of the feedback session in their method does not allow the idea-presenters to respond to the feedback during the session -- the result is that, instead of being able to argue their points, presenters must have the answers come out in the next iteration of the design. Later in the conference, Amnon Levav from SIT International also presented some fun innovation techniques that he worked the audience through, tools that make creativity and innovation more of a science.
Many other folks spoke as well. Packaging guru Wendy Jedlicka talked about systems-thinking and made mention of her new book Packaging Sustainability; Angela Nahikian of Steelcase, one of the industry leaders, described some of her company's initiatives; Susan Gladwin from the California Cleantech Open, Ted Howes of IDEO, and Mark Aggar of Microsoft talked about energy efficiency; plus many more. One novel thing the conference organizers did that I appreciated was to bring in a slew of small entrepreneurs to present their companies and/or products in just a few minutes each, one after another. I'm sure some of these are companies we'll be hearing more about in the future: EcoLogic, Trula, Re-Tread Products, Rapioli, GreenHeart, GreenOps, and more.
I suspect that recycling systems world wide are still evolving, and are a little patchy as a result.
Based on a tour of a Visy recycling facility I did a year or two ago, the problem with plastic bags is not that they can't recycle the plastic (spectrophotometers can sort types 1-7), but that they can't easily separate the bags from other items in the recycled garbage (particularly paper), and if the bags get in the wrong part of a conveyors, they can cause jams and the whole sorting system has to be shut down while they extract the offending items (ditto styrofoam meat trays)
I think it's ironic that a paragraph on life cycle analysis was followed by a paragraph praising a company for using polylactic acid. PLA appears very sustainable from a waste perspective, but when you look at the beginning of its life cycle, it's not so clear.
The main feedstock for PLA in the USA is corn. In much of the rest of the world it's sugar cane. If the sustainability of the feedstock is not closely scrutinized, you run into the corn ethanol problem as demand increases.
This is a prime example of the importance of full life cycle analysis in product design. PLA is a wonderful material, but only with a fully sustainable feedstock.
George -- Actually, if you look at an LCA of PLA, even coming from standard corn in the US, it still uses about 40% less energy than the production of PET, the plastic it's usually used to replace. You're right that organically-grown, non-GM feedstocks will be even better, but it's already in improvement on the front end.