October 1, 2007
Avoiding the Landfill: Afterlife
Western Michigan’s big-three furniture makers have plans for your office chair once you’re finally done sitting in it.
The task chair is relatively easy to turn into a design-for-the-environment trophy. Unlike a car, it doesn’t pollute or consume natural resources once it rolls off the assembly line. Unlike medical equipment, it’s ergonomic without requiring ingredients like PVC to prevent it from conveying germs and disease. And unlike an earth-friendly geothermal heat pump, it fits on a pedestal and can be elegantly iconized. As we all know, the chair photographs well.
When Haworth launched the Zody task chair in 2005, it laid claim to the first gold certification from McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry’s (MBDC) Cradle to Cradle system, a kind of private green label. The Zody is pretty much free of the kinds of persistent and carcinogenic chemicals that tend to leach out of landfills or escape from incinerators. It is designed for disassembly and is 98 percent recyclable. You could take one apart with a few hand tools in about 15 minutes and toss it in a lake without affecting the water quality—though that would be missing the point since the manufacturer has made efforts to accommodate the reuse or recycling of the chair when its time has come. Haworth’s competitors also rushed to gain gold certification for their leading eco-chairs, including Steelcase’s Think and Herman Miller’s Mirra; as a result, these three chairs are now benchmarks of design for disassembly and environmentally friendly composition.
But what exactly does this mean? The Cradle to Cradle certification process forces the manufacturers’ suppliers to disclose (to MBDC) every chemical ingredient of the components and materials that go into the chairs—or risk being dropped by the manufacturer. This process initiated some significant design changes. Chrome-plated bases, an old office-chair favorite, will not be found on the Zody, Think, or Mirra, nor will solvent-coated metals. Chrome, which uses the toxic heavy metal hexavalent chromium, has been superseded by cast aluminum or stainless steel, and solvents have been replaced by powder coating. PVC—a low-cost antimicrobial but increasingly controversial plastic used on chair arms and cable covers—is replaced by polypropylene and thermoplastic urethane (see The Vinyl Question). Finally, polyester, used in the mesh backs and seats, is no longer treated with heavy doses of the heavy metal antimony, so it can be mechanically and chemically recycled without risk. “The material chemistry analysis at the front end means that if the product ends up in a landfill,” says Mark Bonnema, a Haworth Design for Environment engineer, “safety concerns are virtually eliminated.” Equally innovative are the design-for-disassembly improvements on these chairs.
A J-channel connects the base of the Think chair to the back, which snaps into place with a 30-degree rotation, reducing the number of mechanical fasteners. The Zody’s back is held to the base with one bolt, and the Mirra’s with four: minimizing parts not only makes the chairs easier to disassemble but makes assembly and shipping (with the backs off) more efficient as well, reducing their carbon footprints. (More chairs per truck.) All three manufacturers claim a disassembly routine of between 5 and 15 minutes, calling to mind the short film Charles and Ray Eames made of their lounge chair and ottoman being assembled and disassembled at high speed by a man with a screwdriver, who even had time to take a nap on the assembled chair and dream of a beautiful assistant perched at his feet.
It is easy to be seduced by the cinematic and conceptual beauty of disassembly, but in reality it tells only part of a more complex problem. The true environmental cost of shipping in components from around the world, assembling them, packaging them, and shipping them back out around the world is hardly benign. Still, all three manufacturers have overseas assembly plants, reducing the cost of shipping, and all three use blankets rather than cardboard for packaging on large domestic deliveries. Herman Miller even has a biofuel fleet for local-area deliveries. But a life-cycle assess-ment would certainly not put chair manufacturing up there with community-supported agriculture. Components are shipped in and chairs are shipped out on old-fashioned gas-guzzling trucks and boats. Jay Bolus, vice president of technical operations at MBDC, admits that it is a subject the system has yet to take on. “Carbon neutrality is something Cradle to Cradle doesn’t address right now,” he says.
Each of these chairs is designed to withstand 12 years of 24-hour use, so none of them is likely to end up in the recycling stream anytime soon, but this distance seems to breed a little poetic license. Steelcase’s brilliantly written brochure for Think waxes eloquently in the conditional tense, suggesting that the materials in the chair could end up all around you: your bath made of the recycled polyethylene terephthalate (or PET), your hairbrush made of the recycled nylon, your carpet made of the recycled polypropylene, and your golf clubs made of the aluminum. So far the furniture industry has yet to provide an infrastructure facilitating chair return and materials recovery.
Haworth boasts a take-back program of which its competitors are rather skeptical since it requires the customer to pay to ship back the product. Given that the infrastructure for tossing your old furniture is well established (and free), there is little incentive beyond green guilt for chair users to pay to return their old chairs. By comparison, Sony, which is part of an industry with much less benign manufacturing processes and much more difficult-to- recycle components, recently announced that it was partnering with Waste Management to provide 175 consumer-electronics recycling drop-off centers around the United States within a year, eventually aiming at a network with a center within 20 miles of most residents. This cannot have escaped the notice of the furniture-makers. “Take-back is easy to promise, hard to implement,” says Gabe Wing, a chemical engineer on Herman Miller’s Design for the Environment team. “I think that’s an industrywide problem—maybe it’s even outside our industry—that we need to solve. We use the same materials as the automotive people, as the computer people, so what can we do collectively to set up regional recycling facilities? That makes a lot more sense than shipping the product back to Zeeland, Michigan, and picking up all those transportation costs.”
Currently, all three manufacturers provide information for customers looking to off-load their old furniture, either to third-party used-office-furniture refurbishers or for scrap. “There are recyclers who would love to get a hold of the steel and aluminum components,” Bonnema says, identifying the most commonly recovered chair materials. The carpet and auto industries are using a certain amount of recovered nylon, according to Bonnema. And in preparation, Haworth’s efforts to reduce materials for easing disassembly resulted in 15 parts of the Zody’s being made of the same type of nylon. Herman Miller claims to have redesigned any part of the Mirra that took more than 15 seconds to disassemble, having calculated the cost of disassembly versus the price of recycled materials. (The exceptions being the tilt and hydraulic mechanisms, which can’t be safely disassembled.) As Bolus puts it, the strategy is on target, even if the infrastructure isn’t there yet. “Right now it probably doesn’t make sense economically—or environmentally, for that matter—to take all these chairs back to where they came from, disassemble them, and recycle those parts.” But by making the chair easy to take apart and disassembly instructions readily available on the Web, Bolus says, the manufacturers have provided the opportunity for other people to do the job. “I think what we’ll see happen is that this new business of material brokers will pop up. Folks who’ll disassemble products and recycle materials because it makes sense economically.”
Ultimately, it is encouraging that while other industries rail against standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, office-furniture manufacturers have set themselves goals that are far higher than any federal standards. This is a reflection of both the tight family-originated culture of the furniture businesses around the Grand Rapids area and the kind of market they’re in. The proliferation of “greenwashing” —unsubstantiated claims for sustainable design in a bid to appeal to eco-conscious architects and designers—has become an unforeseen toxic ingredient in furniture sales pitches. “Everyone has a green story,” Bolus says. MBDC’s labeling scheme was invented at the time when the big-three furniture manufacturers were eager for a marketable badge to indicate that they had gone through a rigorous testing process.
Whether the literature for Zody and its peers is completely greenwash-free is up for debate, but contract furniture’s green fever certainly presents an economically viable case study. Victor Papanek wrote, back in 1995, that for a product-design profession born of a throwaway culture, the current challenge presents a paradox: “to design things that will last yet come apart easily.” In that short phrase lies the key to an aesthetic and structural paradigm shift in design. In terms of end-of-life issues, contract-furniture companies have set a standard for other manufacturing industries to follow.
7 Steps in the Lifecycle of a Green Product