Ask Eartha: Ecologically-minded manufacturers are worth supporting (column) | SummitDaily.com

Ask Eartha: Ecologically-minded manufacturers are worth supporting (column)

Eartha Steward
Special to the Daily

Dear Eartha,

I recently heard about Ikea's new sustainable product line and was considering supporting it when it comes out. I am wondering if this is a good solution to keep waste out of our landfills?

— Maggie, Silverthorne

Thank you for your question this week, Maggie! As consumers, it can be difficult to wager the environmental benefits and disadvantages of product design. I will do my best to provide you with the tools you need to make sustainable consumer decisions.

For those of you who are not aware, Ikea has launched their new product line in which items are made entirely from waste products. For example, their upcoming ODGER chair will be made with 70-percent recycled plastic and 30-percent renewable wood. Realizing their products have a large consumer outreach, product developer Anna Granath mentions that, "by offering more sustainable alternatives, we (Ikea) actually have the opportunity to make a difference."

It is true that Ikea's new product line will reduce the company's environmental impact when it comes to resource extraction, but will this really help keep waste out of our landfills? They plan to utilize recycled items such as foil, plastic and wood, which can encompass a large portion of landfill capacity.

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While it is beneficial to reuse these materials wherever possible, what happens to the furniture when someone no longer needs it? Can it be recycled again? Is it made out of materials that are compostable? Is there another use for the product at its life's end? These are just a few questions that should be asked when a company is striving for sustainable design or when you're trying to decide what to buy as a consumer.

Guy Robinson, director of Sprout Design, spoke about the company's approach to sustainable product design and outlines three main considerations that should be taken into account: 1) Put less stuff in a product, 2) create products that use less stuff and 3) create fewer products.

I think we can all agree that the best way to keep waste out of our landfills is to stop excessive and unnecessary purchasing. Although, in terms of business profit, this probably is not the most feasible solution. In order to find a balance that serves the environment, people and economy, the following components should be questioned and reworked to create more sustainable methods of product manufacturing: extraction, production, distribution and disposal.

Extraction

Where do the materials come from? Are there safer, healthier and environmentally-conscious ways to create your product? Ikea is setting a great example for large corporations to get the most out of the materials that have already been extracted.

Production

Is the process harmful to people's health due to pollution or poor working conditions? Is the company using methods that are the least energy intensive? Is there a loss of material during production? Using efficient production methods can help keep resources out of landfills. Minimizing scraps and leftover unwanted products should be considered to determine whether or not the finished result is having less of a negative environmental impact than your "average" consumer goods.

Distribution

Is the material traveling around the world or is coming from your community? Transportation and distribution of products is a factor that is often overlooked. However, it is one component that accounts for some of the most greenhouse gas emissions in a product's life cycle. In order to cut environmental and economic costs, remember to look for locally-sourced materials and products.

Disposal

The initial design of a product's life cycle (and where it ends up after its used) is arguably the most decisive element of a product's environmental impact. Companies have started to create products that give back to Earth at its life's end instead of polluting it. The packaging company Ecovative uses mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus) to create a compostable replacement to styrofoam. By using Earth-friendly materials, this packaging strategy has a positive impact on the planet's ecosystem.

Ikea's products are innovative and an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional furniture and home amenities. If you are looking to support a manufacturer with ecological impacts in mind, choosing a company that reuses materials is a great way to achieve that. However, if you truly desire to keep waste out of landfills be sure to understand what will happen at the end of the product's life. What will you do with it? If you cannot come up with an answer, it most likely is going to end up in a landfill.

Always take into consideration that we live on a planet with finite resources. Make the most of what you have and remember the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable food, waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at eartha@highcountryconservation.org.