of Design for Disassembly
By Jonathan Larson
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Most everyone sees this slogan every day--some
of you may even have it on your business stationary. There is a genius
in this environmental slogan--for the scientist, it is often represented
as a triangle, the strongest and most elemental geometric shape. For
the religiously inclined, it calls to mind the authority of the Trinity.
It is simple, direct, and because of alliteration, easy to teach to children.
Yet the presence of every one of you here today is testimony to the
fact that there is a huge gulf between the three 'commandments' of
and the very difficult work of implementing them. Reduce/reuse/recycle only
tells us what we should do--it does not tell us how to do it. How? is the
important question for environmental professionals. All over the world,
people of good
will are saying, "I want to do the right thing by the environment. Tell
me how to do it and still live!"
A PLAN! A plan of action is what people and their governments are demanding.
It is up to us to demonstrate that we do have a plan they can live with. And
we had better come up with a working strategy very soon for time grows short.
This morning you have heard about German design-for disassembly practices.
You probably have already guessed that DFD is not a panacea for all problems.
DFD critics point out that there is more to pollution reduction than labeling
the type of plastics used in automaking. After all, the $125,000 Mercedes with
the 12-cylinder engine conforms to all the requirements of German DFD regulations.
It is something of a stretch to label a 165 mile-per-hour gas-guzzler 'green.'
Yet in this exercise in eco-hypocrisy lies an idea of such importance that
der grosser Mercedes should be thought of as an object lesson. DFD is a glimmer
of light that shows us that sophisticated environmental planning is possible.
Whatever your feelings about blazing down the autobahns at triple-digit speeds,
the fact that Mercedes proudly extols its 'green' efforts for its flagship
model says volumes about DFD as an environmental strategy.
DFD is a subset of the emerging environmental redesign movement which assumes
a) humans cause pollution (apes and dolphins may be bright but they have never
caused a toxic waste dump)
b) humans are conscious beings (for those who disagree and have examples--insert
you own joke here)
c) pollution is caused by the conscious acts of these humans
d) the more difficult the act of humans, the more planning it takes
e) the truly difficult pollution problems are caused by acts of significant
planning and design.
Pollution is a function of design!
In the United States, the notion that design has anything to do with
pollution is not immediately obvious. For Americans, design is associated
stitching on blue jeans or overdone dwellings for the idle rich. Industrial
design is thought of as the business of turning kitchen appliances into
objects of yuppie admiration.
But think about it for a minute! Nuclear power and the resulting waste
problems were brought to us by the creative genius of scientists, inventors,
engineers. Global warming is the product of planning by geologists, mining
engineers, shippers, civil engineers, automotive designers, and the clever
folks who solved the problems of mass production. The ozone hole is courtesy
of organic chemists who were merely trying to give the world a safe way
to preserve food and medical products with refrigeration. In fact, virtually
thing that can be considered pollution is the product of intense planning
and design--down to the last bubble-pack and plastic milk carton clogging
dumps. Remember, EVERYTHING that is called 'disposable' was DESIGNED
from day one to be garbage--as its PRIMARY and overriding design consideration.
When it is understood that pollution is a function of planning and design,
a whole host of options opens to the environmental community that never
existed before. It also exposes the shortcomings of traditional environmental
Take, for example, the original environmental strategy of conservation.
It is true that every environmentalist must first be a conservationist.
environmental problems, such as species extinction and the resulting
loss of biodiversity, can only be solved with a conservation strategy.
Yet conservation by itself, is doomed to failure. Roping off a wilderness
will never save it from the pollution without borders--such as acid rain,
depletion, or global warming.
In the context of environmental design, conservation means that the fewest
number of resources are disturbed in the struggles to support human life
on this planet. This requires quite different thinking in a modern industrial
setting than the creation of wilderness areas, which has no more sophisticated
model than the old king's hunting preserves. Conservation must be more
than nostalgia for life before industrialization. There is no "Garden of Eden" solution
to modern problems--humans have altered the biosphere far too much to return
to any fictional paradise.
The legislate, litigate, regulate environmental strategies have also
proved to be insufficient because genuine environmental solutions are
organizing work. The problem is that every dollar wasted on legal maneuvering
is one dollar less for environmental restructuring. And when the regulations
are written and the money is spent, the work still needs to be done and
then everyone wants the work done on the cheap. Trying to organize industrialization
on the cheap may be THE root cause of our environmental dilemmas.
Some environmentalists seem to assume that because production is 'dirty
business', the only proper role for environmentalists is the encouragement
of wise consumption.
Environmentalism as consumer education seems to postulate that we can
somehow shop our way out of impending doom. The European environmentalists
I know consider
the American infatuation with consumerist strategies to be utterly infantile.
If the last twelve years have taught us anything, it is that peoples
and nations who know how to successfully produce, eventually dominate
those who merely
know how to shop.
Ultimately, consumer re-education without production redesign is an exercise
in futility. Big pollution problems BECOME big pollution problems because
everyone wants the output of the polluting process. On the margins, changes
re-education in consumer behavior are possible. Some problems, like the
proper disposal of waste oil, have no other solution than re-education.
has its vital role in recycling but without industrial redesign, many
efforts merely result in waste piling up in warehouses rather than landfills.
Of course, someone must scientifically define the environmental dilemmas.
And further, good-government environmental regulations are necessary.
environmentalists have as important a niche in an overall environmental
strategy as the old-fashioned conservationists. Yet defining problems
and solving problems
are different skills. It is at this critical point where the strategy
of environmental redesign becomes so important.
The Germans produced DFD regulations because they understood the importance
of production issues and environmental issues coming together. It is
the logical outcome of the Red (Social Democrat) Green coalition. The
believe that for workers to prosper, industry must prosper. The Green
Party believes that for industry to prosper, it must be environmentally
The combining strategy is industrial redesign.
In some ways, it is not surprising that the Germans would reach such
a conclusion. For them, industrial design is a valued profession. Mies
Van der Rohe said
that "Form follows function" in the 1920s and they have believed
him ever since. If Germans could be convinced that environmental sustainability
is simply a design target, and they have been largely convinced, then industrial-environmental
design is the necessary logical outcome. It is why 1992 German cars already
conform to DFD regulations, and automakers have established sophisticated
recycling facilities, while in the U.S., DFD is still an essentially unknown
Industrial-environmental redesign is rapidly becoming the environmental
strategy of choice in Europe and increasingly in Japan. The reason is
that design has
emerged as the dominant economic factor as well. Good design decisions
lead to prosperity.
Of course, the free-market followers of Adam Smith do not agree. They
claim that markets can decide everything by setting price. Trapped by
thinking, free-marketeers fail to understand that markets only determine
which product designs people wish to buy--expensive AND cheap goods succeed
marketplace. Free-market ideologues have not only produced the present
world-wide depression with their flawed thinking, but are totally unable
a model for environmental renewal.
The Marxists, who believed that all value is determined by labor, got
a bit closer to describing what happens in the industrial states. But
also failed because equal labor does not produce equal outcomes. The
person who bolts on the wheel of a Mercedes or a Yugo works equally hard.
the Lexus 400 is assembled with about 1/3 the labor of an equivalent
Mercedes. The difference is design--the design of the car and the design
And, it should not be forgotten, Marxism also produced the ugly combination
of economic failure and environmental destruction. Folks! environmental
destruction was neither a commie or capitalist plot! Both were simply
The strategies for economic prosperity and environmental renewal can
ultimately be fused around the complex subject of design. Green design
is more than good
environmentalism--it is sound economics.
Some environmental problems have no other solution BUT environmental
redesign. Global warming is the perfect example because it is so easy
to define design
targets. The international consensus on global warming (almost everywhere
except in the U.S.) says that the atmosphere can absorb approximately
1/6 the current
emission of greenhouse gasses.
Recently, I was involved in a superb demonstration project of a Florida/sun-belt
house designed to use 1/6 of the prevailing energy consumption. 5/6 energy
reduction is quite a feat--especially since this project had to meet
a strict cost target of less than $70,000.
It was assumed that a $2 million demonstration house would demonstrate
very little. Further, all technologies had to be commonly available from
Depot type of retail outlet. Experimental or foreign technologies were
eliminated as excessively costly or unreliable. This ruled out photo-voltaic
These seemingly drastic design constraints--especially cost--made cost-free
design considerations absolutely critical. Because energy-efficiency
was assumed to be a design problem, the costs of premium energy-saving
a small fraction of the total costs of construction. Less than $4000
was spent for high-performance windows, thick walls, extra insulation,
dual and reflective
vapor barriers, low-watt bulbs, extra paddle fans, and so on.
Premium materials in a design strategy became less a factor than the
much bigger efficiencies which came from proper siting, well ventilated
orientated, large and sheltering eaves keyed to the solar path, computer-designed
ducting, and so on. But it was the interior layout that was most clever.
This house lacks none of the comforts associated with middle-class housing,
by simply renaming rooms, and functionally redesigning living spaces,
it lives like a big house yet has the cooling needs of a small one. By
on cost-free design considerations, the goal of 5/6 energy reduction
seems to have been reached.
But if design for energy-efficiency is obvious, design for waste reduction
is far less so. Producing anything means dramatic human intervention.
People who produce like to think that their products will last forever.
is also a certain sign of quality. Moreover, durability is a VALID environmental
strategy. Both the commandments of 'reduce' and 'reuse' imply products
that last. Producers are predisposed not to even THINK about their products
old and failing any more than they wish to think about their own mortality.
But mortality is the great design imperative of natural creation. Products
created by humans are NOT exempt. Just as humans create by intervening
in the natural order, so they are required to design an end to their
Design for disassembly is nothing more than the planned mortality of
human creation. (repeat) Everything that is made outside the natural
decay, must be unmade at some future date. This is the natural imperative.
Everything must eventually be recycled, therefore, everything that is
introduced into the biosphere must have a plan for its disposal when
it is created!
This is the true genius of design for disassembly. It is a simple commandment
to human creativity--you made it, you tell us how to get rid of it when
its useful life is over or don't make it in the first place. Of course,
DFD so effective is that environmental problems are placed in the hands
of those people most likely to have a solution--the product designers
Already, basic DFD strategies have emerged: eliminate adhesives (things
that are glued together are hard to separate) eliminated coatings, (same
reduce the number of materials, use easily recycled materials, employ
reversible fasteners, and reduce parts count.
These strategies not only appeal to the ultimate recycler, they have
benefits to the original producer that are so significant, they usually
pay for the
costs of DFD conversion.
For example, because one goal is fewer parts, a DFD product often takes
less time to produce--in some cases significantly so. Fewer parts also
A product that is easy to disassemble is easy to repair or modify. Products
can last longer because only a failed subpart needs to be replaced. Waste
can be reduced if a large product does not have to be scrapped because
part fails or becomes obsolete. Regionalized custom production becomes
more possible if modifications become easier.
In one DFD project I worked on, production costs were cut by over 50%,
service calls and consumer relations were greatly simplified, toxic processes
eliminated, and so much solid waste was removed and so much recycled
material was introduced into the production systems that this manufacturer
net consumer of waste products.
DFD works. Rest assured, those serious Germans and diligent Japanese
would not be toying with DFD strategies if they did not work! Because
disassembly has payoffs at both ends, one might assume that there would
be no resistance to this clearly superior design strategy. One's assumptions
There is all sorts of resistance to goes far beyond a producer's need
for product immortality. Change involves risk. There are few successful
products as it
is--why tamper with success. DFD requires management commitment and worker
retraining. More importantly, it requires rethinking. In a world where
even committed environmentalists seem to believe that saving the environment
cost jobs and money, changing these assumptions is probably the biggest
problem of all.
Yet change is necessary. Time runs short for an environmental solution.
Fortunately, everyone is clamoring for change. We must order our societies
Industrial redesign offers the brightest hope by far for producing prosperity
while saving the environment. Actually, the social imperative is quite
simple--there is so much work to be done and there are so many who need
work, that a society
which cannot combine these needs deserves to fail.
A working strategy has emerged. Let me suggest a new trinity for the
environmental professional--rethink, redesign, and rebuild.
So where do we start? We must first understand that these environmental
strategies are going to become a minimum admission to the global economy.
Germany is the
500 pound gorilla of the European Community. It is quite possible that
DFD may become an EC trade barrier. If German manufacturers are required
disposal methods, why should they import products that have no disposal
strategies--their landfills are full too. In like manner, we may expect
Japan to set the rules
for all of Asia.
Environmental concerns are certain to emerge as even bigger trade barriers.
Already, the Canadian ambassador has his hands full because German environmentalists
have accused Canadian paper producers of having 'worse logging practices
than a third-world country like Brazil' and are seeking to bar imports
Better, if flagship industries make a commitment to waste reduction through
redesign, can governments and the service industries be far behind. In
fact, until rethinking takes place at the source of the waste stream--the
capacity of industrialization, all other efforts are essentially sweeping
up after the parade. Source reduction of pollution begins at the very
thinking that leads to the production of man-made goods.
Of course, we Americans can do nothing, watch as the Germans and Japanese
master and dominate 'green' technologies like they did everything else
in the past
20 years, hope that we will only have to be good little consumers, and
pray that they will keep lending us enough money to buy their technologies
they are tired of seeing us trash the planet. But don't count on it.
After 50 years of useless American arrogance, the rest of the world is
pleasure in watching our economic collapse and loss of imperial pretensions.
Rethink. Redesign. Rebuild. There is a bright possible future if only
we are brave enough to grasp it. There has never been a time like the
attempting a new environmental strategy. Of course, governments have
a role in all of this and capital for conversion must be forthcoming.
We must have
new definitions of how we organize our societies. And, as in any human
endeavor, not all DFD strategies will be successful. But the promise
is so immense and
the alternatives so grim, the efforts necessary to learn this new strategy
are well worth it.
Design as an environmental strategy, and DFD in particular, is a complicated
subject. If these remarks today have been excessively theoretical, be
assured that I will be happy to answer more specific questions about
the nuts and bolts
of DFD at the session following these remarks.
I want to thank the Recycling Association of Minnesota for inviting me
to speak. You people are very important--in essential ways, the very
survival of the
biosphere rests in your hands. Rethink, redesign, rebuild! using the
blueprint of the natural order, can become the 'how-to' environmental
strategy of the
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SEE ALSO: Elegant Technology--Chapter