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Working with sustainable materials

The last stop on Milton Glaser's "Road to Hell" is "Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user's death." What if the ad itself is toxic? In designing the tote bags for the conference, AIGA discovered that the color of ink we were planning to use was unsuitable because it contained cobalt, which is hazardous to the environment. What criteria do you use to determine whether a material is safe to produce, safe to use and can be disposed of safely? And where do you draw the line between design and environmental or science?

Add your Response

Conference Attendee, Seattle, 17-Dec-03
EPA Battles Co. Over River Pollution
By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS Associated Press Writer

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - It's not often that the United States serves as a dumping ground for a foreign factory, but that is happening in the remote northeast corner of Washington.

The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to force a Canadian company to clean up decades of toxic smelter waste that have flowed down the Columbia River into Lake Roosevelt.
The EPA recently broke off talks with Teck Cominco Ltd., saying the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company was not serious about cleaning up the waste, and the federal agency is now pursuing legal action.

At issue is Teck Cominco's giant lead and zinc smelter on the banks of the Columbia River in Trail, British Columbia, 10 miles north of the U.S.-Canada border. The EPA contends the smelter is the largest source of metals pollution in Lake Roosevelt.

Teck Cominco Chief Executive Officer David A. Thompson wrote in a letter to the EPA that his company does not have to meet all requirements of U.S. environmental law because it operates entirely in Canada.

Last year, an EPA study of sediment samples concluded the portion of Lake Roosevelt from Inchelium to the Canadian border already qualified for Superfund listing because of hazards to aquatic life from heavy metals.
The metals flow down the river into Lake Roosevelt. Smelter operations have dumped an estimated 10 million to 20 million tons of slag into the river. Slag is a smelting byproduct that contains lead, arsenic and mercury.

"Teck Cominco has illegally treated our Columbia River as their sewer and Lake Roosevelt as their cesspool," said Bob Jackman of Citizens for a Clean Columbia, an environmental group. "For decades, Teck Cominco has been a bad corporate neighbor."

Stephanie J., Seattle, 18-Nov-03
Kind of like being there: I've been reading the well-recommended book "Cradle to Cradle" since returning from the conference. If you didn't attend, you can capture the essence of the messages presented at the conference from this book.

Shifting gears: Without sounding heretical, I would like to make a comment and an observation about the conference location. I don't intend to offend anyone; however, I do feel there is a place in the dialogue for these perspectives.

In their decision to hold an "American" design conference outside of the U.S., the planners clearly felt that the green theme of the event would be better emphasized in a "green" country. And who doesn't love Vancouver? It's a beautiful city. Yet, British Columbia is not necessarily an environmental utopia, either: Seattleites could tell you about the issues concerning raw sewage from Victoria flowing into the Strait of Juan de Fuca - our backyard.

If we wanted to really tap into the "Power of Design", maybe we should have opened up our wallets in a U.S. city that would be grateful for the influx of revenue from 2000 designers, and whose leaders could perhaps create some meaningful synergy with the great thinkers present. I feel a little guilty...I wonder if anyone else out there does, too?

Nick Comack, FedEx Ground, Pittsburgh, PA, 11-Nov-03
David has a good point. Question: Which is more damaging to the environment - building industries to recycle our waste? Which in themselves cause pollution. Or not? Yes, we should do what is "right" but we must look beyond the horizon to see the consequenses of our actions. Are smaller, more fuel efficient cars "more right" if they cause more serious injuries? If products are not made in third world countries where child labor laws do not exist then what happens to those families with the loss of income? One solution creates another problem. It is imparative to be aware of the consequenses of our actions. Then work to resolve those consequenses. Let's be solutionists looking beyond our single issues. Remember the third wave -a new age where design becomes the means for massive change?

Janine James, The Moderns, New York, NY, 07-Nov-03
At The Moderns we try not to view sustainability as an entity unto itself. For us, it is part of a much larger holistic approach that we call "Good Design = Good Business." The first and most important step in this process is constructing a paradigm to operate from. For instance, we test our designs with the following questions: is it cool? has it been made from the best materials? does it promote social equity? will it help our client grow their brand culture?

Then, we proceed by reminding ourselves that nothing will ever be perfect. You will always have to make compromises, whether it is conceding design to environmental concerns or vice versa. For example, the conference tote bag that we designed has flaws. The material it was derived from was probably made from genetically-modified corn, we were unable able to specify the right color ink, and so on. However, if you look at the big picture, this year's conference bag was a lot more hip and environmentally progressive than a plain old organic cotton bag. Furthermore, the reason AIGA's color could not be printed was not because of environmental issues (i.e. cobalt content) but because of time constraints. By the time we had sourced enough yardage and found a silkscreen ink free of PVC it was too late to match AIGA's blue.

Remember, even if your designs are not perfect, by working from a new paradigm you will still be causing change. The more times a vendor is asked about environmental repercussions, the more likely they are to alter their products. Even someone as far-removed from the end user as an ink manufacturer will start to take notice. Case in point, several of the largest U.S. silkscreen ink manufacturers will be launching PVC-free ink lines early next year.

Eva Anderson, Anderson Pop Design, Providence, 03-Nov-03
I was the editor/designer of ECO newsletter - a quarterly insert in Communication Arts - for 10 years, and an advocate of eco-design for the past 16. Although we're not publishing currently, with luck, we'll get an archive of past ECO newsletters online in the near future (still working on my "spare" time!), and a national database of resources that will be accessible to the public for free.

Meanwhile, for more info, check out: or

May you find courage in all your endeavors!
[French translation of coeur=heart, hence courage=full of heart]

Eva Anderson, Anderson Pop Design, Providence, 03-Nov-03
DAVID: for toxicity of printing inks, check out the May/Jun 1999 issue of ECO in Communication Arts magazine. See my next response for research resources.

Eva Anderson, Anderson Pop Design, Providence, 03-Nov-03
KATRINA: Thanks for the coltan info. The good news is that some companies are considering their impact, and working towards better solutions. Not all will get it right, but it's a good beginning, and they will benchmark further efforts. For example:
Dell is setting an incredible standard:
And Sony:

Eva Anderson, Anderson Pop Design, Providence, 03-Nov-03
CHRISTOPHER: You're right. Many of the computer and monitor components are extremely toxic, and should NEVER be tossed in the landfill. Rhode Island has special computer recycling days, but our studio prefers to donate our "down-cycled" computers + peripherals to local [and very appreciative] charities. FYI: We wrote an article on computer impacts [see ECO, Jan/Feb 1997 in Communication Arts).

Eva Anderson, Anderson Pop Design, Providence, RI, 03-Nov-03
TABITHA: Vendors will sell what they think the market will bear. As a profession, we should be leaders in minimal impact design. In this material existence, the human species strays towards peacock-ish and hedonistic behavior. Getting us to not print 12 color jobs with metallic ink requires a mindfulness and connectedness that is challenging to foster in a consumer-driven society. I face it constantly in my own personal habits and when dealing with my fellow citizens. But I have a bigger vision of sustainable living and spiritual consciousness that helps me overcome the resistance I face on almost a daily basis. Many I have come in contact with have become convinced it is a better way. It is a slow process requiring much patience and tenacity. (On a personal note, I remember doing battle with my husband 10 years ago about how and why to recycle. Now he leads the recycling program on WaterFire nights in Providence, with an attendance of up to 40,000 visitors!)

Tabitha Holmquist, Seattle, WA, USA, 03-Nov-03
I have yet to see a vendor come in to pitch their services and talk about sustainability of their materials. I think its time we started talking to our vendors, printers, & manufacturers and letting them know that we care about how our artifacts are impacting the world on the larger scale. If we could get printers to start pitching sustaintable practices instead of enticing us to use 12 colors + a half dozen metallics and varnishes, that would be a great partnership. I noticed at the conference that despite the topic and enthusiasm for sustainability, that vendors are still pitching the same overproduced wasteful print pieces with a container in a container in a container. Maybe we need a 12 steps framework for the vendors too? some sort of literature that we can pass to them that let them know we care and they will need to in order to retain our business.

christopher richard, alexandria, virginia, 03-Nov-03
There was some mention of the tremendous waste that goes into making laptop computers, in terms of unreclaimable water. Its not very glamorous, but since our computers tend to be upgradable, we should take advantage of that to its fullest extent instead of tossing out the new to get the new new. I have heard of some computer recycling programs:
Its a start.

Katrina Perekrestenko, Richland, WA, 02-Nov-03
I also feel there is a big void in the research about the materials we are using. For example, no one at the conference talked about the impact our G4's have. One of the main minerals used to make computers, cell phones, etc. is coltan. The majority of the worlds supply lies in the Democratice Republic of Congo. For years, it's been plundered and millions killed by various armies (for more info check out Then after we need to replace our quickly obsolete computers, where does it go? Is it recycled? It seems we as designers have a huge leverage in purchasing power. What would happen if we demanded recycling programs or that they account for where the materials come from? I think it could make a difference. I would like to get other people's feedback.

Deborah Szabo, LGL Design, NY, NY, 30-Oct-03
Don't we all have ethics, really now! Can it be a difficult moment to deceide if one wants to provide to a client and/or support the success i.e. marketing of, that produces and/or sells harmful product/services to the public. We suppose some do not have ethics in the marketplace, therefore, the ill society we are witnessing. Seperating your humane-ness from your work ethics is an awful careless activity to overlook.

David, One Lane Studios, Sausalito, CA, 30-Oct-03
This is an area ripe for research and information sharing. Who knows what colors are toxic, for example. How did AIGA learn of cobalt, etc. Anyone got any good resources to share on this?

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