The quick and intuitive disassembly of my French press means that I can easy clean it and replace or recycle its parts as needed.
The stats feel tired at this point: the EPA tells us that over 10 million tons of furniture are taken to US landfills each year, and more than 2 thousand tons of major appliances will be tossed onto the heap in 2021 alone. As product designers, this can lead us straight to an existential fever dream, imagining Victor Papanek whispering in our ear: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few.”
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The reality is that consumption-based capitalism isn’t going anywhere. But we as designers and business leaders have the opportunity and the agency to devise ways to implement healthier making and sourcing methods by rethinking our approaches to design.
How can our products’ life spans be prolonged? How can our designs encourage repair? How can we insist on our work’s participation in a circular economy? I give you, with as much bravado as I may, our solution: Design for Disassembly (DfD).
DfD is the wave of the future, but it is also an old idea. This article will kick off a 3-part series to address the importance of designing for disassembly, acknowledge its traditional roots, and review how designers are implementing it in industries not typically associated with DfD.
A Refresher: Remind Me Again What Design for Disassembly is?
Design for Disassembly (DfD) is the straightforward design method and philosophy that ensures that all elements of a product can be disassembled for repair and for “end of life.” This allows for and encourages repairs, with the result that a product’s life cycle is prolonged; and it allows for a product to be taken apart at the end of its life so that each component can be reclaimed as a technical nutrient (i.e. recycled) or biological nutrient (i.e. composted). Among other shifts in thinking and making, this means minimizing materials, using simple mechanical fasteners instead of adhesives, clearly labeling components with their material type, and ensuring components can be disassembled with everyday tools.
When I broke the glass vessel of my French press this weekend, I ordered a replacement vessel instead of purchasing an entirely new coffee maker. This was only possible because my French press was designed so that it could be easily disassembled. On the other hand, my electric kettle has started to leak. There are no small screws for me to open it – in fact, it’s mostly glued together. This means that when I finally cave and admit that this kettle is broken, I have no way to repair it and no way to recycle its parts. In contrast to the French press, the product was not designed for disassembly. My only option is to throw it out, and to buy a new one.
As mentioned, DfD is not a new concept. (My favorite past Core 77 article espousing its virtues is Alex Denier’s Essential Guide to Design for Disassembly, which still feels like a very handy guide even 10 years later.) DfD is, however, a concept that has been painfully slow to catch on despite its obvious benefits, with plenty of companies backsliding in the opposite direction towards glued, bonded, and overshot parts – if not planned obsolescence.
Green It Like You Mean It
Unlike the nebulous goal of designing a “sustainable” product, designing a product for disassembly is a more concrete, quantifiable approach to ecologically sound making and to consumption. Off the bat, it throws the curtain back on corporate greenwashing. If a company says they’re sustainable, how is the average customer to know what’s really going on behind the scenes? If a company commits to DfD, however, then we can concretely understand their barometer for sustainable production.
Here in the U.S., sustainability goals often hinge on material choices, a common example being the choice of materials from recycled content (or materials that can be recycled). Designing with recyclable materials is great but, at best, it kicks the can down the road, placing the burden onto future generations or users. At worst, it gambles that the customer cares, that they can recognize or are paying attention to a wide variety of materials in the first place, and that they live in a municipality that recycles at all.
Designing with recyclable (or recycled) material, simply put, is the bare minimum that we designers can do. On the other hand, upping our commitment to DfD encourages longevity through a culture of repair. It sets the stage for building a stronger relationship with consumers through a more enduring product-user engagement, and establishes an advantageous association with “premium” and quality design – that is, designs made to last.
Europe Loves to Set the Pace
Outside of the U.S. it can be more common to see a system-based approach to reducing waste and increasing a product’s longevity. The Right to Repair Law, for example, was passed in Europe last Spring. It requires that electronics like washing machines, televisions, and hair dryers sold in the E.U. must be designed to allow for easy repair for at least 10 years after the product comes to market. This legislation intentionally prolongs a product’s durability and repairability while minimizing e-waste. (Additional upcoming legislation in the E.U. focuses on smartphones and laptops, which account for a large portion of global e-waste.) The most straightforward way to fulfill these new requirements is to make sure that DfD is front and center in universal design processes – and, to precede that, in universal design conversations and education, too.
The U.S. is often just a few years behind the E.U. when it comes to sustainability regulations, so this is a likely harbinger of what requirements will soon be instituted more globally. From there, public opinion and consumer behavior soon follow. So to proactively design products for disassembly means that our work as designers can become more universally compliant, while also satisfying more world-wide cultural expectations from the consumer side.
Standardizing DfD is an important step in establishing a more circular economy. It allows us to reclaim product components for future use and reduces costs of goods sold by eliminating materials redundancy; positions us to use safer and more healthful materials that in turn affect conditions in both factory and in end-user settings; and it removes the onus from consumers to figure out how to responsibly dispose of their products. It’s a win-win-win. And these “wins” are
necessary for the future of design, and the future of our planet.
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