Green Design

August 21st, 2006 by Team Member

Hardware LabAt Exbiblio we take responsibility for the things we make and do, and strive to leave beauty in our wake. This means our products should be beneficial to our users, not harmful to them, and likewise our products should not be harmful to the environment or the people manufacturing them.

The main aspects of an electronic device like Exbiblio’s oPen scanner that would cause environmental impact are the circuit board, the components on the circuit board (chips, resistors, capacitors, etc.), the battery, the case, and the packaging. Transportation is also a factor, but should be smaller than the others, and energy usage during customer usage should be very small compared to these manufacturing impacts, so we’re concentrating on them. So far, the green design considerations for are mostly going smoothly. This is a brief summary, more detail on each aspect will appear in the future.

Ideally, the device would generate all its own power. Since this isn’t possible at this stage, the next best thing is to have great batteries. Practically speaking, the most eco-friendly choice lines up perfectly with the best-performance choice here: Lithium-ion batteries. They use much fewer hazardous materials than lead-acid or nickel-cadmium, and are also more efficient and have higher energy densities. I still need to investigate a couple cutting-edge technologies that may be greener, but they are unlikely to be available for production, so the choice has probably been made already. There’s no big fire to put out here.

The main objective with components is to use ones which do not contain toxic ingredients like lead, mercury, and the like. Europe has new legislation banning several of the worst offenders, which is called RoHS (for Restriction of Hazardous Substances). RoHS resistors and other components are easily spec’ed from standard catalogs, which makes life easy. Another concern is tantalum in capacitors, because a significant portion of the world’s supply is mined in socially exploitative and environmentally degrading ways. (See previous posts.)
Brian, at the engineering firm we’re using called Synapse, already designed out tantalum capacitors from the boards, which is great. I haven’t investigated the specific chips we’re using to see if they’re RoHS, but I’m assuming the chip choices were fully constrained by performance concerns.

Circuit board
This is one of the two areas of main concern, both because the circuit board is one of the higher-impact parts of the device, and because it looks like we don’t have good alternatives. Normal circuit board manufacturing puts a layer of copper down across the whole surface of a fiberglass board, and then etches away the circuit pattern with nasty chemicals. This produces a good deal of hazardous waste, which requires significant treatment to be cleaned up and have the waste-copper recycled. (Though it’s better now than it used to be, when all that was just landfilled.) A couple companies have developed processes where they can print circuits on a board with a special inkjet printer, with no waste or toxic etchants; however, their processes are not yet advanced enough to handle our board’s engineering requirements (which are fairly high-end). Another alternative is using flex-circuits that are screen-printed. Screen-printed flex circuits are greener because of two things: rather than being printed on thick non-recyclable fiberglass, they’re printed on thin (flexible) sheets of polyethylene, which uses less material; then, rather than laying down a full layer of copper and etching the design out, the traces are screen-printed (like you would silkscreen a t-shirt), which eliminates most of the toxic chemicals and produces much less waste. Unfortunately our engineering requirements again preclude the use of this method for every one of our boards, but many of them could be done this way. Perhaps we could split the circuitry into a couple boards, one of which is ordinary, and the rest are flex-circuits. More research needs to be done here.

Outer case
This is the other main area of concern. It’s easy for us to avoid the use of brominated flame retardants like PBDE, because our device is small enough that we aren’t required by law to have our plastics be flame-retardant. But the resource use of the plastic itself is a little trickier. The best choice environmentally would be PLA corn-based plastic (it uses much less energy to manufacture, and is both recyclable and compostable). However, it’s not strong enough and melts too easily to be useful as a protective case. The next best option is to make the case out of recycled (and recyclable) plastic. I’m still investigating what the best choice here is, based on availability & quality of recycled stock, environmental impact of manufacturing, and finding a manufacturer who will put in the time and effort required to get recycled plastic to work as well as virgin plastic. The good news is that we will probably be able to use the exact same kind of plastic you would normally use for a small injection-molded product (PC/ABS). We may not be able to use 100% recycled material, but 20% should be no problem, and 50% is likely to be easy. The main thing this depends on is our contract manufacturer, whom hasn’t been chosen yet.
In addition to using recyclable materials, the outer case has to be designed for recyclability–if we use good materials but they are hard to separate and sort, the case will not get recycled. Dave, Doug, and Mark (the engineers at Synapse dealing with the case) said that they were already aware of this, but they haven’t gotten very far into the design yet, so it’s still up in the air. I’ll have to keep in contact with them about it.


Packaging can make more of an impact than you might guess, particularly for a small product like ours. We haven’t yet decided on a packaging designer yet, though I’ve found three who have experience with green packaging–one of them even teaches it at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, in addition to writing the sustainability corner of Packaging Design Magazine. However, none of them are local, and there’s some preference for local folks. We might end up doing some combination of a local vendor & expert vendor.

Measuring Our Success
Exbiblio wants to do all possible to make the oPen in a responsible way. Of course we will comply with environmental regulations like RoHS mentioned above, but we would like to do much better than mere compliance, we would like to be a leader. One way to ensure that we are doing a great job (and to see if we could do better) is to use a respected third party’s measurement or certification system. In the building industry, the LEED rating system works well and is almost universally accepted; however, the electronics industry has no comprehensive rating system that is widely accepted. There are many systems which proscribe guidelines for very specific product classes (like computer monitors, watches, washing machines, etc.), but none of these have categories that the oPen would fit in. There are basically two systems that are general enough to apply to our product–Cradle-to-Cradle and EPEAT. Both of these systems are relatively new, and it is unclear how universally accepted they will be, but they both come from respectable sources. Cradle-to-Cradle certification is extremely rigorous, documentation-heavy, and chemistry-focused; it is not oriented towards electronics, but could be used for any product; it would be difficult and expensive for us to achieve, though it is a worthy goal. EPEAT is a simpler system, with little expense or overhead required to get certification, and is specifically designed for electronics. So my goal at this point is to shoot for EPEAT certification with the first release of the product, and then later, when Exbiblio has the money and time to commit to larger endeavors, hopefully shoot for Cradle-to-Cradle.

By Jeremy Faludi

One Response to “Green Design”

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