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Students Turn Trash into Eco-Friendly Treasures

Industrial designers are not just engineers. They're artists, as well. They have to make everyday items, from backpacks to mobile phones, as attractive as they are functional. Now a new generation of industrial designers is learning how to create products that are environmentally friendly as well. As Ann Dornfeld reports from Seattle, that makes their jobs a bit more challenging.

Most consumer products have a pretty limited life cycle. They're manufactured from raw materials, used for a while by one person or family, then end up in a garbage dump. But that doesn't have to be their fate.

A group of industrial design students at Western Washington University was given this challenge: create products that are not only nice to look at and easy to use, but also completely recyclable or reusable. Their professor's challenge didn't end there: the students had to create those products using industrial waste that otherwise would have ended up in the dump.

Rachel Bjarnasson, one of the students in the program, explains that the process is called sustainable design. "Instead of a product life cycle and a designer's job ending … when the product is at the end of its useful life, that is just a new material that can be reused and turned into a new product."

One of the first lessons the students learned was that it's not enough to use recyclable materials. You have to think about how you attach one material to another. "If you have a recyclable material like an aluminum bonded to a plastic that's non-recyclable, suddenly the recyclable component is no longer recyclable," Bjarnasson points out. She says they had to avoid using strong glues for that reason, and also because the adhesives can release toxic chemicals into the environment.

Before the students could get started, they had to find the industrial scraps to make their products.

Seth Tucker wanted to make bracelets out of disposable chopsticks. "I found that between Japan and China, one billion pairs of chopsticks are thrown away each year. They're taking down whole forests just for chopsticks!"

He asked local Asian restaurants whether he could install chopsticks recycling bins to collect enough for his project. He got a mixed response. "Some restaurants, it was kinda funny, they gave me this look [that said], 'You're crazy, I would never give you used chopsticks,'" he recalls with a laugh, adding that other places were happy to contribute to the project.

Tucker sanitized the chopsticks he'd collected, cut them into pieces and sandblasted them into what look like tiny pieces of driftwood. He strung these wooden beads, along with natural turquoise and African trade beads, into bracelets. "I took 'em into a place and someone's like, 'I went to the beach last weekend and this reminds me of my trip last week,'" he reports.

Other students turned newsprint into biodegradable flowerpots, and expired credit cards into luggage tags.

Rachel Bjarnasson challenged herself to use fabric scraps that she routinely throws away in her job as a seamstress. She stitched strips of silk into baby booties, and lined them with scraps of fleece she got from a local glove manufacturer. Then she cushioned the soles with leftover carpet padding from a flooring company. She marvels, "All of this was materials that would've been thrown out, and I turned them into little striped baby booties."

Next, the students came up with names for their products. Bjarnasson called her booties "Petitoes." Tucker named his bracelets "ChopStix." Then, they packaged their creations and took them to stores to see if they'd sell.

Several stores agreed to carry the products. One of them was Goods for the Planet in Seattle. Co-owner Suzanne O'Shea says the items were a natural fit. "We were thrilled to do it because one of our goals is to find products as close to home as possible and support the local economy."

The students' products — which include light switch covers made from street signs, razor knives with handles made from old toothbrushes, and wallets stitched from scraps of the tough fabric used to make boat sails — were a hit with her customers. O'Shea says some even sold out right away — like the ChopStix bracelets, and a sushi roller made from stainless steel bicycle spokes. "A lot of chefs that have come in and people that make sushi at home have really been impressed by this design, because it has more weight than the standard bamboo sushi rollers."

The final lesson, says Rachel Bjarnasson, is that the ideal sustainable product is at least as attractive and useful as the competition. "You still need to make a product that looks beautiful and has good tactile sensation and is something that people ultimately want to buy," she points out. "Even if it has the best of intentions in saving the environment, it won't do its job if its not something that people want or need."

Bjarnasson and Tucker say they'll try to integrate the sustainable design principles they learned in the class into all of their future products. They don't want anything they design to ever end up in the trash.