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Web gallery showcases environmentally friendly products

A new MIT web site lists more than 100 environmentally preferable products that set a new standard for sustainable goods and services. The site showcases particularly innovative examples of environmental practices and green products in a range of industries, say its developers at MIT's Technology, Business and Environment (TBE) program.

"The purpose of this database is to provide easily accessible information on a variety of best practices and environmental innovations," said TBE Director John Ehrenfeld. "We hope that businesses may find valuable information within this database that will help them emulate these practices. This site is also designed to be informative to scholars and others who are interested in environmental products and business activities."

The Gallery of Environmentally Preferable Goods and Services, which is not intended to be all-inclusive, is an international list of more than 100 products and services from 64 companies. Each product or service meets two criteria. First, the products show significant environmental improvements made at their most important life-cycle stages. For durable goods, like copy machines, that means during manufacturing, use and end-of-life.

Second, products show evidence of rethinking the product as a service. For instance, many consumers might prefer a car service that allows them to pick up and drop off automobiles rather than owning and maintaining a car that sits around most of the time. Focusing on the service aspect encourages businesses to meet the need instead of building a material product.

"As you reduce the materiality of the system, you require fewer resources from nature and you dump less garbage back into nature," said Dr. Ehrenfeld.

TBE Gallery products and services go beyond the US government's definition of environmentally preferable. The federal standard only requires products to have less impact on human health or the environment than competitors' products. Gallery products involve innovations in recyclable or recycled materials in manufacturing, designing for durability, attending to disposal and reuse of the product, or transforming a product into a service.

"The businesses on the list are taking responsibility for what they make over the whole life cycle of the product, instead of saying 'it's not our problem,'" said Dr. Ehrenfeld. "Some are learning to use resources more efficiently and some are completely redesigning their products as services. Businesses can use the list to get good ideas on strategy and ways to deliver services. It's especially useful for small businesses that don't have big design budgets but are interested in innovating. And consumers can use the list to make more informed choices."

One green product that saved money and expanded business capacity is a printing innovation. Beacon Press Ltd.'s Pureprint��������� printing process reduces toxic materials used, increases quality and reduces costs. The waterless production process involves embedding the ink into a layer of silicon, rather than the traditional lithographic method of using water and isopropanol. Pureprint��������� allowed the British printer to increase production and decrease price per unit, and resulted in a 10 percent profit increase from 1995-97.

Other examples of TBE Gallery choices:

  • DuPont's sulfonylurea herbicides degrade naturally and do not create a toxicity problem.
  • Ikea's inflatable A.I.R. furniture uses only 15 percent of materials required for conventional sofas, can be shipped in small packages, and is made of recyclable material.
  • Honda's Intelligent Community Vehicle System provides transportation services without selling an automobile to each user.
  • Xerox's Document Center 265 reduces replaceable parts to only 20 percent of a traditional machine and 95 percent are recyclable or reusable.
  • Interface Inc.'s Evergreen Lease��������� allows consumers to lease carpeting that the company replaces and recycles when it's worn out.

TBE Gallery, which was funded by the MIT Center for Environmental Initiatives, encourages users to submit the names of products that they believe are environmentally preferable. The site also links to a variety of other environmental and business web sites.

TBE is one of a dozen research and education programs at MIT's Center for Technology, Policy, and Industrial Development (CTPID). CTPID develops technological strategies and partnerships that address global industrial and policy issues. Its programs, supported by more than 100 corporations and government agencies, involve sectors including aerospace, automotive, business and environment, materials systems, mobility and telecommunications.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 27, 1999.

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