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From compostable corn cups to green skyscrapers

In the late eighties, back when talk of global warming was just a whisper, a group of European designers began to rebel against the throwaway culture questioning the design world status quo. Design rebels with a cause?

“A product developer was using rainforest timber. I’d heard about the Indians dying in Brazil, and I began to question why we needed this—and also to realize how much power we have as designers. A gang of us, all working for different offices, started meeting and discussing how environmental ideas could be worked into design.” (Niels Peter Flint, founder of O2 design).

Today, O2 Global has branches across the world- Finland, France, Mexico, Netherlands, Sweden, USA- where designers educate themselves on new sustainable technologies, brainstorm future projects and continue the tradition of embracing “the cool aesthetic of modern design”, allied with sustainablity.

Alice Hartley, events and development coordinator for O2NYC, helps plan monthly meetings for the NY chapter’s over 400 members (landscape architects, architects, industrial and product designers, apparel designers, etc.).

faircompanies: So many terms are thrown around related to “green design”, what are some specific things your group has worked on?

Alice Hartley: A recent meeting was with the Rain Forest Alliance focusing on what designers should know about certified wood, wood that’s coming from sustainable forests, because there’s a lot of wood out there and there’s a lot of information out there and it’s hard sometimes to sift through different certification systems and to understand what you should use and what you shouldn’t use. 

How would someone know what to use?

The Rainforest Alliance puts out a booklet and they also have a website. It’s really great, they give you suppliers in your local area who are carrying FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)-certified wood. Our object is not to have to reinvent the wheel for yourself.

So to be in touch with other designers who are having some of the same issues and are looking for the same type of materials or suppliers. We actually have a project that’s just getting going called O2E2 and the idea is to focus on ecodesign for economic growth.

We’re putting together a directory of eco-designers in NYC and all of the people who support them- manufacturers, government agencies, retailers, and sort of everybody in the ecodesign community so that if you’re say a graphic designer and want to find a source of recycled paper you’d be able to do that easily.

Or if you’re a retailer who’s looking to find vendors who make things out of recycled materials. To bring those people together so that the community can really grow just by putting people in better touch with one another. 

As far as green building in general, is it hard to find information?

It can be difficult. I know from working at an architecture firm that a lot of times you want to do the right thing, but there’s everything else with the practicalities of building a building that gets in the way.

There’s timing and if you’re trying to track down certain specialty materials it’s really hard sometimes to find this stuff available in the market right when you need it. There might be one supplier but they’re in California and then what’s really the ethics of shipping something across the country even if it’s recycled glass.

So it can be really hard to do the right thing even if you really want to without a lot of planning and coordination and having enough choices out there to be able to go with the flow as you always have to do with construction projects. It’s getting better.

There’s more and more vendors and suppliers becoming available, but even just something like getting something like FSC-certified plywood in New York is almost impossible; to find somebody who has it in stock in their lumberyard, you have to know what you’re doing 10 weeks in advance pretty much. I expect that to change in a couple of years, hopefully we’ll have those resources available, but right now it can be pretty tricky. 

As designers, you can choose the woods, what else, what is the focus on materials?

I’ve heard it said that designers have about 80% of the ultimate, where things go in the product cycle. So if a designer decides that they’re either going to do something really positive or that they’re not going to care then that really difference down the road.

Once it reaches the consumer, it’s already packaged and if it’s packaged in a lot of plastic they have to decide what to do with it, but as designers you have a lot of influence over how things look in the marketplace and how things end up. On the other side of it is trying to show that ecological products don’t have to be crunchy and boring.

This isn’t going to spread until people think it’s a cool thing- whether it’s t-shirts or things for their kids- ‘til people really get excited about sustainability.

I think that bringing creativity to it is something that designers can really contribute and that’s what makes me excited about being a part of O2. 

So package design is a big element as well?

It’s a huge area. That’s something we’ve been talking about in the works for the future is an educational series about packaging, especially biodegradable plastics which I think is a really hot topic.

There are plastics out there, there are some corn cups at this market place that are made from stuff that looks like plastic, but the polymer comes from corn instead of petroleum so that stuff is compostable and biodegradable over time. 

Is it expensive?

Yeah, right now it’s more expensive and that’s why people are using plastic because it’s cheap and it’s plentiful and we have no laws governing whether you can throw it away and make a mess out of everything.

But there are starting to be more options. There’s bioplastics, there’s types of packaging made from sugarcane starch- they look like paper, almost like styrofoam, but it’s not styrofoam. It’s made from something that will just compost.

If you think about it the things that are made to serve the shortest lifetime are the things which are made from plastic which has the longest lifetime of really any material we deal with. That’s where designers come in is to try to find the solutions and to really invent the solutions for the next 20, 30 years. 

You’re saying we don’t have the legislation regarding plastics.

We don’t. In Europe they have really strict regulations- like in Germany, they have these take-back laws where they put it on the manufacturer to be responsible for the say, plastic packaging that ultimately winds up in the marketplace and they don’t just put all the responsibility on consumers.

By comparison, in this country we sort of leave it up to the end user to do the right thing. In Germany you can recycle multiple different types of plastic and in NYC right now all you can recycle is bottles pretty much so we have a long way to go in that department. 

Getting back to O2NY projects, what else does the group get involved with?

We’re going to be visiting a bioremediation site up in the Bronx in a couple of months where they’re restoring land that’s been polluted- it’s a brown field- using plants to take out the toxic minerals and chemicals and restore that back to a more healthy landscape.

We’re probably going to go on some tours. There’s this little company called Ice Stone in the naval yard in Brooklyn that makes this product out of 75% recycled glass and cement. 

A product for building?

It’s a countertop product. It looks like stone but with little chunks of recycled glass in it and it’s really beautiful. My office is working on a project called 1 Bryant Park.  

Tell me about that. That’s been getting a lot of buzz.

Basically it’s the new Bank of America tower that is going to be the first skyscraper to shoot for LEED Platinum which is the US Green Building Council’s standard for green building. It’s called LEED and they have four different levels, platinum being the highest.

It evaluates you on things like energy efficiency and water conservation and use of recycled materials and indoor air quality types of issues. With all of these things together there’s a way of rating each of those criteria that you’re fulfilling with your building.

It’s shooting for a pretty high standard of greener building in the hopes that this will be an example for other projects to see that it can happen in New York. One of the coolest things is that it will have on-site power generation.

There’s a natural gas burning, basically like a jet engine in the building that supplies 70% of the power for the building. It’s not the standard these days but maybe in 20 years people will do that more. 

Is this something being done as a showcase thing or is there profit, why is it being done?

From Bank of America’s point of view, they want to be known for doing this building that’s kind of an icon for their company. It’s going to be very prominent on the skyline- it’s going to be the 2nd or 3rd highest building in the city so it will be very recognizable.

That’s where they were coming from is really wanting to do something that would set them apart as a company. It’s to make the point that this can be done in NYC. It’s to be an example for others but also to save resources for the couple thousand people who are going to be living and working there. 

Are companies making these types of decisions more or only the companies that want big showcase examples?

I see both things happening. Dunkin Donuts for example uses shade grown coffee which is a better way of growing coffee because it keeps the eco-system a little more intact in a coffee plantation, but they don’t advertise that.

It’s behind the scenes entirely because they don’t want to be seen as the yuppie organic consumer market, you know. But then there are other businesses where that’s starting to be a profitable thing for them.

There are maybe some upfront costs in doing things like green building, but they either pay off in the attention that you get or in the operational costs down the road. And then there are also projects that don’t have upfront costs where starting to make the right decision is becoming easier and easier and not representing a huge cost. 

Why is ecodesign important for New York City?

New York already has a lot of attention on it when it comes to culture and fashion and finance so there’s already this really fertile territory for design here.

We think that ecodesign is every bit as important as other types of design and can really be a good thing for the city too so if we have this growing community of ecodesigners that’s creating jobs and bringing attention to the city.

We want people beyond the design community to know this is an important thing and also offering important solutions for the future.