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The 'Re-Define' sofa and armchair, launched in Australia at the end of 2000, are the result of a demonstration project whose aim was to develop high-quality, 'sustainable' furniture. Though not yet available commercially, the manufacturer expects the entire cost of the project could be recouped from two years' worth of sales.

The project, supported by a research grant from EcoRecycle Victoria in 1999, is a collaboration between three partners:

  • Wharington International, an Australian company specializing in the manufacture of furniture frames and components;
  • The Centre for Design at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), a research group that specializes in business eco-efficiency as a source of innovation and responsible practice;
  • MID Commercial Furniture, an Australian design practice headed by Danish architect Torben Wahl, which specializes in sustainable furniture design.

The aim of the Re-Define project was to develop a range of furniture whose environmental impacts were minimized across the entire life-cycle, including materials selection, manufacturing, distribution, use, re-use, recycling, and disposal.

Seven distinct areas (see below) were identified in which traditional furniture can cause damage to the environment. In the case of furniture, these impacts are almost exclusively related to the manufacture and disposal phases, rather than to the use of the product.

  1. The release of toxic chemicals from glues, dyes, paints, and so on, during both the manufacture and the use of the product;
  2. The production of timber waste during manufacture;
  3. Greenhouse gas emissions arising from steel and aluminum production;
  4. The consumption of rainforest timber and scarce hardwoods;
  5. The use of timber from poorly-managed plantations, resulting in soil erosion, water pollution and habitat damage;
  6. The creation of solid waste when the product is discarded;
  7. The use of synthetic materials that constitute toxic or hazardous waste once discarded.

The design brief for Re-Define was drawn up by RMIT, including details of materials, manufacturing processes and resource recovery. The requirements set out in the brief included:

  • Minimize the quantity of material used;
  • Avoid toxic or hazardous substances;
  • Use metals with low 'embodied energy';
  • Minimize the number of components and assemblies;
  • Replace glue and screws with simple 'push, hook, and clip' assembly;
  • Avoid solvent-based adhesives;
  • Enable minor repairs to be carried out;
  • Avoid colours or designs that will go out of fashion quickly.

The final product incorporates plastic internal shells made from 'Recopol' recycled resin, a material developed by Wharington International from the recycled casings of household appliances such as vacuum cleaners, telephones, computers, washing machines and refrigerators. Recopol replaces more traditional internal components that are manufactured from plywoods, hardwoods, plantation timber, and virgin plastic.

Each Recopol resin shell contains the equivalent of 45 recycled printer cases, or 39 kilogrammes of material that would otherwise have been incinerated or landfilled. At the end of its life, Wharington can even take back the shell for recycling.

Other features of the Re-Define range include:

  • Foam cushions are shaped so as to minimize scrap cuttings, and waste foam is sent for use in carpet underlay material;
  • Stainless steel legs and mild steel bearers are 100% recyclable, and scrap from the manufacturing process is recycled;
  • Metal components do not require any toxic coatings or finishings;
  • Fabrics are made from recycled PET or natural wool;
  • The nylon feet are designed to be recyclable;
  • Fastenings are designed for easy removal and washing of the upholstery.

Forest products have been avoided, and Wharington claims that no toxic or hazardous materials are used at any stage of the manufacturing process. The product is designed to be easily maintained and repaired, in order to prolong its useful life.

According to Wharington, manufacturing the Re-Define range carries no cost premium compared with conventional furniture. Only the design phase incurred extra expenditure.

Although a Recopol shell is a US$30-40 more expensive to produce than a plywood frame, it is substantially less labour-intensive. In addition, says Wharington, a resin shell is cheaper to pad and upholster than a plywood frame.

According to the company, 'Re-Define highlights that eco-design can produce sophisticated commercial furniture that meets the rigorous standards required in the corporate and government sectors.'

A detailed account of the project will be available soon in a project report compiled by the RMIT. Based on this document, EcoRecycle Victoria, the project's sponsor, will publish an environmental design guide for the furniture industry as a whole.

Read more about: Eco-efficiency, The 4Rs, Life-cycle assessment
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