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:
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.
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:
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:
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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