Team Green

Last spring, students in Sara Huston’s product design class created a cardboard waste receptacle to place in public restrooms for collecting used paper towels that could then be composted. One of the partitioned unit’s sections was for the towels, which make up 85 percent of the waste generated in public restrooms. The other section was for nonrecyclable waste.

A typical academic scenario would have the project winding up at term’s end, with students going on to their next challenge and the receptacle stashed along a wall. But the innovative recycling container received renewed attention in the fall, when School of Journalism and Communication professor Kim Sheehan assigned the 120 students in her Principles of Advertising course the task of creating an advertising campaign to promote it.

To create a campaign that communicated why their product differed from others on the market, the students needed to understand the scientific terminology associated with green products, says Sheehan, who studies “greenwashing”—the advertising practice of making unsubstantiated claims that a product is “green” or Earth-friendly. “Students got the opportunity to learn about science in advertising class—the difference between recyclable and compostable.” (Recyclable means a product can be reused to produce other materials. Compostable means a produce will break down in a landfill.)

The two-term project illustrates in elementary form the goal of the Green Product Design Network, a multidisciplinary University group formed in 2009 to further the development, creation, and marketing of sustainable green products, from inception to end-of-life disposability. Green product design is part of the UO’s Big Ideas initiative, which defines areas that will shape the future of the University. The other four Big Ideas focus on planning and building sustainable cities, revisioning the Americas in a globalized world, redesigning education to create global citizens, and maintaining and enhancing human health and performance. Members of the Green Product Design Network include graduate students, instructors, and professors from the disciplines of chemistry, business, journalism, and product design.

“Throughout the University we have thought leaders in various sectors of green innovation, and they are all wrestling with the same ideas,” says chemistry department assistant head and network coordinator Julie Haack. “We’re asking, ‘What can we learn from each other? What can we do collectively to accelerate the movement of green products to the market?’”

Individually, some departments have already made inroads into the green frontier. Fourteen years ago, chemistry professors Ken Doxsee and Jim Hutchison developed a green chemistry curriculum—espousing waste prevention, use of low-hazard lab methodologies, and the design of safer chemicals and processes—that is now used in universities throughout the country. The Product Design Program, part of the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, has had a sustainability component from its beginnings in 2008. That same year, Sheehan and advertising professor Deborah Morrison, along with EnviroMedia Social Marketing, a public relations firm, created the Greenwashing Index, an online forum where people expose and investigate “green” claims made by advertisers, such as that a product is “eco-friendly,” “clean,” or “BPA-free.”

Sheehan says she was invited to be on the network’s leadership team because of high levels of concern about greenwashing. Postings to the index have challenged companies that offer businesses green certification without requiring validation, called out General Electric for its use of the term “clean coal,” and questioned British Petroleum’s much touted campaign slogan “Beyond Petroleum.”

“One way to combat greenwashing is to have people more educated about the environment,” she says, and promoting green products responsibly should be part of that process.

At the network’s mixer last November, the austere basement in the Lokey Laboratories buzzed with excitement as dozens of professors, students, and community members nibbled on crackers and exchanged names and hopes. Chemists chatted with architecture students. Business people spoke with product designers. “We are seeing a lot of cross-disciplinary fertilization that draws professors and students,” Haack says, “The opportunity to participate in this kind of collaboration and integration is unheard of.”

Last summer, junior Sara Tepfer augmented her chemistry major with a stint in a product design course that worked with Eugene electric car manufacturer Arcimoto and a Portland textile company. Students were given the assignment to design environmentally friendly seats for the company’s three-wheeled electric vehicle.

“It was really cool to see the similarities between the design process and the scientific method—the steps you go through in an experiment,” Tepfer said. “It helped convince me that there is a huge opportunity for interdisciplinary work.” She intends to stick with her chemistry major but she has also applied to the Product Design Program. “I want to be able to approach the question of greenness from two different angles,” she says, “and develop products that are as green as possible” because of her multifaceted background.

Network leadership team member Tom Osdoba heads the Center for Sustainable Business Practices at the University’s Lundquist College of Business. The center is researching businesses across the state to find opportunities to collaborate on green product design, manufacturing, and marketing. One promising area is in outdoor apparel, he says, where “there’s a ton of work being done to try and identify ways to reduce toxic components, improve recycling at the end of [product] life, and address problems in supply chains.”

Osdoba admits that forging collaborations with businesses is complex and will take time. The network, he says, is the best way to make it happen. “We have an opportunity to create a platform, a funnel, where companies can come to the University, say what they are interested in, and we can match that with the specific expertise and resources we have internally.”

Whereas business partnerships are still in the future, a project undertaken this winter shows how such arrangements might work. Students in John Arndt’s product design studio hunkered down in a former auto showroom on the east edge of campus designing low-energy street light fixtures. They were motivated by a Green Power Initiative grant from EWEB, Eugene’s water and power utility, written by product design head Kiersten Muenchinger, who is on the network’s leadership team. The project gave the students a real-world issue to wrestle with—improving lighting in areas such as the Autzen footbridge, the Amazon bike path, and Eugene’s Fifth Avenue shopping district.

Typically, says product design senior Annalee Kessler, designers would concentrate on creating just the fixture’s shell. But this project required students to think “with a greater vision not usual for product design.” Student teams spent two weeks studying green energy, from wind and solar to burning sewer sludge. They dove into the physics of light bulbs, reflection, and the properties of light. “We’re being forced out of our comfort zone,” she says. The students presented their prototypes—from sleek pole units to light a bike path to scalloped fixtures for Broadway Plaza—to EWEB representatives at the end of the term.

EWEB’s Tom Williams, who heads the utility’s Green Power Program, said he found a few of the projects aesthetically pleasing and thought they had possibilities. More importantly, he says, the project introduced students to an area of utilitarian design they previously weren’t aware of. “One student told me she had become much more interested in lighting. Suddenly, she was paying more attention to outdoor lighting and how different cities handle it. It heightened her curiosity.”

Faculty members involved in the network are devising ways to cultivate more sophisticated green awareness in students. Advertising professor Morrison taught a course in communicating sustainability this past winter, and Sheehan and her students are just completing a sustainability leadership course focused on how to market an Oregon company’s newly developed green product. Both courses were funded by the Meyer Fund for a Sustainable Environment, a gift from the T&J Meyer Family Foundation. Haack is creating a nonscience course that will expose students to the academic fields represented in the network and offer insight into how they integrate.

Whatever effort it takes to promote interdisciplinary collaborations and partnerships is worthwhile, she says. “I feel a sense of urgency, for the environment and for human health. We are running out of resources. Time is of the essence.”

By Alice Tallmadge, MA '87