Information Driving Greener Design: Enabling Sustainable Material Flows by Identifying & Addressing Information Needs

Organizers: Anna Montgomery, Executive Director, Northwest Chemistry; Lauren Heine, Director of Safer Materials & Data Integrity, ChemForward; Ray Garant, ACS

This session will cover frameworks, databases, certifications, and information hubs for safe, sustainable product design. Products based on sustainable materials support a circular economy, create life-friendly chemistry, restore natural capital, and support a just and inclusive society. This requires systems thinking to holistically address sustainability alignment between products and materials. Diverse information types are required to understand how well a product or material meets these criteria, but can be challenging to identify and use, especially for product designers.

What information needs are necessary in order to meet the demands for designing products for sustainable material flows? Who is meeting these needs, and what challenges are they facing in disseminating and organizing this information so that it is actionable? Sustainability must be considered during the design phase to avoid sunk cost fallacies leading to the continued development of regrettable products. Products in the midst of being designed rarely have robust datasets describing their life cycle impacts, hazards, and other sustainability characteristics. How do innovators, entrepreneurs, and product developers access sufficient information during the design phase to make informed decisions about the sustainability of their products? How do chemical manufacturers communicate the sustainability of their materials?

Many products are developed with sustainability claims, but further examination reveals trade-offs between sustainability benefits. For example, food packaging designed using agricultural waste and marketed as compostable may contain per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), which do not break down in compost and are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. Our symposium will explore the tools and databases available to avoid these situations, both for product designers and for purchasers and others further up the supply chain.
Alternatives assessment has the potential to identify preferable chemicals and preferable products with a clear description of any sustainability trade-offs. However, it is challenging to gather sufficient data on new and emerging chemicals and products to equitably compare them to existing and established chemicals and products. As syntheses and processes are optimized for the status quo, new chemicals and products often fail to perform to the same level. Our symposium will explore modeling tools and alternatives assessment methodologies that enable accurate and actionable comparisons.