We Need Green Design Tools Now

Geoffrey Orsak
 Geoffrey C. Orsak

Let me be honest, here. I grew up relishing the outdoors, but took the indestructibility of the earth completely for granted. Litter was everywhere in my childhood years and I was part of the problem more than occasionally.

My first lesson on the environment came during a long, hot vacation across the southwest in 1972. I can still feel the sticky white vinyl interior and penetrating heat in that lime green Cutlass as my Dad, sister Leah, brother Paul and I cruised across Texas toward Carlsbad Caverns.

By mid-afternoon Dad let us dip into the snacks. A few minutes later, Paul rolled down the window: out went his apple core and then my candy wrapper.

That was when Dad (an engineer, of course) started the lecture “All Trash Is Not Created Equal.” I can still hear it — the apple core will provide food for animals and enrich the soil, but that foil candy wrapper will be unsightly trash for years.

Biodegradable? What a great new concept! So how about Leah's banana peel? Dad's soda can? The morning newspaper? This was fascinating stuff.

Fortunately, our children today understand why it's uncool to throw trash from a car window, even if it is biodegradable. Yet, we engineers continue to be the enablers for industries that export tons of e-waste to developing countries for so-called “recycling.” These high-tech carcasses release a range of carcinogenic toxins like lead and mercury — carefully controlled in the U.S., but not in the developing world.

With apologies to Gandhi, it's time for engineers to be the change we want to see. For me, that starts right in our university classrooms and laboratories where we must begin to teach future engineers to go beyond the mantra of “faster, better, cheaper” to learn entirely new design and manufacturing skills that don't trade human health problems for profits.

Sadly, we aren't there yet: We just don't have the science or engineering to systematically design and build products that are useful, profitable and eco-friendly. Academic leaders like me must make it a priority to encourage research faculty to step out of their carefully controlled labs to experience the problems that we as a community have unintentionally helped to create. This might be the spark our best researchers need to develop tools engineers will use to design a new generation of products.

We are seeing progress. Virginia Tech's “Green Engineering Program” aims to expose all of its students to the environmental impacts of design, manufacturing and product use. Carnegie Mellon's “Green Design Institute” has looked at end-of-life options for personal computers and, here at SMU, we have developed a new graduate program in sustainable engineering that integrates engineering with environmental regulation and public policy, just to name a few.

Ultimately, as the leader of an engineering school, I don't feel I have yet done enough to move green engineering forward. Frankly, I don't think most of us have. The problems just haven't come home to roost in the developed world. But rest assured, I won't stop until each of our students graduates with the sense of responsibility and the skills required to green our industry and our planet. Why don't you join me.