Adventures in sustainability part 1

How to contribute to society in a way that is valued enough to make a living but is perhaps outside the mainstream (read unsustainable)?

This is the adventure of usethings illustrated in part 1 through some of the deliberations around sustainability in producing our hero product the drying rack.

A bit of back story first…

Resolving to dry our clothes in the wet winters of Melbourne without an electric dryer, I built a simple rack using  good quality sailing rigging to hoist it up out of the way in our small home.

Years later we established usethings to make and sell products like the drying rack – useful things that are sustainable.

What was sustainable and how could we measure it,  pursue it, and make a living at the same time?

First issue was materials – small scale production led us to use standard and locally available timber – Vic Ash. Standard dowels from our hardware store. We weren’t so sure about this, having a vague idea the forestry practice wasn’t so good, but thought the product as a whole had benefits so carried on.

How to verify the vague feelings about things like solvent based finishes and poor forestry? On a small scale there is no simple way, and LCA (life cycle assessment) would cost tens of thousands. So we try to stay informed and respond to what feels right – even though that may take a while to find what feels right, but we learn much on the way.

Chromium 6 was another niggling problem. Almost by accident I found on another project the gold colour of the screws is a zinc coating that is ‘pacified’ with chromium 6, it’s clear this is nasty. Pacification of the zinc helps it heal scratches so increases the life of the protective coating – a standard practice in screws and metal components.

We played around with wooden pegs to fix the dowels and there are some racks out there still working fine. This is OK for racks we make-up but not easy for the kit form assembled by customers. Also not so easy to replace rods that get broken.

Overall the screws win out though we’d love to find out if plain grey galvanised screws used the chromium 6 process, although the type of screw that works well is not available in plain galvanised. An LCA? or if we were a big client we could get this kind of information from our supplier… a box a year doesn’t get their attention!

We were very happy to eventually track down a plantation hardwood to replace the Vic Ash – it was local too. Shaping of the rods is by a big moulding firm but they where cool about machining our 16mm rods from timber we supplied. Its a great timber strong and finishes well – still with the tannin problem though. Tannin is a problem in eucalypts, it leaches out under certain conditions and stains clothes. So we’ve been researching, trialling, and revising the process – we currently leach the tannin out of the rods before coating with a 2 pack epoxy. The solvent here is toluene, another nasty, is this better than the risk of staining customers clothes? Its forcing us to take a radical approach and I’m investigating an alternative that will solve the problem and get rid of the toluene.

The rigging is very durable so the polyester cord and stainless steel and acetal pulleys and nylon cleats all seem acceptable, not to nasty as far as we are aware. Ours is still in service after 10 years. We’d love to use a locally made cord but the finish of the cord we use give good grip so balance that off against the long distance it travels to us.

Through this process we’ve learned allot and are still learning… practical application of sustainability is slow and convoluted. The ‘low hanging fruit’ is easy – we’ve got Green Power and plantation timber, but what is truly sustainable – how could we continue to make drying racks indefinitely without cost to our environment, climate, or society.

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