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Nature's call leads designer to sustainable solutions

July 26, 2010

It is the bane of our existence – and despite our best efforts to control it, we all find ourselves inundated with it.

Junk mail.

As a graphic designer, Michelle Fehler has made her living producing mail pieces, but as a graduate researcher at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, she has made it her focus to find innovative ways to produce more sustainable alternatives to traditional paper advertising.

She has been particularly interested in the juncture of biomimicry and graphic design.

“Some time ago I attended an AIGA conference in San Diego, in which Janine Benyus was a speaker," Fehler said. "Her presentation on the idea of imitating nature to solve problems sparked my interest in researching possibilities."

Fehler began her research looking at the ways we use paper and performing some basic life cycle assessments of how a single postcard can impact the environment.

“Transportation and materials like paper have the greatest environmental impact," Fehler said. "Any alternative in materials would mean a significant reduction in CO2 production and cutting down of trees."

According to a 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Energy, the paper industry is the fourth-largest producer of carbon dioxide among manufacturers. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the nearly six million tons of standard mail generated nationwide in 2007, only about 40 percent was recycled.

Moreover, the nonprofit group Forest Ethics estimates that mail advertisements create 51.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year.

“A solution I came upon is using animal waste fibers,” Fehler said. “By using the waste of pandas, elephants and cows, we can produce a biodegradable paper. The animals do all the work by chewing plants, the waste – once washed – can be mixed to create a pulp and once dried is a perfect paper.”

Fehler has been following closely the work of Poo Poo Paper Company in Thailand. The paper mill uses the excrement of Asian elephants to recycle waste, generate jobs, produce alternative paper and use a part of its profits to protect elephants.

Fehler also has looked at banana fibers, natural inks and patterns of communication as part of her graphic design research.

“I am trying to go beyond the obvious, go deeper,” she said. “For example, when you look at a pine tree, there are certain conditions that need to occur before a seed can germinate – these are very specific. If we could target our message more specifically to our targeted audience, it could become more efficient.”

Fehler notes that we are inundated everyday with junk mail about products in which we are not interested, and these in turn translate into immediate waste.

“If nature can establish a criteria for each communication piece, maybe we can imitate nature and make our communication less wasteful,” Fehler said.