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Designing for Longevity, Recyclability, and Disposability

Designing for Longevity, Recyclability, and Disposability

Safety and usability have long been major objectives of human factors engineers in equipment design. Other objectives that have implications for the management of environmental change include maintainability, repairability, recyclability, and disposability. Such design objectives should increase in importance if environmental issues become of greater concern. The special challenge to human factors is to find ways to satisfy the environmentally oriented objectives without compromising the traditional focus on user safety and convenience.


Human factors concepts and methods can be applied to societal problems at many levels. One aid to thinking in these terms is the abstractionPage 170Suggested Citation:“5 Environmental Change.” National Research Council. 1995. Emerging Needs and Opportunities for Human Factors Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4940.×SaveCancel

hierarchy proposed by Rasmussen (1986; see his Figure 4.1). At the lowest level of this hierarchy the focus is on “physical form.” Examples of the application of ergonomic design at this level include switches that cannot be turned the wrong way, toilet handles that make it easy to use different amounts of water following urination or defecation (a design that is common in Australia where there is a chronic water shortage), and the interlock that requires one to cover the gas tank filler hole with a cap in some states so as to reduce vapor loss to the environment.

At Rasmussen’s next level, “physical function,” the emphasis is on localized systems. Designing for energy efficiency and resource conservation is a possibility at this level. An electrical system that automatically turns lights off when a room is unoccupied is one example of such a system. A central heating system that (except when overridden by manual control) adjusts temperature in different parts of a house according to patterns of use is another.

The next level, “general form,” would include things like automated guideways for automobile traffic in specific locations and intelligent navigation systems that can reduce fuel consumption by optimizing travel routes. A fourth level, “generalized function,” would include the design of complete living and communication systems, including ”smart houses.” At this level the application of information technology has the potential to change in fundamental ways how people work, travel, communicate, and live.

The top level concerns relatively global problems and goals—the control of global climate change would be a case in point. At this level, issues of politics, ethics, and perhaps philosophical or religious beliefs are likely to be encountered. (Several articles in Science in the 1960s cited instances in which people were given tractors and other equipment that would enable them to produce two harvests a year or to till more land; the advantages did not follow, because the dominant view in the culture was that fate, not technology, determines the provision of life’s necessities). Difficulties occur because sometimes measures would benefit one country or region of the world at the expense of others. Ethical complications arise because people have different ideas about such questions as the moral responsibility of human beings toward other species and of this generation to future generations.

We have sketched Rasmussen’s taxonomy here to make the point that different levels of problems require different kinds of approaches. This fact should be recognized in any consideration of how human factors might be applied to the problem of detrimental environmental change and the host of subsidiary problems that it subsumes. Traditionally, human factors has dealt primarily with problems at the level of the design of specific devices and person-machine systems. This will continue to be important, and such efforts can have significant environmental implications.