EnvironDesign Notebook: It's Time to Start Sampling Smarter

Sample libraries are still an important resource for A&D firms, but there are ways to minimize their environmental impact.

Walk into the resource library of any interior design or architecture firm and it’s hard not to notice the large amount of "stuff" lining the shelves and filling the room.

As with any manufactured material, this stuff has an environmental impact. With the growth and influence of the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) Green Building Rating System™, we are now accustomed to thinking about the environmental impact of products used in a building. But many people would be surprised to learn that samples of building products have a large environmental impact as well.

Most obviously, samples can have a large impact on solid waste to landfills. In 2008, 494 million yards of commercial carpet were sold in the United States, with an estimated 700,000 samples produced each year. That’s approximately 155 tons of material that could end up in our landfills each year, which is equal to the amount of waste that 192 people discard in landfills annually. Considering all the other building materials that are sampled for projects, the amount of potential waste is enormous.

While it is the most obvious, landfill waste isn’t the only impact associated with samples. According to the Carpet and Rug Institute, about 11,000 BTUs of energy were needed to produce 1 square yard of carpet in the United States in 2008. That means it takes about the amount of energy contained in approximately 790 barrels of oil to manufacture commercial carpet samples each year. And remember, this number does not take into account the energy used to extract and manufacture the raw materials—just the manufacturing of the carpet sample itself.

So how can we reduce the environmental impact of sampling?

Luckily, there are plenty of ways that designers and architects can reduce the environmental impact of samples used on a project. Following the old adage of "reduce, reuse, recycle" the first step is to reduce the number of samples used. Many manufacturers offer the option of digital or simulated paper samples. Technology has also made it possible to insert different interiors patterns into virtual room scenes, allowing designers and architects to see how the products will look when installed. These are important tools that can be used during the initial stages of the project to hone in on a design scheme that fits. Using digital or paper samples instead of physical samples saves on the energy used to manufacture the sample. Additionally, paper samples can be recycled, cutting down on landfill waste.

As for those physical samples that are necessary for a project and housed in your library, there are still a number of ways to prevent them from ending up in a landfill. Start by calling local design schools or organizations and asking them if they need any samples. Students are often more than happy to take those dropped sample books for their projects. It may even be possible to set up a program in which you send your samples to a school or organization on a regular basis.

"It’s best to be proactive about addressing sample waste, rather than waiting until library clean-up day when the number of old samples is overwhelming."

Another option is to find a local art or art education organization that may be able to utilize the used samples for their art projects. Examples include Trash for Teaching in Los Angeles which repurposes manufacturing and sample waste for educational purposes, or Scrap in San Francisco which uses the material in low-cost art classes for the community. There are even contests like Ample Sample which encourages designers to give samples a new life through innovative use in new products. The key is to do some research up front in order to establish a sample donation program.

If you can’t find a design school or organization to take your surplus or out-of-date samples, the next best option is to recycle them. This may seem difficult, given that there aren’t municipal recycling programs for most building products like tile, fabric and carpet; however, most manufacturers will take back their samples. Many will even provide a return label so that you can ship them back at no charge.

If the sample is for a running line product, manufacturers will generally put the sample back in stock once it is returned so other customers can request it. Even if the product is dropped or it was a custom design, most will still take those samples back.

An important detail to clarify with the manufacturer representative is what they do with dropped samples. You’ll want them to be clear about whether the samples are repurposed, recycled or landfilled. For example, Bentley Prince Street recycles samples of dropped product, including outdated architectural books. If you still have samples from manufacturers without a sample take back program, ask other manufacturers if they’ll recycle competitor samples. Many will.

All of these options may seem overwhelming, especially to anyone charged with managing a library full of hundreds or even thousands of samples. But as with managing any project or program, it’s best to be proactive about addressing sample waste, rather than waiting until library clean-up day when the number of old samples is overwhelming.

A good place to start is to determine how the samples will be disposed of properly before they are permitted in your library. This process may be as simple as asking manufacturing representatives to provide information on their company’s sample return policy or as elaborate as creating a questionnaire for each manufacturer to fill out, explaining in detail what they are doing to reduce sample waste.

Once you’ve gathered information about manufacturer programs that are available, use this information to develop a sampling policy for your library. You may even want to consider only allowing samples from manufacturers that offer digital sampling options and/or take back and recycle samples upon request.

While sample waste reduction may seem small in comparison to some of the other environmental impacts our industry has, it is a tangible step that we can take toward sustainability.

Here are some quick tips to help you reduce the environmental impact of your sample library:

  • Develop a policy: Find out what each manufacturer’s sample return policy is and if they offer digital or simulated paper samples. Use this information to develop a policy for what samples are permitted in your library.
  • Create partnerships: Find local design schools or art organizations that need architectural samples and partner with them to develop a sample donation program.
  • Minimize the number of samples used: To the extent possible, try to use digital or simulated paper samples and minimize the use of physical samples on a project.
  • Require sample return: Require manufacturers to take back samples in your library and repurpose or recycle them.

Kim Matsoukas, LEED AP, is sustainability manager at Bentley Prince Street where she oversees the company’s innovative and extensive green initiatives, including Cool Carpet, ReEntry 2.0 and Mission Zero. She can be reached at kimbrely.matsoukas@bentleyps.com.