“What idiot designed this in terms of recyclability?” Simon Ellin wondered when interviewed by The Guardian in a recent post concerning plastic recycling. “We’ve got a cardboard tube, a metal bottom, a plastic lid”. The product that Recycling Association’s CEO pointed at was no other than a Pringles’ package, whose combination of materials apparently makes it “so confusing to computer scanners that it has to be picked by hand off the recycling conveyor”. “Then it often just gets chucked away.” Ellin was also critical of Lucozade Sport and bottles with a similar design, where a recyclable bottle is enclosed in a sleeve made from a different type of plastic. He called the design the “No 2 villain”. We also that most of the cardboard takeaway coffee cups are not recyclable, since they contain a layer of plastic in order to withstand the beverage inside. It seems even products that appear to be quite simple – not to mention, labeled as recyclable – eventually create multiple problems as they approach the end of their life cycle.
If we want to be serious about recycling materials, the first place we ought to look into is definitely the starting point of the cycle; product designing and manufacturing. We have to ensure that the whole supply chain is involved from designers, to manufacturers, to retailers, to recyclers, to local authorities and the householder so that the products we buy can be recycled. Furthermore, if simple everyday life objects present difficulties for recyclers and the current recycling technology, imagine the situation we will face with due to the production, consumption, and inclusion in waste streams of increasingly complex products; personalized medicine, new gadgets like wearables, networked homes and full home management systems, fully customized consumer products, personal security and personal energy products that are coming or are already here.
Take this “breathing” sports suit for example; a team of researchers from MIT has developed a workout suit which incorporates microbial cells into flaps that allow it to self-ventilate. This is a very interesting combination of biological systems and engineering, but it is also – supposedly – a combination of microbial cells, threads of fabric, probably even plastic in some extent. Recyclability was never a factor during the design process. The design is brilliant but only concerned about part of the product’s life cycle. How about its end of life management? Would it still be able to breathe in a landfill?
We have seen same questions in all the innovative sectors. As a good example take the rapidly growing stream of electronic waste (WEEE) which is already a big problem, and directly related to the crime of waste trafficking. As the world becomes more and more networked and interconnected, and as electrical and electronic products, including PCs, gadgets, digital cameras, pervasive computing etc., are rapidly devalued and become waste due to fast update and built-in obsolescence, the WEEE stream will become a major challenge of future waste management. The second is the stream of nanomaterials that are coming slowly but steadily. Nano-bio and e-technologies will create a whole spectrum of new artificial materials. Major breakthroughs within the next two decades will provide inexpensive ways to produce mass quantities of those materials. In addition, the function of such materials will move from ‘passive’ to ‘active’ with the integration of nanoscale valves, switches, pumps, motors and other components. Unless we intervene now, most of them will create new massive waste streams. The main trend in consumer goods is personalization, which on the one hand will create products that are more difficult to throw away and on the other hand will make reuse practically hard.
First, new products are launched, then used, and finally transformed to new kinds of waste before an effective waste management solution is established for them. Most of the time, problems with managing new kinds of waste emerge after the product has been consumed. Second, the time required to establish a new separate waste stream network, or a new technical solution for the new waste stream, generally is by far longer than the lag-time between the production of a new product and its transformation to waste.
And this is exactly why the elimination of the “Pringles factor” is crucial; product design needs to take reuse and recyclability into account, from the very beginning. Rethinking the way we use materials and the quantities we produce and consume is also part of the plan, but consumption patterns won’t change on their own. The first step is to ensure that the products produced, packaged, and used are not going to be thrown away. They should be reused, recycled or at least subject to material recovery, and this can only be done with the elimination of “Pringle’s factor”.
Studies show that more than three out of four decisions influencing the final choice of materials and manufacturing processes are made during the design phase whilst over 80% of the ecological and economic costs are made before the object is actually created. Design has a pivotal influence on the way that products and services are made and used – it is, therefore, a crucial element in a shift towards a more resource-efficient economy.
This is exactly where initiatives like People’s Design Lab have a substantial role to play. People’s Design Lab is a platform for people frustrated by the increasing production of items that cannot be reused, repaired, recycled or composted. It’s a place to address governments and industries who create “stuff” for the sake of it.
Another important initiative is the Design Out Waste. This project looked at the end of life of electrical products and designed alternative ways to make the most of the material that they embody. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, so to demonstrate this fact, three different toasters were designed; The Realist, the Pragmatist, and The Optimist, each demonstrating a different strategy to creating circular material flows.
I also like the design action plan for a circular economy, a project that aimed to put design in the center of Scotland’s transition to Circular Economy. A range of stakeholders representing industry, the design sector, policy, academia and the third sector were brought together in a collaborative process to jointly develop the action plan that is tangible, realistic and corresponds to market and policy needs.
We need much more initiatives like those ones, we need a revolution in design that will shift the consumers’ attitudes too, we need a redesign not only of the products but of the whole supply chains, most importantly the global ones. But we can still hope for that. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery has said, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”