Designers can no longer ignore the relentless flow of materials to landfill. We need to rethink the entire system, writes Sophie Thomas
An advert for a shiny mobile phone, with new connector cables, four cameras and the option to trade in my perfectly good, but clearly now defunct, model landed in my inbox. It was the same month the UK government declared a climate emergency and the UN issued reports that gave us 12 years to halt runaway climate change or face mass extinction. As a practising designer, I saw how far we hadn’t come.
When Victor Papanek finally published Design for the Real World in 1971 (in a period of history that had seen the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs), he was shunned by many in the design industry. But this book of truths still holds resonance nearly 40 years later. He held up a mirror to the industry that he saw as being full of stylists and wrote of a Kleenex culture, ‘when people are persuaded, advertised, propagandised, and victimised into throwing away’.
‘There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them,’ he famously wrote. ‘And possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today.’
The consequences of, as Papanek described it, ‘designing whole new species of permanent garbage [that] clutters up the landscape’ are more visible than ever before. Oceans coughing up plastic pollution, rivers turning this season’s colour, villages swamped by old electronic waste, piles full of heavy metals, illegal shipping of one country’s waste to the shores of another. Out of sight, out of mind.
Read more: How the Milan triennale, Broken Nature, challenges us all to change our relationship with the planet
The vulnerability of our situation indicates that current linear manufacturing models of take-make-dispose – defined as taking raw material out of the ground, designing and making products for consumption, then disposing of these after use in a way that cares little for their embedded resource – is neither fit for purpose nor sustainable. It’s like sweeping dust under the carpet and wondering why we keep tripping up.
While this current crisis in resource (waste) management develops, society at large seems to have very little knowledge of, or interest in, what goes into making products that people consume daily. This ‘ecological rucksack’ of materials used to make a product can often be staggering. Innocuous objects such as plastic toothbrushes are heavier than you might expect, with more than 1.5kg of raw material used in their production. Even a simple A4 piece of white paper, according Mike Pitts of Innovate UK, can require 10 litres of water to produce.
It is widely agreed that many of the materials feeding into our production lines are increasing in their scarcity. We may soon be reaching points of peak everything: oil, gas, coal, water, metal and minerals. The race for resources is also playing a pivotal role in ongoing geopolitical conflicts around the world, even though we are aware we should keep some in the ground for the climate’s sake.
The statistics are shocking. In manufacturing, approximately 90 per cent of the raw materials that go into making durable products become waste even before the product leaves the factory. And our lifestyles are so dominated by disposability that, according to environmental journalist Richard Girling, approximately 80 per cent of what is made gets thrown away within the first six months of life.
As well as throwing things away, people are allowing functioning projects to languish unused. In 2017, the UK’s population of 66 million had around 80 million mobile phone subscriptions. At the same time, an estimated 80 million phones that still worked but were not in use were retained in UK households, lost or forgotten in drawers and cupboards.
When approximately 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is ‘locked in’ at the concept design stage, there is a clear case for the major part that design needs to play, not just at the product efficiency level, but at a system level and at the very core of business restructuring. With all the information now available, surely designers can no longer disregard the role we play in creating this continuous flow of materials into landfill? In the words of Papanek: ‘Only a small part of our responsibility lies in the area of aesthetics.’
Following Papanek’s twin pillars of ecological and social responsibility, design today must be circular in its material flow and responsible in its use and recovery. We need to design things that enable us to keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them while in use, then recover and regenerate the materials at the end of each service life. A shift to a more circular system is emerging. But it is not yet widespread. It requires a system design rethink, and the desire to change.
This originally appeared in Icon 195, the September issue that explored the circular economy and our addiction to waste.