thinking and campaigning

Article archive: 2010 – Re-defining the 3Rs


This year’s debates have focused around challenges where design is a major player. Material scarcity and recovery, confusion around best practice, the speed of technological advances in production and the increasing complexity of stakeholders and client teams that need to be convinced. Designers who concern themselves with these issues are putting themselves in pole position for future trends.


It’s all about materials. Resource scarcity and material security is fast becoming a big topic in science and government. According to Chemist Mike Pitts – since 1900 the UK has increased its consumption of stuff (consumables) 40 times over. The mass of raw materials extracted to make them comes from an even bigger mass of minerals (it takes 1.5kg of raw material to make just one toothbrush and the US landfills 25,000 tonnes of toothbrushes every year), creating a huge amount of CO2 emissions in the process. Take a mobile phone for instance.

Our desirability to upgrade for the next model fuelled by tantalising ads and seductive designs (think “This changes everything. Again”) makes us upgrade even when we were probably quite happy with what we had. Would this be such a problem if we designed it so all the materials could be separated out? Probably not, but as an industry we are slow on the uptake of designing for deconstruction.

It becomes an issue when you think about how many different elements are built into modern mobile phones. (over 40 – see note). It is not to say that elements like Indium or Gold will disappear completely but designing in such a way that we cannot get them out is irresponsible for future need. In 2005 over $400m metals were locked away in unused mobile phones (Pitts)

We know as designers we pre-determine a big chunk of the impact and destination of our outputs and there are now good examples where recovery is maximised but form or function are not sacrificed. It requires holistic systematic thinking and probably a helpful chemist at hand.


Appreciating your raw materials is one half of the process, the other is understanding your production cycles and reconfiguring them for optimum environmental efficiency. Innovation in sustainable technology is happening at such a fast rate it is hard to keep up but keep up we must, for new technology needs good, knowledgeable designers.

Examples are abound in the field of packaging. Nick Cliffe from Closed Loop food grade plastics recycling plant brought up a few. He reinforced the need to understand what is currently actually able to be recycled with what can technically be recycled illustrating that you cannot just substitute one material for another without understanding the consequences.

Take the increasing use of biopolymers (bio plastics). Many designers and clients now opt for a bio-plastic bag ; plastic with added degrader in the mix (usually titanium). This plastic is getting into the recycling stream before the recycling infrastructure is ready often resulting in contaminated batches.

He also cites the danger of confusing light-weighting with recyclability, e.g. if you move 2 litres of milk or fabric conditioner from a 50g plastic bottle into a 5g plastic pouch you are, in effect, changing a 50g fully recyclable piece of packaging into 5g of landfill”.

People like Nick are looking for new ways to solve these issues. “It would be interesting to work through the available sorting and reprocessing technologies, defining their limitations and strengths in order, to give a range of sort-friendly design features and a tool to assess new ideas against.”


“The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.”

In the 40th anniversary year of the publication of Victor Papanek’s book: Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change Papanek makes arguments still feel radical and right. Design trends will always be influenced by the technological innovations of the day but the foundations of good design that strive to make the world a better place to live in must be rock solid.

Designers needs to re-connect with the people who use design; us human beings. Don’t just take your brief as final. Find out who the real decision makers are and influence them to make better decisions. Help them understand the bigger picture.

Design trends that utilise open source and co-creation are breaking down many traditional barriers in design practice. New collectives and networks like the Useful Simple Trust which has the word ‘trailblazing’ in its mission and the Carrotworkers Collective who are returning to alternative co-operative models show alternative business models that are not solely about financial gain but well being and passion. Associate models like 10Plan and Supergroup reflect this sentiment showing that competitors can now work as collaborators.

3 new Rs for a new decade – a renewed mantra from the green past. But first can we drop the word ‘sustainable’ and just call it good design.  Sustainability in design must become part of the back end process, another tool or check list – nothing worth shouting about, just done as a matter of course.

Roughly 40 different elements found in a mobile phone:
H, Li, Be, C, N, O, F, Al, Si, S, Cl, K, Ca, Ti, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn, Ga, As, Br, Sr, Y, Zr, Ru, Pd, Ag, Cd, In, Sn, Sb, Ba, Ta, W, Pt, Au, Hg, Pb, Bi, Nd.

A mobile phone weighing 100 grams, contains 13.7 g of copper 0.189 g of silver 0.028 g of gold 0.014 g of palladium (source: Is Chemistry the Key to Sustainable Living? Mike Pitts, 2010)

This article featured in Design Week, 

December 2010

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s