Reflecting on the quest for material infinity, and the massive changes and opportunities the circular economy offers to designers.
Look around you. Wherever you are there will be something that has been designed: beautiful things, functional things, frivolous things. What you can’t see is that behind all these things are intricate supply chains that criss-cross the globe, manufacturing sectors employing millions of people, complex processing systems assembling countless ingredients sourced from many continents.
When I became a designer I quickly discovered a stark truth: I was partly responsible for a rapid flow of materials and stuff that passes through our lives, and all too soon ends up on a waste pile. This realisation led me to investigate where many products end their lives. For the last ten years I have questioned our current state of take, make, then throw away. I have gone on shifts collecting household rubbish and dismantled computers, coats, high heel shoes, cars and even an oil rig.
Textiles featured in my investigation. A recent visit to a textile recycling facility revealed the magnitude of the problem. I saw piles of old clothing being dumped onto conveyors taking fabric to sorters to evaluate their worth. Bales stacked as tall as houses: men’s pleated trousers, sought after in Sub Saharan Africa; patterned jumpers esteemed in cold Eastern European climates; and worn-out t-shirts to be cut up for industrial wipes. Mixed up in this stream were other textiles: duvets, curtains and blankets, that have no secondary market, destined for an environmentally unsound end in landfill.
Witnessing this scene is dispiriting. It seems impossible to imagine how we, as designers, can change this. But change it we must. And design is a good place to start. Around 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at concept stage. Let’s rewind to when these products were just a scribble in an entrepreneur’s notebook. Let’s go back to the brief: ‘Design a kettle that can boil two cups of water in less than twenty seconds that retails at £12.99’, or, ‘Design an office that makes our company look youthful and innovative’. But imagine if the brief also instructed: ‘Design this product to have a second and third life’, ‘Design it so its raw materials may be fully recovered to their maximum value or so that no part of it will end up in landfill during the first five years of its life’. How would this affect the way we designed the product?
All too often, when designers consider materials or production methods, we jump to the finished product too quickly; we fail to consider its wider impact or future use. This new brief would present a big challenge. The very premise would need to change, to address a future where one product could easily become another. This would mean radically re-thinking everything: from the materials we specify, the product itself, its packaging, the logistics to retrieve it after use, and then to sort, process and make it into something usable again.
‘It seems impossible to imagine how we, as designers, can change this. But change it we must. And design is a good place to start.’
In a nutshell, this is the circular economy. It is an exciting proposition, letting the material flow drive the design and production method. It conceives of the product built from these materials as a ‘temporary state’; in other words, a product is always potentially on its way to being something else. Once redundant in one incarnation, it must be capable of being easily disassembled to go back to the raw material again and again, not in a degraded or down-cycled state, but in its most valuable form. Designing for a circular economy allows you to design for the optimal and longest life of a product; for re-use and fixability, recyclability or disassembly and recovery. It makes you match the potential lifespan of your product to appropriate materials and processes.
In the past, design has flirted with different methodologies and theories of sustainability, green design, eco-design, biomimicry, cradle to cradle, light-weighting. Designing with circular economy principles is based on systems thinking; it means designing the whole system, not just the products.
So designers are just one element of a circular economy. Even if they design a product that can be easily disassembled at the end of its life, with our current waste infrastructure, there is still a very high chance it will end up on a waste mountain. Achieving material infinity requires change on the part of everyone involved in the life of a product, from the suppliers of raw materials to the manufacturer, retailer, consumer and end-of-life disposal and recycling companies.
The scale of our waste problem, one for which we are all, in part responsible, should make us throw up our hands in despair. My shock, however, has subsided into curiosity. Where most see threadbare sheets or fading curtains, old electronics or forgotten fashion, I now see the fuel for our renewal.
This article first appeared in the publication for the launch of ‘Really’ by Kvadrat, May 2017.