Article archive: 2013 – What Comes Around Goes Around

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There is nothing more sobering than standing at the foot of a very steep mountain, particularly if that mountain is an enormous pile of waste electronics. At the bottom of the mountain stand a group of designers, chemists, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and technologists, all looking up in awe at the monstrous pile of objects. Coloured plastic casings, twisted cables, keyboards with missing on/off buttons catch the eye. An assortment of appliances including vacuum cleaners, hair straighteners, toasters and kettles are still recognisable, but mostly it’s a tangled mess of metal and plastic.

This pile of electronic waste, known as e-waste, is just a small sectin of the waste discarded on a daily basis by UK households. Between now and 2020 the UK will create an estimated 12 million tonnes of e-waste which will contain a lot of precious metals that if valued at current market prices are estimated to be worth in the region of £7billion.[1]

When we try to dispose of objects that we no longer want or need it is all too easy to take the route to landfill; this is the route of least resistance in our current industrial/ consumer model. Confusing advice and information comes in spades; from the non-compulsory legislation surrounding the WEEE directive[2]; to the different and confusing collection systems that each of our 326 local authorities, 36 metropolitan boroughs and 32 London boroughs have set up; to the built-in obsolescence that is part of the design for so many of those appliances; to the appliances which are deliberately designed so that they can’t be fixed and will break (or lose their warranty) if you try.

All these obstacles induce mild panic and frustration in the user and result in things either going in the wrong recycling bin or being dumped by a roadside often under the cover of dark, or being stuffed in the back of a cupboards until a solution is found, or at worst thrown in a black bin liner and put out for landfill collection. Of the 600 million tonnes of products and material that enter the UK, WRAP estimate only 115 million tonnes find their way to a waste recycling plant.

The broken stuff in front of us has had its fate determined. Deemed unfit, broken (our host at the recovery centre suggested that over half of the e-waste flowing into their processing plant could have been fixed by the user if they knew how) or just superseded by the newer, shinier model, it now forms part of the mountain. The mountain represents the small percentage of e-waste that found its way into a recovery programme. It has somehow traversed the overcomplicated journey from house to local authority recycling depot and on to its final resting place here where it is about to be shoved into an industrial crusher before being hand and machine sorted then transported out of the UK to a part of the world where someone earns a living melting, recovering and sell the valuable resources back into the production process.

From where the group stand it seems we also have an enormous capacity to consume goods which have short lives and seemingly little necessity – the electronic doughnut maker and mini pink candy floss machine before us being cases in point. Staggeringly over 90% of the material and products we consume are in our waste stream within six months[3]. But the Great Recovery team are not here to judge people’s taste or consumption patterns. Since September groups of designers together with material experts, local authority members, business leaders, manufacturers and entrepreneurs to name a few have been visiting facilities like this one.

The Great Recovery programme, run by the RSA design team with support from the Technology Strategy Board, has embarked on an investigation into how to design for a resource efficient and secure future. This means designing everything from an electrical appliance to a piece of packaging so that the valuable materials (resource) in those products can be efficiently recovered and fed back into industry once those products have reached the end of their useful life. This ‘circular economy’ is an exciting proposition. It focuses on understanding how we can redesign the 600 million tonnes of product we consume each year in the UK so that the materials can be captured with minimum effort and reused. Our focus is on developing an understanding about material flows, in which products are part of the material flow cycle, existing in a transitory state in which they borrow materials for a short period of time before releasing them back into the cycle at the end of their life.

We do not currently design or manufacture like this. This becomes obvious when you take these objects apart and try to split the ingredients. Toothbrushes, disposable coffee cups, books, TVs, houses; all designed and manufactured with lists of materials that are moulded and fused together by machines for efficient production, but making them impossible to disassemble so that materials can be recovered.

We have run a number of workshops in sites ranging from a packaging recycling plant, to textile sorting centres, to an engine remanufacturing factory, an electronic waste recovery facility and a disused tin mine in Cornwall. The tin mine was fascinating as it had come to the end of its commercial life but with tin prices and secondary elements like Indium rising fast, it is becoming commercially viable again.

We chose the mine and waste processing plants to give the designers who have signed up to the Great Recovery an understanding of where the materials they use and the products they create come from and end up. Up to now we have focussed on the end-of-life of everyday objects and the lesson learned from processing sites that are trying to break down, separate and recover materials. We have been left with a sense of ‘Fear, Farce and Challenge’.

1. The Fear is a reaction many of the designers have expressed when they are asked to ‘look, at the product they spent months designing, was launched to much fanfare a year ago and now sits in that mountain of rubbish’.

Waste is a design flaw. Current design process only takes us to the point where the consumer picks it from the shelf and takes it to the cashier. We rarely consider what happens post-consumer and when we do our knowledge is out of date and often incorrect. Designers hide behind the brief saying they have no power, they only deliver a service – so brief writers were invited to the workshops too.

2. The Farce is the growing realisation that in order to make these appliances we had to source all these raw materials (including some from war torn areas, or perhaps extracted using slave labour), invest in numerous production processes around the world and ship them from continent to continent incurring many ship and air miles’.

A new laptop can cost you under £300 but if you track the flow of raw materials from the mines to the factories and distribution centres (often starting their life in war torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the average computer travels the equivalent of three or four times around the world before they end up in the hands of the customer. Designers have to work with the global market system and it would be naïve to think otherwise but understanding material flows and designing to circular economy principles would result in more local and less carbon intensive production. Traceable supply chains designed around transparency can enhance resource security and support the corporate social responsibility objectives many large manufacturing businesses have adopted.

3. The Challenge is to re-think the design of our products from first principles. Pull an item off the waste mountain and take it apart. Understand what is in the product, where the materials came from and why they are there?

Most objects disassembled at the Great Recovery workshops were not generally made to be taken apart. Take LCD TVs that have hazardous light tubes full of mercurial vapour, which are taken out by hand before they can be put through the crusher. Some models have over 250 screws requiring 15 different screwdrivers to undo them before you can extract anything.

The process of deconstructing an object (also known as ‘tear-down’) in order to understand how it has been put together and how it can be improved is a well-established design tool. Many Japanese electronics companies train new designers on the recycling floor before they were allowed to enter the design studio. Many designers talk about their misspent youth tearing apart anything they could lay their hands on with nostalgia and joy. It engages the practical maker/creative part of the brain and even the hardiest consultants and heads of finance attending the workshops had glints in their eyes when handed a pair of safety specs and a hammer.

This newly re-set vision allows you to see things in a different way: a piece of packaging becomes a series of heat treated non-compatible material layers that can’t be separated; a disposable electrical toothbrush becomes an electrical appliance with a 4 month life designed with multi-moulded unrecyclable plastic, a long life battery and almost as many elements as a mobile phone.

The most important shift is the move away from design as a single object based activity to a step-by-step system consideration that designs in flow. How do we get material back into the economy, what information is needed to follow that material so that it is passed to its next user and how can we re-design production systems to enable this to happen?

Resource scarcity feels like a problem that should be solved by technology or sorted by government. The reality is that this challenge is so big and complex everyone must pick up the gloves. When approx. 80% of the environmental impact is locked in at the concept design stage[4] the reason why we bring a group of designers to face this mountain is clear.

Six months in and The Great Recovery program has begun in earnest. But the challenge is to rethink the whole consumer model and we are still only at the foothills of this journey. Our current best practice for recycling e-waste is to sort, crush and melt. Of the 40 odd elements in the ingredients list for each of these appliances even the best recovery facilities in the EU can only recover 16 at best and none of those materials are on the critical list.[5] A designer may come up with the best design for disassembly but with our current infrastructure there is still a very high chance it will end up on the e-mountain. The answer must lie in the re-design of the whole consumer system around circular principles and the prize is great.


[1] http://www.wrap.org.uk

[2] The WEEE Directive (2003) set collection, recycling and recovery targets for all types of electrical goods in the EU.

[3] WEF

[4] Design Council

[5] http://www.bgs.ac.uk/mineralsuk/statistics/riskList.html

This blog was featured on the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, April 2013.

Article archive: 2012 – The Great Recovery

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In 2011 I joined a UK government mission to Holland to study the Dutch strategies to ‘design out landfill’. The Dutch introduced a ban on landfill in 1995 and are now pioneering new strategies in resource efficiency. Our visit took us to facilities that sorted, recovered, and managed resource (or waste as we were still defining it in the UK). One of these facilities recycled fridges and freezers. I was struck by the diverse variety of models being processed. Every single appliance was different. This meant that every time a disassembler tried manually to get the valuable compressor out from the back of a fridge before it was crushed they were faced with a different set of challenges; different size and types of screws, fittings and frames blocking the way. It made me think that if a fridge designer could stand next to these guys and see with their own eyes the problems inherent in the design and maybe even have a go at disassembling we would have better fridges and better designers.

Waste affects every part of our society. Businesses, government, local authorities, and members of the public all play a part in the creation, management and disposal of waste. A staggering 98% of the resources that flow into the economy end up as waste within only six months.[1] The UK produces approximately 290 million tons of waste a year. Whilst there has been significant improvement in the UK’s recycling rates in the past decade we are still losing valuable streams of resource into landfill.[2]

The problem is exacerbated by the so called ‘ecological rucksack’[i] of materials used to make a product. Innocuous objects like plastic toothbrushes are heavier than you think with over 1.5kg of material used in production[3]. Even a simple A4 piece of white paper uses 10 litres of water in its production. Current levels of raw material usage in the UK manufacturing industry have been deemed unsustainable by government and businesses.[4] Like many developed countries, the UK economy is highly dependent on several “at risk” materials and resource security is a growing concern. The problem is particularly acute for certain key elements where demand far exceeds current sustainable supply levels.

As a society we seem to have very little idea or desire to find out what goes in to make the stuff that we so happily consume. Take our love for the mobile phone. In 2011 there were 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions globally (this was when the world’s population was 6.8 billion). There were 80 million mobile phone subscriptions in the UK and every hour 1000 mobile phone replacements were sold. At the same time an estimated 80 million working mobiles were retained in UK households, lost in drawers and cupboards.[5] Each phone is made of approx 40 different elements including Copper in the wiring, Indium in the touch screen and Gold in the circuit boards. These elements are becoming increasingly viable to recover as the price of metals and minerals increase. There is more gold in a ton of mobile phones (approx. 300g) than there is in a ton of mined rock from a gold mine (approx. 1- 5g)[6] and it is far easier to extract from the phones. However more elements could be extracted if they were designed to facilitate material recovery.

This resource challenge presents a significant opportunity for UK businesses. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimate the material cost savings to the EU could be a minimum of £220 billion p.a. if we moved towards a scenario where all products were designed to aid resource recovery alongside systems that eliminated waste streams, in turn creating cyclical systems. This model of a circular economy is a shift from the old ‘take, make, waste’ linear business model to one of ‘lease the resource, make the product, recover the resource then re-make’.

The UK is well placed to develop closed loop[ii] techniques with its expertise on design, innovation and manufacturing. European Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potocnik writes that, ‘as well as reducing material costs and exposure to volatile resource prices, the circular economy would ‘spur positive secondary effects such as a wave of innovations and employment in growth sectors of the economy, whilst increasing Europe’s competitiveness in the global marketplace’ and that ‘many business leaders believe the innovation challenge of the century will be to foster prosperity in a world of finite resources’.[7]

Research from the EU, UK Government, Green Alliance, CBI and EMF all press the need for new approaches to design in response to the problems caused by linear manufacturing processes. The Green Alliance also notes that although multiple policies and regulations are focused on products’ end of life, hardly any encourage design for end of life or even restoration.[8]

Design sits at the heart of the challenge to create a circular economy. The House of Commons Science and Technology committee concluded: ‘intelligent product design is key to [the circular economy’s] effective implementation’.[9] Approx. 80% of a product’s environmental impact is ‘locked-in’ at the design stage.[10] Understanding your production cycles and reconfiguring them for optimum effectiveness is key. One cannot simply just substitute one material for another without understanding the consequences.

Designing like this is complex. Gone are the days of ‘sustainable or eco’ design where a simple change of material to a recycled alternative would give serious brownie points. This system calls for investigation in materials at a molecular scale. It demands true co-creation with everyone involved in the life cycle of that product and requires collaborative systematic thinking, helpful chemists and new types of logistics to capture and recirculate materials.

The challenge posed by the circular economy needs to be lead by business. It is very rare to see a company setting a design brief that includes requirements to recover material. But the business model is changing and the economic imperative to recover is looking more appealing.

The Great Recovery.

Developing a new circular model has the potential to change everything we do. We are launching a programme called The Great Recovery. This programme, run in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with support from industrial players will address the knowledge and innovation gaps around designing for a circular economy model.

The programme will start by building a community of designers, connect them to networks of scientists, business leaders, academics, manufacturers and material recyclers.

The programme will provide a significant number of practical demonstration projects, many of which will be hosted at recovery centres to discover how ‘problem products’ could be better designed from a closed loop perspective. Over the course of this project, data will be collected, amassing a large and unique body of knowledge to help identify opportunities and challenges on which new industrial education progammes can be developed to build understanding.

Future phases will take lessons learnt into businesses, government, education and ultimately consumers so that we ensure everyone that has a role or influence in the lifecycle of a product understands how they can play their part to redesign the future.


[1] Designing Out Landfill. A UK Mission to Holland 17.1.11 – 20.1.11 Materials and the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Networks and Technology Strategy Board.

[2] Designing Out Landfill. A UK Mission to Holland 17.1.11 – 20.1.11 Materials and the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Networks and Technology Strategy Board.

[3] Mike Pitts, RSC Policy Lecture, 2010

[4] Government Review of Waste Policy in England, 2011, DEFRA

[5] Hywel Jones, Hallam University, Sheffield. http://www.whatsinyourstuff.org

[6] Mike Pitts, RSC Policy Lecture, 2010

[7] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2012, Towards a Circular Economy, http://www.thecirculareconomy.org/

[8] Green Alliance, 2011, Reinventing the wheel: a circular economy for resource security, http://www.green-alliance.org.uk/grea_p.aspx?id=6044

[10] Design Council and AT&T, 1995 see also 2001 Helen Lewis, John Gertsakis, Design + Environment: A Global Guide to Designing Greener Goods, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3tQyPkMAkIkC


[i] An Ecological Rucksack is the total quantity (in kg) of materials moved from nature to create a product or service, minus the actual weight of the product. That is, ecological rucksacks look at hidden material flows.

Ecological rucksacks measure the amount of materials not directly used in the product, but displaced because of the product. That is, ecological rucksacks represent the materials necessary for production, use, recycling and disposal of a product, but not the materials used in the product. Ecological rucksacks are calculated by subtracting the weight of the product from the material intensity (MI) of the product or service:

ER = W – MI

where ER is the ecological rucksack, W is the weight of the product and MI is the material intensity. http://www.gdrc.org/sustdev/concepts/27-rucksacks.html

[ii] The term ‘circular economy’ covers a number of different ideas and beliefs, from ‘the closed loop’, ‘cradle to cradle’ or ‘design to disassemble’. It is the system that allows the continuous circulation of materials through the economy with minimum loss of quality or value (often known as ‘restorative’ or ‘regenerative’ as well as keeping the technical and biological cycles separate.  This is in contract to the current dominant linear model of ‘take, make, waste’.

This article appeared in the RSA Journal in Summer 2012.

Article archive: 2011 – The question of added value

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A small green shoot in an otherwise anxious economic time:  In the small town of Baikal in Siberia a transformation takes place. Where once stood the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill belching foul-smelling sulphates into the air and chlorides, phenols and other chemicals into the lake now grows a blossoming tourism industry. The ecologists had failed to get the factory shut down from breaching health and safety regulations but the global recession succeeded. Other examples exist:  the number of small steel mills that closed their doors in India caused an 85% drop of sulphur dioxide (falling as acid rain) in the atmosphere and last year the reduced economic activity was projected to cut Europe’s emissions of carbon dioxide by 100 million tonnes. (Begley, The Recession’s Green lining, newsweek Mar 2009)

Obviously economic recession is not a long-term environmental strategy. The challenge is to re-engineer what survives and re-invent the new, so that when the economy revs up it’s not back to polluting business as usual.

This is what comes to mind when I hear the phrase ‘never waste a good crisis’  (which seems to be quite a fair bit at the moment). I reckon that if necessity is the mother of invention then design is the industry of invention. We are trained to find those ingenious ways to help solve the hardest of challenges.  We really should stop being so detail focused for a moment and collectively set about solving these big global issues.

If you open your eyes to the real impact of our industry and take a look around your studio, your house, your life you will see that design lies at the heart in much of our everyday choices. Step back through the chain of suppliers, before this stuff hits the shelves – through manufacturers, corporations, decision-makers – you will find the impact in material, energy, water and waste were determined right at the design and concept stage and therefore most probably by a designer.

Some industries like the vehicle industry have become much more efficient in their design of a better car (but in the same period our car use has increased globally). And in areas where products are directly accountable for using or emitting pollutants there has been improvement. Other positive impacts have come from Legislation. The waste disposable push from Europe through the WEEE directive and increasing landfill taxes and have forced alternative thinking on a product’s after life. There are now a growing number of new Management systems that focus on sustainability and the debate still rages on about obligation or peer pressure. If people aren’t driving it then legislation must impose it,

Too many clients are still wedded to the system of selling as much product as possible as this is still how we calculate profit and growth. There seems to be an obligation for designers to accept commercial rationale to create such objects though clearly we must find ways to make sure that such processes create environmentally benign stuff.

The focus on resource depletion and challenge of material efficiency is an increasingly exciting area. Recent documentaries have highlighted some extraordinarily resourceful communities in Lagos and Mumbai slums that we would do well to learn from. These people show creativity and inventiveness whilst eking out a living from the stuff thrown out by the rest of society. Not Utopian in any means but resourceful and incredibly efficient.

There is also some fantastic innovation going on in R&D with regards to disassembly and recovery of resources. It seems crazy to me that some designers still do not understand the consequences of their decisions that are sometimes purely concerned about aesthetics. Simple things like co-molding two different plastics together in a toothbrush design or laminating a piece of paper can predetermine its painful and slow landfill demise. This will be where new alliances for designers, waste and materials industry can flourish.

Inevitably as oil prices keep rising and with the much predicted peak oil (the point in time when the maximum rate of global extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline) materials and resources will become ever more expensive pushing further the drive for more environmental efficiency.

Mike Pitts from the Chemistry KTN talked at greengaged in 2008 about other ‘peaks’ in mined materials. He presented a memorable slide of the periodic table – a visual representation of every known element on the planet – showing how, if we continued using and designing without easy (and safe) disassembly and recycling we would banish a big chunk of these essential building blocks to landfill very soon (very soon being 5-10 years in some instances).

So there is need for more responsibility in the way we choose materials and a wider outlook for new opportunities to turn waste into someone else’s raw material. But responsibility does not mean boring. What designers can bring to the party is much more than a reactive approach.

What’s fascinating about sustainability is that it’s fundamentally a value system characterised by reducing and eradicating environmental impact in much the same way that nature does. Taking generic principles like efficiency, non-pollution, whole life design, dematerialisation – one can use them in any area of design. The more creative and more ingenious we are – the quicker and bigger the positive environmental paybacks.

 As a final thought I should really mention cost. Everyone always asks about costs. Doesn’t it cost more to produce something more sustainably? Clients don’t want to pay or pass on any extra; designers don’t want to give others the competitive advantage.

 The reality is that none of this impact is accounted for, like a lost number in the mother of all excel spreadsheets. Even if you are a hard climate sceptic you cannot get away from the consequences of our excess this planet is now coping with and the role we are unwittingly playing.

This article appeared in the sustainable design supplement in Design Week, 2011