Article archive 2017: Living and decaying in the plastic age.

Plastic bottle found on a Devon beach. The bottle, which probably contained motor oil or an industrial cleaner, is made of coloured HDPE (High Density Polyethylene). The estimated lifespan of HDPE is 450 years.

When Plastics by V. E. Yarsley and E. G. Couzens was first published, in 1941, the material was still a novelty. The authors enthusiastically discussed its ‘inexhaustible potential applications’, imagining a shiny, colourful future, far away from the ‘dust and smoke’ of war. They concluded by announcing a second industrial revolution, looking to a time when science would have ‘new powers and resources to create a more beautiful world.’ The new spirit of planned scientific control would be expressed by the ‘Plastics Age’.

Yarsley and Couzens imagined the new ‘Plastic man’, who would come into an idyllic world of ‘colour and bright shining surfaces, where childish hands find nothing to break, no sharp edges, or corners to cut or graze, no crevices to harbour dirt or germs, because … he is surrounded on every side by this tough, safe, clean material.’

They were partly right. Plastic has revolutionised the way we live, becoming the workhorse of the modern economy. In 1964, 15 million tonnes of plastic goods were produced; in 2014, 311 million tonnes – and the figure is predicted to double over the next twenty years.

Plastic is everywhere, in clothes, cars, houses, planes, toys and furniture. It coats boats, laminates brochures, even turns up in shower gels. And nowhere is its abundance more evident than in packaging, which, as listed in a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF)/Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). accounts for 26 per cent of the total volume of plastic used. The benefits of plastic packaging – including lighter transportation costs, reduced food waste and longer product shelf-life – are well established. But its negative effects are increasingly apparent. Water that is purchased and drunk within the hour comes in a bottle made from a material with an estimated lifespan of 450 years. Even though the UK has a well established system for collecting and recycling household plastics, we capture barely half of the 35 million plastic bottles thrown out each day, leaving 16 million to end up in landfill. The WEF / EMF report states that only 14 per cent of the world’s plastic packaging gets to a recycling plant; 40 per cent ends up in landfill, a third pollutes our most fragile ecosystems and the remainder is incinerated. By 2050, the report estimates, the plastic in the world’s oceans will outweigh all the fish.

The importance of recycling The success of plastic is built on its status as the ultimate disposable material, so cheap that we happily use it once and throw it away. The problem is there is no away. We are only 70-odd years into its lifespan: who knows when or how it will disappear from our environment?

The simplest way of encouraging people and businesses to reduce their contribution to waste is to give them products that can be recycled easily. The polymer structures that form plastic have the potential to be recycled up to six times – a fact that would have excited Yarsley and Couzens. Using recycled materials in the manufacturing process requires a quarter of the energy needed to produce new products from scratch.

So why do so few of us recycle? Garbologists – anthropologists who study rubbish – think this is not simply household laziness: design plays a role. At every stage in the packaging lifecycle, design can add complications: shrink-wrap labels that confuse the infra-red sorters at recovery plants, mixed materials moulded together which are impossible to ‘unmake’, confusing packaging information that leads to stuff going into the wrong bins – the list goes on. Finding solutions to this requires industry-wide collaboration.

Although we have no legislative pressure in force that demands producer responsibility, there are some companies that cast their eyes further than the supermarket trolley. In 2007, Innocent Drinks was one of the first to use a 100 per cent recycled plastic (rPET) bottle. Though the quality then was not good enough, they have now committed to using at least 30 per cent rPET in their bottles.

There are so many factors to consider when designing single-use bottles for manufacture. For years, designers have been briefed to reduce the weight. Although this has big benefits for carbon efficiency, it also has side-effects further down the line. The expensive, heavily legislated, investment-intensive waste-management industry cannot keep up with the fast moving, constantly innovating, test-it-quickly packaging sector: a lighter bottle could mean contamination in the automatic bottle sorters, or – once the plastic has been ground down – a mix-up in the plastic flake identifiers. Contamination means poorer quality recycled material.

We need to look beyond the shiny future imagined by Yarsley and Couzens, in which disposability is assumed, and redefine this amazing material. Plastic packaging needs to be treated as a valuable resource. Changing the way we design is fundamental to this process.

Photograph by Peter Clarkson.
Article first published in Eye Magazine no. 94 vol. 24, 2017

Article archive 2017: Circular By Design

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.
https://reallycph.dk/circularity/circular-by-design

Not on our beaches?

I often read stories of animals being affected by plastic debris in our oceans which are really depressing. Recently there was one that now makes me refuse plastic straws whenever I can. A group of marine biologists in Costa Rica discovered an endangered sea turtle with a 10-12 cm plastic straw lodged in its nostril. Christine Figgener, a field biologist with a research interest in conservation filmed the excrutiating 8 minute-long extraction operation, which left the poor turtle bleeding and clearly wincing in pain. Warning, it is really distressing to watch: promo-sea-turtle-straw copyhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw

An article in the telegraph references a recent study that estimated green sea turtles are 50 per cent more likely to ingest some form of plastic than they were thirty years ago. They often mistake items like plastic bags and straws for food, which can lead to blockages, infections and death.

This Easter when walking on a beautiful beach in Devon I came across this very sad sight of a dead juvenile black headed gull, strangled by a plastic top. It was so shocking that I ended up on BBC Devon News being interviewed about it and the issues around marine waste.

2015-03-31 14.10.48-1

We don’t really expect to see such sights on UK beaches, yes we hear about the terrible plight of albatrosses but not the gulls or terns. But no animal is safe from this increasing waste stream going into our seas.

 

Article archive: 2014 – The Great Recovery, Phase 2

Take a look around you. Wherever you are there will almost certainly be something that has been designed. The buying and selling of these objects, the way they are made and the people and raw materials that are involved in the making build economies and develop societies. The design industry is a key part of this loop. With around 11% of the UK workforce in our sector, we play a key role in the economy and account for 7% of GVA, with a third of this coming from consumer-related spending (ref).

The designer’s role of adding value to products is fundamental to the markets. But sadly this industry, like many others, is only slowly waking up to some of the negative impacts of this system: the over extraction of resources, the exploitation of workforces and growing toxic waste streams. The staggering fact is that, according to EU research, 80% of a product’s environmental impacts are decided during the design stage. Ultimately our decisions at the very beginning stages on material specification or assembly process will be instrumental in determining the product’s lifetime in use and method of disposal (whether re-use, recycling or landfill), but our industry seems to have very little understanding of this. Why is this so?

To understand the challenges around system change you need to go right back to the beginning. Everything around you once had a written brief given to the design team to tell them what they needed to consider. These design briefs could include quite specific instructions which, in summary, might say: ‘We want a kettle design that is weighted so it can be held comfortably by an elderly arthritic person; is able to boil two cups of water in less than twenty seconds; uses minimum metal in the moulding; and retails at £12.99’. Or, it may say something about the aesthetic outcome: ‘We need a 50 page full colour report that makes our company look youthful and innovative’. However, you can absolutely guarantee that a brief will not include phrases like: ‘This product is required to be designed for a second life’, ‘must be able to have all its raw materials fully recoverable to their maximum value’, or ‘must not in any way be diverted to landfill in the first 5 years of its life’.

Imagine if it did. Consider how different our products would look, how differently we would use them, and how much easier it would be to recapture the materials. It would radically change the way our products were made. It would require a lot more collaboration and knowledge transfer around the extended supply chain, with those that see the problems at the end of life (ie waste disposal or materials recovery experts) telling those that potentially build in those problems at the beginning (ie designers) what they are experiencing. Design would not be so focused on the initial sell but would extend its vision far into a product’s potential second or third ‘life’, or even towards a ‘circular system’ of continuous re-use. To get to this point, the whole process of design, manufacture, recovery and ultimately re-manufacture would need a complete re-think.

Over the last 18 months The Great Recovery project at the RSA has been investigating the role of design in the ‘circular economy’. We have been building networks and using the creativity of the design industry to help understand why current design does not include ‘closed loop’ principles (where product ingredients can be recovered back into raw materials through re-use, industrial symbiosis and recycling). Our programme of public workshops and networking events set in the industrial landscapes of recovery and recycling facilities, disused tin mines, and materials research labs worked with people across all sectors mapped in our circular network model.

circular_network

Participants went through a process based on the design principles of ‘Tear Down’ – where you literally pull products off the recycling pile and take them apart to understand how they are currently designed, manufactured and recovered/disposed, and then ‘Design Up’ – a process of rebuilding and redesigning the products around the four design models for circularity mapped by the programme: longevity, leasing/service, re-use in manufacture and material recovery.

circular_designs

This first phase of work supported the competition calls from the Technology Strategy Board on ‘New Designs for a Circular Economy’. These calls invested up to £1.25m into a range of feasibility studies proposed by business-led groups that included collaborative design partners.

The lessons that came out of these initial investigations underlined some key issues:

(i) the role of design is crucial to circularity but very few designers understand or think about what happens to the products and services they design at the end of their life;
(ii) new business models are needed to support the circular economy;
(iii) the ability to track and trace materials is key to reverse engineering our manufacturing processes and closing the loop;
(iv) smarter logistics are required based on better information;
(v) building new partnerships around the supply chain and knowledge networks is critical.

The inaugural Resource show saw the launch of The Great Recovery’s next phase of work in a two-year programme of work that will bring together materials science innovators, design experts and end-of-life specialists to explore the interrelationships and key levers in the manufacturing process. In a series of investigatory workshops we will be seeking further understanding around the challenges and obstacles faced by businesses and members of the circular network when considering the shift towards circularity. We need the problem holders, ideas creators and collaborators to get involved and share their resource knowledge.

In a move to nurture disruptive thinking across the network, The Great Recovery plans to develop short-term immersive design residencies that can set up inside recovery facilities around the UK. These design teams will be there to observe and experience the complexity of recovery systems, to help inform new thinking around current waste streams and new product designs. We will also be growing our network of pioneering professionals and circular economy stakeholders, developing thought leadership, influencing policy and nurturing disruptive thinking to fast-track innovation. By their nature, many of these activities will be highly creative and we are looking for interested recovery facilities, designers, materials experts and other stakeholders who want to participate.

This article appeared in the RSA Action and Research Centre blog, MArch 2014

Article archive: 2010 – Re-defining the 3Rs

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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.

1. RECOVER

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.

2. RECONSTRUCT

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.”

3. REKINDLE

“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.

Notes:
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

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