Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean, exhibition on tour.

Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean. Waste ink Letterpress print
Never Turn Your back on the Ocean, Brussels
Exhibition detail
Exhibition details
Yellow boxes
Exhibition detail
NTYBOTO caption
Exhibition detail
5.25 trillion pieces of micro plastic in the ocean print and collage
waste ink and sand letterpress prints that used the broken words found on bits of plastic as inspiration.
Never Turn Your back on the Ocean, Pentagram talk and exhibition.
Blue bottle boxes
Exhibition newspaper that accompanied the exhibition
Flyposter of the talk and exhibition at Second Home, London.

Archive 2015: Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean – talk and publication

NTYBOTO Pentagram 2015

Following the launch and talk at Pentagram in 2015 I have continued to talk about the work and tour the pieces around the world. The pieces have been from London to Brussels and are currently in Barcelona.

Alongside these pieces I created a limited edition publication. Here is the text and selection of images.

Exhibition newspaper that accompanied the exhibition

The first toothbrush I ever found was in a Victorian dump in Oxford. In the mud, amongst the bottles and broken crockery I pulled out a strange stick, made of bone, with faint blue lines and a grid of dots at the top. My family were appalled but I was fascinated, and though the bristles had long gone, I knew it was a toothbrush. The shape was basically the same as mine. It hadn’t changed for 100 years. 

What had changed was the stuff it was made of. Toothbrushes are no longer bone but generally co-molded from a number of different plastics (including nylon, high density polyethylene or polypropylene and a rubber substitute called kraton, which has amazing resistance to heat and chemicals, just what you need in a toothbrush!). It is a really good example of an everyday product that is disposed directly into our waste streams. On average a person uses around 350 toothbrushes in their lifetime. The bad thing is all those different plastics are impossible to separate and cannot be recycled together, which creates enormous amounts of waste. Over 25,000 tonnes of toothbrushes end up in US landfill every year.

Toothbrushes from Kamilo Beach, Hawaii

Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles collect with other debris and merge into large swirling accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres.

“There are 20x more Plastic Particles in the North Pacific than stars in the Milky Way Galaxy” – Dr. Marcus Eriksen, 5Gyres. Various fishing floats and buoys, shrunken rubber ball.

In the broad expanse of the northern Pacific Ocean, there exists the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre: a slowly moving, clockwise spiral of currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents. Due to its lack of large fish and gentle breezes, fishermen and sailors rarely travel through the gyre. This, however, doesn’t prevent the elements to collect some of the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic that enters the sea each year, and create what could be called the largest landfill in the world.

Flotsam and Jetsam letterpress, ink and sand

This area known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of five major accumulations of rubbish drifting in the oceans. One of the closest pieces of land near this patch is Big Island, Hawaii and Kamilo Point is the closet beach. Kamilo beach (or ‘Trash beach’, as it is called by locals) is near the southern most point of the USA. It is an hour further along the volcanic coastline from Green Sands beach, in a deserted part of the island where no-one lives. If you ask many Hawaiian locals if they know Kamilo Beach you mostly get a blank look. It’s not a tourist destination or a local hotspot. It’s also really hard to get to, as it’s not on what you would call a drivable road. You need a 4WD and a very good sense of direction. 

The map to Kamilo Beach

My enthusiasm to go and physically see this tragic scene, with my own eyes, was set in motion by the Algalita Foundation who were looking for people to join them on a boat expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch. However, having young children and being prone to awful sea sickness put a stop to that particular dream. But after interviewing David De Rothschild about the Plastiki voyage, and having run numerous workshops at recycling and recovery facilities (including one with Cape Farewell) my next stop had to be Kamilo beach, Hawaii. The islands of Hawaii are extraordinary, diverse and incredibly beautiful. But their magnificent beaches are becoming tainted by the results of this global plastic waste tragedy every day, on every tide. The plastic-to-sand ratio at Kamilo beach is shocking, and in my half hour walk along the coastline I picked up 18 toothbrushes alone. 

Contrast.Bleached bottle on the volcanic sands of Kamilo point.

I brought back what I could carry, feeling bad that I could not clean up more. Everything I picked up had a story: here a journey from Japan after the Tsunami; there a long haul drift after being blown from a US landfill. The snatches of words on bottles bleached by the sun – flotsam poetry.

Rubber glove becomes a home

There were tops of bottles, locally known as shark plastic, that sea birds and fish had gnawed away at the edges to give a ragged effect.

Ink spill (detail). Found ‘shark plastic’ bottle, waste ink, Kamilo sand, micro plastic and dyed sand.

Some of the plastic had been in the sea, under the hot UV sun, for so long they turned to powder when I touched them. Other pieces had been conquered by nature, becoming a home for new life, new coral and new animals. Everywhere you looked plastic was present, deep in the fabric of the beach and seemingly almost impossible to extract.

Plastiglomerate samples

90% of the world’s rubbish that floats in oceans is plastic and currently only 5% of the world’s plastic is recycled. We cannot just cut out plastic from our lives – it is the ‘workhorse material of the modern economy’ but we need to find ways to deal with it.

Box study/ Blue and Red. Dyed sand and Kamilo beach flotsam: bottle tops (various), lollipop ring element, peg, party popper casing, unknown flat bead, street cleaning brush filaments.

Cleaning up the oceans is one option. It is, however, not efficient. The oceans are too big, the estimated 5.25 trillion micro plastic pieces sitting on the bottom of the ocean are too small and no one country is directly responsible. And so the currents continuously move the pollution and the gyres continue to act as ‘shredders’ to the plastic before dispersing it across the globe. The solution to this truly global challenge must be therefore to tackle the problem at its source.

“It’s hard to visualise the sheer amount of plastic in the oceans, but the weight of it is more than the entire biomass of humans.” – Julia Reisser, marine researcher. 

The global growth of plastic consumer goods is projected to increase significantly over the next ten years (current output is approximately 6bn metric tonnes a year). Unless steps are taken to manage wastestreams connected to this growth, the ocean could contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of finfish by 2025 (EMF). 

Halfers Knot Cut. When a fishing net needs repairing the knots gets cut off. Knots collected from UK beaches.

Marine litter is also one of the most visual impacts of a resource inefficient economy. These objects that litter our beaches and fill our seas should be captured for their value before they reach the oceans. 

Box Study/ Aquamarine and Orange. Dyed sand and Kamilo beach flotsam: Bottle tops
(various) comb segment, toy shoe for doll, unknown flat bead, lollipop ring element. 

Adopting a circular economy approach, which puts emphasis on: designing systems that prevent waste and encouraging recovery of valuable materials; designing products that optimise materials for their effectiveness in use stage; and simplifying the use of plastics, especially in packaging so that recycling can be streamlined and efficient, would be the most effective solution for marine litter and this tragic outcome.

Artefact comparison. Shoe heel, children’s spade and plastic bolt from Kamilo beach. Jawbone, shoulder blade and knuckle bone, industrial waste from London foreshore.

Statistics from: Lucy C. Woodall, Marcus Eriksen Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey

Many thanks to all those that helped make this exhibition and publication possible: Dan for enjoying the terrifying drive to find Kamilo and agreeing to my madcap plan to go to Hawaii. Stella and Aaron for putting up with journey. Alan Kitching and Marta Dos Santos at Letterpress workshop for giving me access to bigger woodblock and a critical eye. Tamara and Jack at TM for giving up their weekend to help photograph pieces of plastic waste. Calverts Co-op for the waste ink. All at Thomas.Matthews including Alexie for getting the word out. Naresh and Zuleika at Pentagram and Do The Green Thing for their brilliant support.

But no thanks to those that do not recycle their plastic waste.

Article archive 2017: What am I supposed to do with this cup?

We get through 5,000 disposable paper coffee cups a minute, but very few of them are ever recycled. Why?

A fraction of the 5,000 cups per minute that we consume in the UK.

The quote on the side of our meeting room coffee jug says it all. Coffee first. Schemes later. I don’t think our studio is unique in its love for coffee. I imagine that coffee serves as one of our industry’s primary fuels. Many a late night is sustained by shots of espresso, making sure we hit that deadline. The question is, at what cost?

Cups after collection and baling (many of the waste cups are pre-consumer waste e.g. printing rejects).

In the early years of the Thomas.Matthews studio we did a quick count of cups of coffee consumed in a day. I am particularly keen on the substance and am often avoided by fellow workers until I have had my first sip. However, even I was surprised by the sheer quantity. I averaged out at seven cups a day. Four of these were bought from the local café, equating to £9 a day, £45 a week – £2,025 a year spent on coffee. An expensive habit of which I am not alone. Britons spent £7.9bn in coffee shops in 2015, it’s a growing market. In 1999 it was thought that the coffee market was at saturation, but it has grown sevenfold and is set on path that could see it double over the next decade.

Cups are shredded and ready for the separation of the paper from the polythene liner.

“Britain is becoming a nation of coffee connoisseurs. The thirst and the desire to have better quality coffee is growing (thank god, there is nothing worse than a bad, weak, coffee) ((Jeffrey Young, MD of the Allegra Group))” So, it is confirmed – coffee is big business. Alongside the operations of supplying coffee to the masses is the fact that in the UK, unlike Italy, we love to drink on the run, and a hot beverage needs a specific container to transport it in.

The disposable coffee cup has seen a lot of press recently, and well it should have. The UK produces 5 billion paper cups a year and throws away a staggering 7 million of these disposable coffee cups every single day (that’s 5000 a minute). However, less than 1% of this waste stream makes it to the recycling plant, even though the main material – over 70% – is high quality virgin paper. The clue to the problem is in the misleading name; disposable. This object suffers from the same identity issue as a lot of packaging; once it has fulfilled its job of keeping food fresh or cold, hot or clean, delivered to your door or desk, it then loses its value, and in-fact takes on a negative value, being annoying to get rid of. What do I do with this sticky, smelly thing now? Where are the bins? Which bin should it go in?

But we are wrong to think there is no value in a used cup once the coffee has been drunk. The engineering behind the take-away cup is pretty extraordinary. There are two curves to deal when creating the cup shape. This demands a lot from the cellulose of the paper that a recycled stock with shorter fibres could probably not cope with. You need a virgin material for it not to fail, prompting claims that it takes at least 100,000 trees a year to fuel Britain’s coffee habit. Then, you have the bonded polythene layer inside to make it waterproof. This bond is so strong that it is very hard to pull apart the two materials. And so, the recoverability becomes economically unviable for the majority of recycling facilities to do it.

Laminate packaging that has been separated for reprocessing. The polymer and aluminium is currently not recycled.

With 5,000 a minute streaming through our lives, and most of us having general confusion as to what bin they should go in, cups end up in every bin everywhere. And who owns the problem? We do not have Individual Producer Responsibility for cups. Once they are empty of coffee and become waste they is our problem to dispose of. We often put them in the recycling bin, hoping they will get recovered but only 1% does. They are either incinerated where we recover their calorific value in energy from waste plants, or they are buried in landfill where they give off methane whilst they slowly degrade. There is a little research on how long it actually takes for a disposable cup to break down in the environment on its own. The quality of the paper could see it take at least two years to start decomposing with the polythene taking up to 30 years.

Paper and polymer mixed pulp

So what can be done? For me, design will be the key, not just in the cup design, but in systems and materials spec too. Solutions are surfacing. In business, consortiums like Simply Cups have been working on building a strong collaborative cohort of companies that brings together every part of the supply chain and beyond; retail to producer, user to collector, paper mill to reprocessor , waste manager and collection service provider. What comes out from the collected cups that are sorted, baled, shredded, separated and cleaned is a high quality paper pulp suitable for luxury packaging and card which is high in value.

Shredded paper and pulp still has value.

The interesting thing about this model is the scope there is to expand out, both in R&D and new business models. Companies are now working with them; like the coffee roasters who close the loop by offering a complete service of bean delivery and spent ground collection (that they use to fuel their roasting machines, which roast your beans for your next order). Simply Cups have also been building partnerships looking at designing out the polythene layer altogether in order to create a cup that any recycler will want to collect because they can easily reprocess it.

More obviously there are designers and businesses who have replaced the disposable cup altogether. Keep Cups are one of these barista size cups. They have pretty much the same thermal properties as a paper cup (ie. Good for 10 minutes) which is long enough for me, and are durable and reusable with added feel good factor.

Processed and usable paper pulp

What about levies and tax options? A few years back, Simply Cups mentioned that if we could add 5p onto the price of every coffee drunk from a disposable cup we would be able to fund recycling for every single cup thrown away in the UK. Last year the Liberal Democrats motioned a paper in parliament that proposed such a tax, to follow on from the success seen with carrier bags. This kind of model not only builds funds, it actively discourages the use of disposable stuff. (In July 2016 the government estimated the charge would result in six billion fewer plastic bags being used during the year and £29m had been raised).

What is pretty obvious to me is that with this sheer amount of packaging waste, with its complex material bill of materials, must be designed to factor in the end-of -life. Our current technical/marketing brief should stop thinking of the materials as having no value after they have fulfilled their original use (if it even considers it at all) and start to demand design for 2nd, 3rdand 4thlife. The fact that we can recycle paper fibres around six times in order to extract the maximum value (the same as plastic) shows us the potential and untapped value we are giving up too early just because we have designed something that does not consider the whole life. And to me that is just not good design anymore.

Thomas.Matthews business cards printed on ‘Coffee’ paper (mocha). The cups were collected by Simply Cups, reprocessed and made back into paperboy James Cropper’s Reclaimed Fibre Facility based in Cumbria, UK

This article first appeared in Creative Review, Issue 3, volume 37. March 2017
Photography by Peter Clarkson

 

 

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

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: 2013 – What Comes Around Goes Around

Image

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: 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