New blockbuster Design Museum exhibition ushers in the “waste age”

The opening of the exhibition coincides with the upcoming COP26 climate conference, and interrogates how design can tackle the critical problem of waste.

The Design Museum’s new exhibition on waste is not a show dedicated to recycling, according to chief curator Justin McGuirk. Waste Age, he says, is about bringing the problem of waste out from our periphery, and exploring how designers can and are using it as a material in and of itself. “There have been many material ages in human history – stone, bronze, steel – and we are provocatively suggesting what lies ahead could be the Waste Age,” he says.

Waste Age has been curated by Gemma Curtin, with 3D exhibition design by Material Cultures and 2D design from Spin. It’s a show that the museum has been thinking about for some time, Curtin and McGuirk both admit. “We wanted to ensure the exhibition would be specific about key problems,” McGuirk says.

It’s not intended to be a negative experience however, Curtin says. Rather than inducing climate anxiety, she says it is supposed to be encouraging: “Waste is a design-made problem, and here are design-made solutions to it.”

A rendering of Aurora, courtesy of Dassalt Systèmes

“The end of the take-make-waste era”

The Waste Age exhibition begins in the museum’s atrium, with a large-scale installation from Mamou-Mani Architects and the Dassault Systèmes Design Studio. Aurora “signals the end of the take-make-waste era” according to its designers, and uses PLA plastics and wood pulp to show how a new building material might be conceived.

Moving into the exhibition space, Waste Age is split into three sections. The first, Peak Waste, confronts visitors with the epic scale of global waste. The underlying thread, Curtin says, discusses the “wholly inappropriate” way the world uses plastic. “Plastic is an incredibly useful material because of its durability and lifespan, but for single-use it makes no sense whatsoever,” she says.

Objects here showcase both sides of plastic: the useful and the wasteful. As Curtin explains, plastic is a great material for things like the safety equipment on show. It isn’t a good material for lids and bottle caps. This point is illustrated by showing those collected from Cornish beaches over the course of one season by the Cornish Plastics Coalition. They appear strung together in the exhibition to give a sense of scale and you can see the installation in the banner image of this story.

Studio Drift’s dismantling project, here depicting a car in parts. Image courtesy of Felix Speller

“It’s about changing behaviour”

It’s a stark beginning to an exhibition that promises a positive outlook on the climate crisis. But as Curtin explains, what follows is focused on solutions and new thinking. Section two, Precious Waste, offers visitors an insight into the raw materials used in everyday products and how these might become part of the circular economy.

A project from Studio Drift does this quite literally – the studio has deconstructed a series of everyday objects, from a Dyson vacuum, to a broom, a car, a Nokia phone and an iPhone. Meanwhile other products and services on display include ClubZero, chairs made from recycled plastic associated with fishing by Snohetta and the K Briq by Kenoteq, which is a brick made from construction waste.

The final section, Post Waste, allows visitors to discover proposals for new circular methods of production. There is a focus on materials that can be created from the waste of our current food system, with exhibited projects showcasing new materials made from corn husk, algae, coconut and rice.

As Curtin mentions, however, systems and services will be just as important for fixing this problem as new materials. “It’s about changing behaviour,” she says. For this reason, this section of the exhibition also include examples like Kamikatsu, a zero-waste town in Japan.

Life from Light installation from Sony Design Centre Europe. Image courtesy of Felix Speller

“Empowering people to see how they can influence the world around them”

Opportunities for visitors to interact with the content of the show are provided throughout, largely through interactive touch screens. In Peak Waste, a large-scale waste tracker engages visitors to think about where their rubbish ends up by tracking different pieces across the world.

Meanwhile in Post Waste, visitors can explore food waste through the Bin Burger Project which allows them to flick through different meats, from beef to mealworm, and find out about their impact on the world.

Closing the exhibition is an interactive installation by the Sony Design Centre Europe. Aimed at showing how visitors can influence the environment – even with seemingly small gestures – it depicts a woodland complete with wild deer, mushrooms and trees. Using cameras, the installation animation moves and changes as visitors do.

“We hope it is a calming end to what we know is a very heavy subject, while also empowering people to see how they can influence the world around them,” Curtin says.

An infographic in Waste Age. Image courtesy of Felix Speller

“Toxic yellow, through blue to warm pink”

A conscious approach has been taken to material use in the exhibition. Material Cultures have used untreated and sustainably sourced wood throughout the show. Additionally, plinths are constructed using plain grey bricks, reused from previous exhibitions at the Design Museum. As they are not cemented together, they can be used again after Waste Age closes.

To create rooms within rooms and feature walls, the Material Cultures team has developed another kind of brick which does not need to be refired. As Curtin explains, this has significantly reduced the carbon footprint of the show.

The sustainable approach is extended to the signage and wall text. Spin creative director Tony Brook says that in order to avoid vinyl stickering, the 2D team developed an innovative method of printing directly onto the walls using hand-held inkjet printers, which themselves use water-based ink.

Spin was also responsible for Waste Age’s identity, which Brook explains uses a vivid colour palette of “toxic yellow through blue to warm pink”. These are juxtaposed with bold graphics and a typeface developed from “found materials”, which he says shows how waste can be imaginatively repurposed.

A look at the two types of bricks utilised in the exhibition. Image courtesy of Felix Speller

An environmental audit

The work of Spin and Material Cultures, as well as every other aspect of the exhibition – from the build itself, to sourcing the artefacts and the 11,000 emails involved behind the scenes – have been collated as part of an environmental audit conducted by Urge Collective. The results of this audit are displayed at the end of the exhibition.

Designers Sophie Thomas and Alexie Sommer, along with data analyst Ralf Waterfield have worked together on the audit and the presentation of results. Curtin says it will help the museum to communicate the environmental impact of the exhibition clearly, while also engaging participants, staff, designers and visitors in discussions on finding solutions to waste.

Thomas explains that sustainability is not a perfect science. Making decisions for the sustainability of one element can impact another. “Because we opted with Material Cultures to use wood for much of the structure, a huge part of the environmental impact of the exhibition came from the stainless steel screws needed to put it all together,” she says.

In total, the exhibition has so far produced around 10 tons of CO2.

Waste Age opens at the Design Museum on 23 October. More information, including details about tickets, can be found on the Design Museum website.

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