Recovery mission

Recover, reconstruct and rekindle should be the keywords for a new, more environmentally conscious decade, argues Sophie Thomas – it is high time that designers tackle these issues more comprehensively, fully integrating a Green approach into their standard practice

This year’s sustainability debates have focused on challenges in which design is a major player. Material scarcity and recovery, best practice, technological advances in production and convincing reluctant client teams are among those burning issues. Designers who concern themselves with them are putting themselves in pole position for future trends.

It’s all about materials. Resource scarcity and material security is becoming a big topic for science and the Government. According to chemist Dr Mike Pitts, since 1900 the UK has increased its consumption of consumables by 40 times. 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 CO2emissions in the process.

Take a mobile phone: our wish to upgrade to the next model is fuelled by tantalising ads and seductive designs. Would this be such a problem if we designed the phone 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. 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 needs. In 2005, more than $400m (£255m) worth of metals were locked away in unused mobile phones, according to Pitts.

We know that as designers we determine a big chunk of the impact and destination of our outputs. Nowadays, there are good examples of design processes in which recovery is maximised, but form and function are not sacrificed. To achieve this requires holistic, systematic thinking and probably a helpful chemist at hand.

Appreciating your raw materials is one half of the process – the other is understanding production cycles and reconfiguring them for optimum environmental efficiency. Innovation in sustainable technology is happening at such a fast rate that it is hard to keep up, but keep up we must, for new, sustainable technology requires knowledgeable designers.

Examples abound in the field of packaging. Nick Cliffe from Closed Loop plastics recycling plant knows of many, and reinforces the need to understand what is 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 (bioplastics).Many designers and clients now opt for a bioplastic bag. This is plastic with added degrader in the mix (usually titanium). But this plastic is getting into the recycling stream before the recycling infrastructure is ready, often resulting in contaminated batches.

Cliffe also cites the danger of confusing light-weighting with recyclability. For instance, if you move 2l 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 Cliffe are looking for ways to solve these new issues. ‘It would be interesting to work through the available sorting and reprocessing technologies, defining their limitations and strengths in order to give a tool to assess new ideas against. 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 that still feel radical and right. Designers need to reconnect with the people who use design – 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 to understand the bigger picture.

Design trends that use open-source and co-creation are breaking down many traditional barriers in design practice. New collectives and networks like the Useful Simple Trust and the Carrotworkers’ Collective are returning to alternative co-operative models that are not solely about financial gain, but also about wellbeing and passion. Associate models like Ten and Supergroup London reflect this sentiment, showing that competitors can now work as collaborators.

Recover, reconstruct and rekindle should be the three Rs for a new decade. 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 – just another tool or checklist and nothing worth shouting about.

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