Written for the Guardians new Resource Efficiency Hub, Great Recovery project leader Sophie Thomas explores how waste is a design flaw, and how we need to rethink products to ensure fewer end up on the mountain of e-waste.
Six months in and The Great Recovery programme, run by the design team within the RSA’s Action and Research Centre has begun in earnest. Our investigation into new design methodologies for a circular economy has thrown up some big very complex challenges. Trying to consider the re-design of even a fraction of the 600 million tonnes of products consumed in the UK is a pretty daunting task.
We are a linear nation with only 19% of the materials in those products being recovered and re-used in the UK. Our current best practice for recycling electronics is to sort, crush then export to somewhere else to refine. Of the 40 odd elements in the ingredients list for each of appliances even the best recovery facilities in the EU can only recover at best 16. 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-waste mountain. The answer lies in the re-design of the ‘material to manufacturer to consumer’ system and making it circular.
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 the reason why we bring together designers, technologists, chemists, waste experts, manufacturers and businesses to face the mountain is clear. The material recovery path must lead the design process and this process must be co-created by all those that are part of the supply and recovery chain.
Our investigation has focused on re-imagining products by looking at their material flow cycles; taking emphasis off the product itself which, you could say ‘borrows’ materials for a period of time shaped into a form before ideally releasing them back into the cycle at the end of the product’s life.
We do not currently design or manufacture like this. This becomes obvious when you take these objects apart and try to split out the ingredients. Toothbrushes, disposable coffee cups, books, TVs, houses; all designed and manufactured with endless lists of materials that are moulded and fused together by machines on efficient production lines, but in the process making them impossible to disassemble so that materials can be recovered.
Our workshop participants swapped their studios and offices for rooms that overlooked enormous waste mountains deep inside packaging recycling plants, textile sorting centres and electronic waste recovery facilities. We spent days in engine re-manufacturing factories, material science laboratories and went down a disused tin mine in Cornwall. These places were physical demonstrations of the potential value in resource and the current best, but by far complete, practice of recovery. Those that came to the workshops walked away with a new sense of reality that came to be known the ‘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, launched to much fanfare a year ago that now sits in the 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 piles of raw material (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 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 could 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 must be taken out by hand before they can be put through the crusher. Some models have over 250 screws requiring 15 different screwdrivers to undo 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 are 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. Some things become ridiculous – 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; some things become opportunity – a laptop is for life and is fixable, upgradable and eventually will be sent back to the manufacturer for dissassembly and re-use, but everything seems to need re-designing.
The Great Recovery is supported by the Technology Strategy Board that is funding 50 feasibility studies selected through their competition on re-designing for closed loop systems. www.greatrecovery.org.uk
 Design Council
“People are being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about” Tim Jackson, TED
I have been watching a series of films made by the Culture, Materials & Design Anthropology students at UCL for a brief set by The Great Recovery around people’s personal ‘stuff’.
Their footage follows a middle aged married couple in their home in South London (above) juxtaposed with another film of a young professional living in a newly built shared apartment in Notting Hill. The students were quizzing the inhabitants about their possessions. The shot pans around the house in South London, which is piled high with stuff; intricately carved wooden heads from Africa, stuffed toy animals, audio equipment with its vast quantity of snaking wires, CDs, books and trinkets. Kitchen drawers opened exposing a myriad of objects deemed ‘too useful’ to throw away. One of the couple starts to talk: “I don’t have anything in my house that is not useful to me, I don’t like objects that have no particular function”.
In the second film we pan around the stark white walled room belonging to a young advertising professional. Objects have been carefully curated on the shelves; an unopened beer can; a bottle of whiskey; a vintage camera. All these objects relate to specific moments, reflecting history through their creases and scuffs, and held in a personal space. A stark contradiction when we pan through to the small shared kitchen where chaos rules. Piles of food packaging flows from the bins and the shared fridge is smaller than a bathroom cabinet.
Watching these films made me realise three things:
1. The way I define usefulness is not universal.
I could see no intrinsic use in most of the stuff that populated the first house – but the couple who lived there clearly did. As a designer this is a very interesting concept. Can a trinket carrying personal memories be deemed useful? People’s possessions are testimonies to their history and not everything has to be practical. We seem to be very good at building attachment to our objects. We like to customize our things, and we define ourselves through the brands we have around us. Brands use this desire to build entire campaigns enticing us to identify with their lifestyle and therefore buy whatever they are selling – its clever stuff.
2. Many newly built houses are not fit for purpose.
The 3-bedroom apartment in Notting Hill was a new development. It’s built-in kitchen was not, it seemed, designed to cook in; its fridge was so small it had no room for fresh vegetables and and there was a tiny amount of preparation space on the counters.
RIBA’s report ‘The Case for Space: The Size of England’s new homes‘ highlights that the average 1 bedroom home newly built in the UK is 4sqm short of the recommended minimum size. It puts this into perspective by relating it to our use of space; 4 sqm is enough to work at home on a computer comfortably or ample room for a single bed with a bedside table and a dressing table with a stool. 57% of the people they surveyed said they did not have enough storage for their possessions and 35% said they did not have enough space for their kitchen appliances.
3. Designers can’t predict the user experience.
Finally, the question I had posed to the students was giving different answers to that which I had expected. I had asked them to observe people’s disposal habits, but the films clearly showed how bad we seem to be at this, generally keeping things for as long as possible to the point where we border on hoarding. In fact the UK is seeing a rise in extreme hoarding and we now have dedicated helplines for those that suffer.
Even though I am nowhere near extreme, I have a clutter drawer where all manner of things are shoved out of sight. Things I don’t know where to put but can’t yet face to throw away end up there. It’s where my old mobile phones live side by side with forgotten plastic toys from kid’s party bags, old batteries and pens that no longer work. When I open this drawer I despair in the same way one woman in the films despaired when she went up into her loft and saw the boxes of unopened possessions still carefully packed from a move two years ago. It was so much easier to close the door and walk away.
Our hoarding habits are beginning to become an issue: We are squirreling away valuable resources. Research done by Hallam University as part of their ‘What’s in my stuff‘ project estimates that the UK have over 85 million old mobile phones stuffed into those drawers. We pull out excuses that we don’t know where to send them, still hold useful addresses/pictures/fond memories in them or keep them for our kids to play with. Each phone is made of approximately 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)
Our clutter drawers are filling up fast. It seems it much easier to design things without talking to the people who have to live with the stuff and eventually dispose of it and with little or no consideration as to where our finished products will end up: re-used, recovered or landfilled once we as consumers are finished with them.
Incredibly the design industry still seems unable to fully understand the subsequent impact of design decisions. In an age where the rising cost of resource and increasing nervousness around security of supply of these raw materials is affecting business decisions and where 80% of the environmental impact of products is pre-determined at concept design stage this surely needs attention.
By Sophie Thomas, Co-Director of Design, RSA
With thanks to MA Culture, Materials & Design, UCL