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Recycling is Rubbish

A debate at the Victoria and Albert Museum probes the failings of recycling and considers the role of design in preserving scarce resources  

Just as we finally master the colour coding of wheelie bins, new research suggests recycling may not represent the environmental silver bullet once promised. After decades of campaigns promoting the cause, design industries and the general public must to prepare for a complete re-education on recycling.

This was the headline-message of the recent Make It Better debate at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Organised by Friends of the Earth as part of London Design Festival, the event’s speakers argued that for too long an over-simplified environmental discourse has focused on the wrong end of the consumption cycle. Instead the panel insisted a more nuanced engagement with the issues surrounding material consumption is required to alleviate our increasingly problematic resource scarcity.

Such as shift will have particular pertinence for the electronics and construction industries. Given their dependence on technological innovation and the ever-more exotic material science that underpins it they have the greatest interest in advancing better policies. Yet they also exhibit among the most wasteful practices only now are electronics manufacturers coming to realise that the design of their products often squanders the very materials they rely upon. A decade ago little thought was given to the indium required for standard glass coatings or the rare earths used for magnets but today the future availability of such substances is suddenly in question.

Sophie Thomas, co-director of the Royal Society of Arts, presented as part of her talk an alarming periodic table of ‘endangered elements’. Colour-coded to highlight the most ‘at risk’ resources, it clearly highlights increasing demand against declining availability. In light of this stark reality, the RSA has launched its Great Recovery Project – an initiative aimed at tackling these problems by fundamentally rethinking the way we design.

Circular Economy

A circular economy would instil a “cradle to cradle” philosophy in production methods

According to the RSA’s research, 80% of a product’s environmental costs are determined during its conception and design stage. Thus, Thomas’ ambition is to eliminate waste by chasing it up the design system arguing it’s far more effective to reduce waste from the outset than pursue its mitigation with recycling. Thomas spoke of the importance of instilling into designers a sense of holistic responsibility in their work beyond a brief’s completion. She argued that it’s only by means of such an integrated ‘cradle to cradle’ approach to design that recycling can play a truly effective role – It’s no good, for example, to choose recyclable plastics to create the different components of a toothbrush if their injection molded fabrication makes them impossible to separate. The Great Recovery Project is about eliminating such barriers by establishing a circular economy of connections between all parties in the product’s lifecycle.

Speaking to the other end of the supply chain was Ugo Vallauri, co-founder of the Restart Project, a charity dedicated to changing attitudes towards disposability. The organisation works to empower consumers (or ‘citizens’, as has become the less accusatory nomenclature) as an alternative to targeting industry. It’s a strategy that’s developed partly a consequence to the various recent environmental scandals involving large corporations. The well-publicised accusations leveled at Apple and other technology giants of designing in planned obsolescence, for example, have cast doubt over the sincerity of industry’s commitment to change so Vallauri and his team target the well-intentioned individual as the engine for waste reduction instead.

Many products are designed to appear unfixable. The combination of warning stickers and unusual screw heads is typically enough to prevent any amateur attempt at repair or repurposing. Vallauri hopes to change this by bringing together conscientious consumers and their troubled items with the right equipment and some encouraging assistance. The initiative aims to make the mechanics of design less mysterious and intimidating, and to work against the feeling of ‘psychological obsolescence’ that advertisers exploit to promote a profitable but inefficient upgrade culture.

While both Thomas and Vallauri’s honorable projects show impressive ingenuity towards the engagement of their target audiences, the speakers agreed that this is a problem is far bigger than any single initiative. According to Julian Kirby of Friends of the Earth, designers and manufacturers have reached a kind of stalemate with consumers. With each party waiting for the other to make the first move, the event’s concluding discussion focused on how best to collaboratively untangle this “eco-system” of problems.

Friends of the Earth take the straightforward position that far more state oversight is required. The British coalition government is known for its adversity to regulation but the growing geo-political dimension to supply pressures may be enough to galvanise some movement in the future.

The intricacies of these debates hugely complicate decision-making when making a purchase – is it better to buy an hybrid car now or keep your old inefficient banger going and avoid the energy and material costs of new production? The answer is almost never but shrewd marketers deploy environmentally friendly messaging effectively tricking the public into making uninformed choices. The most innovative chapter in the day’s discussion suggested that purchasing dilemas could be avoided by a shift to new ownership models. Although it might take an initial leap to get into the idea of renting a toaster or iPod, such alternative service models are one way of avoiding immoderate cost-cutting by manufacturers and challenging materialistic consumer demand.

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