Design for Planet: why waste is a “design flaw”


Designers need to consider how products are made, not just where they end up, according to designer Sophie Thomas.

To kick off the Design Council’s Design for Planet Festival, designer Sophie Thomas took the delegates on a very different tour. The Binn Ecopark, located about 45 minutes from the festival center at V&A Dundee, is not for the faint of heart or those with a fragile stomach.

The 62-acre site is touted as one of Scotland’s most progressive recycling and waste management operations. According to its owners, it is an “established and growing” circular economy, focused on renewable energy, resource management and eco-innovation. It stands on the site of the former Binn landfill, which was closed in 2014.

The magnitude of the problem

The trip to the ecopark was designed as a learning experience, says Thomas. Used to recycling plants, waste management centers and the like in her work as a founding member of Urge Collective, she says excursions like these help designers understand the scale of the problem at hand. Because, says Thomas, “waste is a design flaw”.

The magnitude of this defect is no better than at Binn Ecopark, where 200,000 tonnes of materials are processed each year. That number itself is staggering, but the experience – and the smell – is even more so. Along with an anaerobic digestion facility that processes 30,000 tonnes of local food waste per year, the site is a stopping point for mountains of other discarded materials – from plastics to glass, metal and wood .

While Binn’s recycling rate is around 90%, Thomas says the piles of mountainous material processed by the site are indicative of a problem: Not enough thought is given to how products are made. “I’ve never come across a case that asks designers to consider the third or fourth life of their product,” she says.

“We don’t think of products as the sum of their materials”

If this was a more common consideration or point of information, Thomas says many of the holes currently plaguing the UK’s recycling system could be plugged. “You would have to think about how you would recover the material from a product, its reuse first and foremost, and the purity of your materials,” she says.

Designers today are very product-oriented, says Thomas. It’s no surprise though, when aesthetics drive sales and many briefs are designed by marketing departments. “We don’t see products as the sum of their materials, but as their end goal,” she says. Thomas calls it the “eco-backpack” of a product.

A good example, she says, is an inexpensive toothbrush. Such a product can contain several different types of plastics, other fibers for the bristles, and sometimes even metal pins to hold it all together. Even a recycling plant as proficient as Binn’s wouldn’t be able to break down a toothbrush like this into its constituent parts, meaning the only place it could live its ‘second life’ is the landfill. .

A lack of prototyping

In addition to the external aesthetic pressure, Thomas is partly responsible for the fact that product designers are not making enough prototypes now. “I find that if they to do prototype, a lot of designers might make a small plan in a place like China, where they aren’t physically able to do it on their own, ”she said.

Hopefully, she continues, the legislation coming into force with the new environmental bill, which aims to pressure manufacturers and manufacturers to produce more environmentally friendly products, will help stem this problem. But Thomas says progress will be slow, not least because said manufacturers are likely to find it easier to work in their own silos rather than dealing with materiality as a whole.

Thomas hopes to collect ideas at Design for Planet to see how the situation can be improved and get things done. Unless you send all potential product designers to visit Binn or other similar sites, she says a design solution to this design problem is necessary and achievable.

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