Sustainable: By Design

Significant progress is being made in waste reduction, reuse and recycling across much of the developed world. In the UK, the recycling rate of household waste has quadrupled since the turn of the millennium and we and many other EU member states are on track to hit 50% by 2020. However, there are some fundamental problems with how we recycle today…

In many cases the quality of inorganic materials (plastics, metals, glass) we recycle is diminished after each cycle due to contamination, effectively “down-cycling” them until they are landfilled, never to be recovered. Also, many of the materials we deem to be biodegradable are often contaminated with “safe levels” of toxic substances e.g. heavy metals in inks on paper. The world’s incumbent recycling systems may only be slowing down the irreversible leakage of valuable resources and toxins into the environment. In the fullness of time the result will be the same.

So what should we do differently? How can we protect the quantity and quality of our resources? How can we eliminate, not delay, long term pollution of air, food chains and water ways?

The answer is in sustainable design; by making recycling and reuse part of the product specification rather than an afterthought. Design products from the ground up so they can be easily dismantled into one of two types of materials: those that can be either be safely returned to the earth or materials which can be reused for the production of new products with no loss of quality, in an economically beneficial way.

Repairing clothes at a Cambridge Repair Cafe
Repairing clothes at a Cambridge Repair Cafe

Design products for disassembly and repair

Both Pringles and Lucozade’s packaging designs have been slated recently for being “recycling villains”. The reason for this is that although the component parts of the packaging are recyclable, they are bound together so tenaciously that the aluminium, cardboard and plastic cannot be easily separated for reuse. This approach, which extends from cars to sandals, ultimately sentences the materials to the landfill.

Creative design and careful selection of joining methods can remedy this problem. Love Your Footprint has applied this philosophy to footwear; their shoes can be dissembled so the soles can be easily replaced and the whole structure recycled at the end of their life. Additionally, many local communities are now running repair workshops for durables. Cambridge Carbon Footprint has a “repair café” in which volunteers trained in mechanics, electronics and software will repair faulty goods free of charge, saving them from the landfill.

Make consumables consumable

We can prevent the bio-accumulation of toxins in our environment (and ourselves) by being more careful and creative with what “ingredients” we put into disposable products and packaging. This can be achieved by finding substitutes for known contaminants in existing designs or by a complete redesign of the product to negate the need for the toxic chemicals. For example, in response to the well cited hazardous of plastic micro beads in toiletries, Liz Earle has developed a face wash which uses exfoliating jojoba seed wax as a substitute.

Make durables durable

Clearly we cannot live in world where everything is biodegradable and free of toxins. The development of robust engineering plastics, metals and textiles has solved many problems. We can keep using these valuable non-disposable materials by making products last longer and by adopting a service based model. When products reach the end of their useful (or emotional) life then they are returned to the manufacturer for disassembly and recycling. In return the customer receives a brand new product.

This approach is building momentum in the fashion sector where the natural lifecycle of products is short. Several companies (e.g. Le Tote ) are offering a “wear, return, repeat” fashion subscription service. It’s not hard to imagine a similar model for cars, furniture or children’s toys.

Develop substitutes

There are limits to the sustainable design approach. We are so locked into some products and processes which use toxic and un-recyclable materials that finding alternatives is extremely difficult, if not impossible. The by-products of nuclear fission are a prime example. To overcome these challenges we can develop new substitute materials and new processes to render the waste safe whilst in the meantime storing the waste, preventing it from leaking to the environment.

Articles and books surrounding the subject of sustainability tend to have a doomsday feel about them, but this does not need to be the case. Closing the loop on waste and resources is a solvable problem and can be achieved by sustainable design. Economically, sustainable design may seem uncompetitive. However consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the effect they are having on the environment and demand will inevitably increase, presenting a significant opportunity for forward thinking designers and entrepreneurs.

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James Westley is an Engineer at Cambridge Consultants Ltd.

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