Sophie Thomas: There’s no such thing as waste

March 31, 2011
Author: Guest

10th birthday
What have the giant WEEE Man at
Eden and a citizens advice book from 1942 got in common? Designer Sophie Thomas reveals the answer. And reminds us that there really is no such thing as waste. 10th birthday

As a designer involved in the shaping of things, I remember being so excited to hear about the reclamation of a quarry in Cornwall for such a great project as Eden.

Back there for a design conference last month, sitting in the dappled shade of the WEEE Man, it certainly felt like a bright, re-purposed and creative place that inspires change. Eden seems to show us a glimpse of things as they could be.

WEEE Man at the Eden Project

I’m glad to see this giant robot, made of electronic waste, now residing here permanently to remind us about what happens to things when we’ve finished with them.

He set me thinking that we’re actually filling most of our holes in the ground not with more beautiful Eden Projects, but with a huge amount of landfill.

Electrical waste

He also reminded me of a book that my mum lent me. It’s a publication that all households were given in 1942 as a reference on how to live in times of rationing and the tight regulations of War.

Citizen Advice Notes

The most interesting section for me is around salvage; it was forbidden to use it paper for unnecessary advertising or to throw it away. That’s quite a leap to the 550,000 tonnes of direct marketing that gets landfilled every year in the UK.

Citizens Advice Notes

Even as new products begin their lives they’ve already used up a lot of the Earth’s resources and created a huge amount of waste, for example through their extraction from the earth, or their manufacturing.

It’s what environmentalists call an object’s ‘ecological rucksack’. For instance a gold ring weighing just 5g has around 2 tonnes of raw materials behind it and even a plastic disposable toothbrush has a rucksack of 1.5kg.

So many things around us are designed without thinking about how we can recover the valuable materials inside. For instance my disposable toothbrush is created by heat molding at least three different types of plastic together, making it impossible to recycle.

The materials that go into one toothbrush

Products tend to reach the end of their lives pretty quickly too. According to leading material scientists, 90% of the things we buy end up in the waste stream within six months.

Mixed waste in a landfill site

I’ve been to quite a few landfill and waste reclamation sites in the last few years, and the processing of waste (or ‘resource’ as it is now more accurately called) is making progress, but there is still a lot to do.

Taking London’s waste to the landfill and recovery site in Rainham by barge

That’s why today, as a designer, I’m working on how to get back all those useful materials embedded in my products and outcomes so we can use them again easily. This concept is inspired by nature and is called ‘cradle to cradle’ design.

By recovering the product’s pure raw materials from the waste stream as different ‘nutrients’, these precious resources are re-usable as something else in the future.

Autumn leaves

My industry is at a pivotal moment. We can sit back and shrug our shoulders, pushing the responsibilities back on to manufacturers and consumers or we take on the challenge ourselves, creating amazing things that help shift behaviour and shape the type of world we want to see.

Founding director of thomas.matthews, the UK pioneers in sustainable communication design, Sophie Thomas plays a vocal part in promoting sustainable thinking. She is also Co-founder of social enterprise Three Trees Don’t Make a Forest and of greengaged, an organisation that creates events and networks to encourage the debate around sustainable design.

Find out how Eden is following a Waste Neutral philosophy to reduce landfill and is working with the mining industry to help tackle the environmental impact of metals and minerals extraction.

Eden's 10th anniversary

Creativity, Design, Eden's 10th birthday, Recycling and waste, Sustainability
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2 responses to Sophie Thomas: There’s no such thing as waste

  1. Niamh says:

    Ah, the WEEE man is still there at Eden! I wasn’t sure if he had moved on somewhere else. Sophie your thoughts capture the stark reality of what we see working in the electrical recycling sector. Some households throw away perfectly good domestic appliances to buy new ones that suit the newly painted kitchen better. The impact is vast amounts of toxic waste heading for UK landfill sites, some of which is redirected for recycling and/or reuse by recycling companies and charities. As a society, we view most things as disposable, in contrast to previous generations. But it’s easier to change than people think!

  2. ersjad says:

    agree, always sustaiable design, eco design, and green design

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