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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.