Making obsolescence obsolete: design to reduce waste

Imagine throwing away 21,000 of these
Imagine throwing away 21,000 of these

Today’s post is by Maroussia Klep of the OECD Environment Directorate

Let’s be honest, waste reduction doesn’t have much of a ring to it. To many, it’s a complex policy issue without much hope if consumers keep throwing their cans away in the street. Yet, designers are taking a different view, looking at reducing waste from a business angle.

The amount of material being extracted and wasted today is scary. In recent decades, the high consumption levels in developed countries, combined with rapid industrialisation in emerging economies, have led to unprecedented levels of demand for raw materials. In just thirty years, the quantity of materials extracted for consumption has increased by 60%. Even more worrying is that a fifth of these materials end up as waste. This represents over 12 billion tonnes of waste per year; the equivalent in weight of more than 21,000 Airbus A380s. Considering that the global economy is expected to quadruple by 2050, and that the world population keeps increasing, one might wonder how, and for how long our planet will be able to keep providing supplies.

In this context, one solution to avoid a collapse of natural resources is to break the link between economic growth and material extraction. A number of OECD countries have already demonstrated that this works: they manage to increase production, while at the same time reducing resource exploitation. These efforts are conducive to a “circular economy” approach. This new model aims to move away from the traditional, linear economic model, under which materials are extracted, consumed, and finally thrown away. With a circular economy, old products are re-used and remanufactured into new ones for as long as possible in order to preserve existing resources and to minimise extraction. When products finally reach their end of life, material is recovered and fed back into the economy, instead of being discarded. If this approach is handled efficiently, the notion of waste could one day become obsolete!

Designers have an important role to play in supporting a circular economy. In addition to studying the aesthetic and practicality of a product, they now have to cope with the threat of resource scarcity, and to somehow create an opportunity from it. In order to encourage re-use and recycling of a product or parts of it, designers can make used products easy to disassemble for example. Think of the quantity of valuable material lost in your old phone abandoned in the cupboard! Designers can also promote the use of recyclable materials in production. In Japan, a green tea company changed the design of its bottles to make them thinner and transparent instead of green-coloured, which facilitated recycling, and reduced costs. The global fashion retailer H&M also jumped on board recently: a few months ago, they launched their first trousers and skirts made out of textiles fibres recycled from used clothing collected from consumers.

These examples show that good design can be good for business – by reducing the quantity of materials purchased and used in production – and, at the same time, diminish pressure on the environment.

Policy makers can encourage and support firms and designers in many ways. First, in order to make the most efficient use of materials, designers need data and guidance on the availability and recyclability of resources. OECD work on Sustainable Materials Management and on Material Flow Analysis support these efforts, by promulgating measures aimed at preventing and reducing waste generation and managing residues in an environmentally sound manner. In addition, policy makers can promote the use of certain materials by setting requirements for green public procurement and product standards. Instruments such as taxes and standards can also be used to encourage recycling and material recovery. Finally, policy makers should ensure the good functioning of recycling markets, and encourage the entry of efficient recycling operators in order to make it a profitable business.

Of course, recycling and re-use efforts are undermined if consumers treat nature like a big garbage dump. Not only continents but even our oceans are starting to resemble giant dustbins. Awareness campaigns and communication efforts towards consumers are thus essential for closing the loop, and require joint efforts by corporations and municipalities. Those are but a few examples whereby public bodies can stimulate efforts by the private sector on the preservation of resources.

We live in interesting times. The planet is being exploited as never before, and there is no sign that global consumption will stop rising. On the other hand, some new trends provide hope. Businesses are starting to worry about the shortage of critical resources and are joining efforts by policy makers to move towards a circular economy. Amidst this paradox, a new, unexpected actor comes on stage: designers. By connecting financial and environmental interests from the point of production, design has indeed the potential to help reduce much damaging waste.

Useful links

OECD work on resource productivity and waste

OECD work on green growth and sustainable development

Guest author

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