Image: Edward Burtynsky’s photograph of a Kuwaiti landfill site. The yard has more than seven million tyres.
Cult rubbish exists. It started in Brittany in the 1980s. For three decades, in caves along the Iroise coast in France, beachgoers would find the same bright orange remains: an intestinal coil, an eyeless face, a set of paws. It was not until 2019 that it was confirmed that these mysterious items were in fact the cable, telephone seat and receiver of novelty Garfield phones marketed in the 1980s as “real phones for real fun”, after a shipping container transporting them had sunk. At the time, their manufacturer, Tyco, had a reasonable expectation that thousands of people would buy a telephone shaped like a cartoon, lasagna-eating cat. It’s unlikely that the teenagers who bought the sets which did arrive safely use them to this day while in their sixties. The dismembered Garfields are relics of our love of crap. And we really do love it. This much was made clear by the Design Museum’s fantastic Waste Age exhibition.
Major historical events can be characterised by the rubbish they generate. Surgical masks, lateral flow swab wrappers, even actually positive COVID tests now litter the streets. Rubbish is not so much culture itself, but what happens as a consequence of it, and moving towards a post-waste age needs to imagine reform on every level of the supply chain. To tackle trash, it’s not just about how we dispose of things; it’s about what things are made, when we buy them, how we use them, and then how we replace them. Despite the zealous recycling drives of the early 2000s, 60% of household waste still goes to landfill in EU countries and average material footprints are growing. What Waste Age demonstrates is that recycling treats the symptom, not the disorder.
Planned obsolescence is the strategy by which manufacturers deliberately design products which prematurely fail or become out-of-date. It’s illegal in some countries. Apple and Samsung are being fined €10m and €5m respectively in Italy for their “built–to–break” smartphones. Old electrical appliances, or e-waste, are becoming the fastest growing component of the waste stream. Looking around my kitchen, I am reminded that in the last year, I have replaced my toaster, kettle and washing machine. I did not do this to eat state-of-the-art–toast. In 2016, the Daily Mail ran a story about the Queen Mother’s fridge turning 62 years old (images obtained by the Daily Mail showed the Queen Mother’s fridge to contain two types of mayonnaise, a Bonne-Maman jam jar filled with an unidentified white substance and thirteen bottles of wine). Apparently, people used to inherit fridges from their parents. Nowadays, everything breaks because it is built to. And every minute, a garbage truck’s worth of rubbish is dumped into the ocean. Waste Age looks to innovation in design for the answer.
It’s not just about the greenhouse gas emissions generated in waste disposal; there physically are not enough raw materials to keep making all our stuff. Right now, the Earth needs one year and eight months to regenerate what we use in a year. To kickstart the circular economy, products must be designed with a view to their reuse. To curb this, for example, the exhibition suggests that materials for component parts should be selected based on their potential for reusability, and colour-coded according to potential usage to direct their disassembly.
At the United Nation Environment Assembly in Nairobi at the beginning of this month, there was an emphasis, particuarly from the EU, on the need for a legally binding agreement that looks at all stages of the plastics life cycle from product design to waste. Currently, there are no standards or goals monitoring frameworks in place to monitor plastic pollution. And as things stand, it has been estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.
The Right to Repair movement is growing in Europe. The movement demands that design practices support ease of disassembly and replacement. They demand that the legal framework giving access to spare parts and repair information should be set in national registries which are fair and inclusive, and independent from manufacturers. Germany’s traffic-light coalition has just committed to issuing these directives to manufacturers. The EU are set to announce its Sustainable Product Initiative on 30 March which will require companies placing products on the EU market to consider resource efficiency, contributing to a circular economy.
To welcome innovation in product design, many of our societal habits will need a second look. Asking consumers to return old products rather than disposing of them, or to repair rather than buy new would entail a considerable behavioural shift. The messaging used to bring us out of the “waste age” is important. In the 1950s, it was disposability which was the innovation. Adverts from that time show throw-away cups and tableware as the must-have for every glamorous housewife. A cutting from an American tabloid wrote that the disposable diaper was seriously suggested as a factor in the rise of the US birth rate. Whilst a return to a pre-Pampers society seems unlikely, it’s worth considering how to make “post-waste” chic. The museum’s chief curator Justin McGuirk writes that “aesthetic sensibilities may have to adapt. After nearly a century of appreciating the hard-smooth-shiny perfection of plastics, we may begin to embrace irregularity, imperfection, decay and decomposition.” The products displayed at the end of the exhibit ranged from fabric dyed with soil-growing bacteria, to a 3D printed chair made from old fridges, to fishing rope spun from human hair. On the wall, there is a quote from American architect R. Buckminster fuller: “Pollution is nothing but resources we’re not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”
The emerging ingenuity in the design field was dazzling, but it was hard to imagine how these products from top-end designers like Stella McCartney, Phoebe English and Adidas could be manufactured at scale, or how circular economic practices could catch up with the demands of current consumption. The singular prototypes on display felt gimmicky when set against the vast tyre yard captured by Canadian photographer Edward Burynsky printed above. The longer you look at the photograph, the farther the tyre yard seems to sprawl. It has been predicted that by 2050 the sea will contain more plastic than fish. Designers are doing their part, and there is a decent amount of good intention on the part of the public, but policymakers and businesses – particularly big tech – have got to pull their weight.