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A Revolution By Design for a Zero-Waste Economy

By Marcus Eriksen

Plastic bottles

Feeling confident that rolling your filled recyclables toter to the curb makes a difference? Curb your enthusiasm. It turns out that tons of the recyclables we think are getting processed into reusable materials are actually dumped in landfills, not recycling facilities. China’s ban on imported recyclable waste from our country and others only adds insult to injury. What do we do with all this waste? Especially when most of the plastics continue to pollute the oceans? In this excerpt from Marcus Eriksen’s Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution, he shows how we need to completely rethink the way our goods are manufactured so that, in the long run, they’re made for a zero-waste economy.


On the table were familiar objects from Kamilo Beach, Hawaii: degraded toys, bottles and caps, glow sticks, small net floats, and pieces of crates with Chinese characters on them, arranged in glass cases like museum artifacts. “Do you know this place?” Sophie asked.

“Yeah, we’ve been there a few times,” I replied, taking a moment to look at the broken toys encrusted with byrozoans from months or years at sea. Sophie Thomas is a circular-economy design engineer and former director of the Great Recovery, based in the United Kingdom. She’s brought these plastics here to spark conversations about design.

We were in Brussels at PolyTalk 2016, sponsored by Plastics Europe, the largest trade group of plastic producers in the European Union, akin to the American Chemistry Council in the United States. Surprisingly, the group invited its critics to the table to talk trash.

Earlier that day, when I was on a panel, I had walked center stage and unveiled the forty-five-pound camel gastrolith from Dubai, announcing, “Here’s the result of poor design.” I heard gasps as I lifted it above my head. “And without good legislative policy to eliminate these design failures, we’re not giving smarter alternatives a level playing field to compete,” I added.

Sophie was in the audience. Later, I asked, “So, how do you suppose you would solve this issue?”

“Plastic pollution is really the result of an upstream design problem,” she replied. While managing the Great Recovery, she took students to London’s landfill and to old Cornish tin mines, and hosted “tear-down” events, deconstructing everyday items from washing machines to radios, bras, pens, and oil rigs to see how they’re made and how they could be made better. One shoe may include metal, wood, leather, cardboard, PVC, textile, and rubber, all fused with an indestructible glue; a laptop may have more than a hundred chemical components sourced from more than ten countries. “We’re not designing for material recovery after its second or third life,” she said.

I think back to when I was in the Marines and we learned to disassemble an M16 in sixty seconds, an ability drilled into our heads with daily repetition. How long would it take to disassemble an iPhone?

Sophie explained how her team of design students had salvaged from a landfill a perfectly good sofa that couldn’t be legally resold by charity organizations because the fire-safety tag had been ripped off. “That’s a design problem,” she said. “Just stamp it on the fabric.” They deconstructed that sofa in two hours, separating the poly-cotton cover from the foam stuffing, the plastic webbing from the felt padding, the polyester wadding from the cardboard support, the metal clips from the steel springs, and the burlap underlayer from the plywood frame and staples. “The labor alone cost more than the value of materials that could be salvaged,” she said, “so unwittingly, it’s designed for waste.”

I looked down at her Kamilo Beach display. “So, you would design each of these differently?” I said. She’d set up her exhibit in the foyer outside the conference hall. She’s smartly dressed, wears her blond hair pulled back, and has blue eyes. I could imagine her scrambling across the beach collecting junk washed ashore, as Anna and I have done, or knee-deep in a landfill with her students, excavating appliances and pointing out design flaws.

“Design for longevity and fixability, leasing over ownership, reuse before recycling, and make things easy to dismantle. That’s good design,” she replied. “We urgently need all designers to visit end-of-life facilities so they can see for themselves how their design choice is the difference between ‘waste’ or ‘material resource.’ You’ve got to plan for the endgame.”

“But don’t those ideas fly in the face of planned obsolescence?” I asked.

“The problem now is that you have other kinds of planned obsolescence: technological as new software and upgrades overwhelm old hardware, psychological obsolescence due to fashion (‘pink is the new blue’), and conventional design weakness, to perpetuate needing the newest, latest model,” she replied.

Planned obsolescence drives cheap-as-possible chemistry and design, deflecting responsibility for material management and waste to the public sector. When waste-to-energy seems to be the collective corporate end-of-life plan, incentives to achieve a circular economy are undermined.

Months after PolyTalk, I asked Rob Boogaard of Interface, Inc., about planned obsolescence. He explained that Interface’s carpet squares last fifteen years, after which the company takes them back, but it’s the fashion sense of architects that shortens their life considerably (same for clothing, as “transitional fashion” creates mountain of microfiber waste from synthetic textiles). “Our carpet square concept allows customers to replace the worn-out places, rather than tear up the whole room,” he said, suggesting that service can replace sales, lengthening the life and deferring the obsolescence of products.

Boogaard went on to explain the importance of understanding the entire process, such as the methods of raw-material extraction, the environmental persistence and health effects of the chemistry used, the carbon footprint of transporting parts for assembly and sale, and the social justice implications along the way, such as providing workers fair wages and health care. To reduce these life-cycle impacts, Interface sources some nylon from recovered fishing nets and has a take-back program for its old carpet squares. One Interface factory in the Netherlands is operating with 100 percent renewable energy, uses virtually zero water in manufacturing processes, and has attained zero waste to landfill.

Sophie noted, “I would pass one piece of legislation that would require all product-design plans to include a second- and third-life use. In the second-life plan, you’re asking yourself, ‘How can I make it last a long while and set up a system of reuse and recovery to get it back?’ In the third life you design for maximum material value, keeping it as high as possible because if you downgrade (like mixed or inseparable materials, or complicated disassembly) you make trash,” she said. “It’s not about being more sustainable, it’s about focusing on what the product does and how can this service be delivered more effectively.” Instead of focusing on selling light bulbs, cars, and mattresses, thinking must shift to how better to provide light, transportation, and comfortable sleep. The profit comes from meeting a customer’s need over time, instead of putting all of your effort and profit into the sale of stuff that’s designed for uselessness over time. In this way, the producer manages the material flow, planning for recovery, whether leasing cars or carpet tiles.


About the Author 

Marcus Eriksen is the cofounder and director of research for the 5 Gyres Institute, with firsthand experience from more than twenty ocean-crossing expeditions, and he has written and published research on the impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. He is the author of My River Home: A Journey from the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico and Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution. Visit his website.