"If a product wasn’t designed to become garbage, what could it be?"
I love the possibilities presented by garbage. I often ask myself the question, if a product wasn’t designed to become garbage, what could it be?
Most products are designed to become part of a landfill at the end of their useful time, a Heap, slowly settling over time and releasing various gasses and fluids. Or maybe incinerated to provide some electrons to power up a lightbulb or laptop somewhere. We are getting better at recycling (recycling rate in the US was 34.5% in 2012 according to the EPA) but we lack the collection infrastructure and demand to reuse this material well.
What if we designed a product with its next use in mind? That is the question that leaves me scanning the Heap for inspiration. Of course, once we are staring at the Heap, we have foregone an array of opportunities already. We take landfills as a given and think that our biggest challenge is to figure out what to do with them. But this does not address the real source of the problem.
Landfills are cast in a new role as man-made resource deposits.
We can siphon off the gases emanating from the Heap, and melt down an assortment of plastics, and fish out the metals with magnets. The electronics and other mashups? We can grind them up to tease out some valuable minerals. Landfills are cast in a new role as man-made resource deposits, an idea that is gaining some traction as natural resources become marginally more expensive to exploit.
Many are taking this type of resourcefulness to new levels, undertaking novel methods of extracting value from this existing garbage stream, turning electronics discards and digested organics into new durable material streams.
What if we started the inquiry before we had our defining possessions?
Once we begin to address the Heap at its inception, as a host of product designs that are to improve the way we live by keeping food from spoiling, furnishing our work spaces and homes, providing shelter, helping us learn, clothing us, etc., we begin to introduce new design questions. What will this product be when it is done being what it is? How will it affect people and the planet? What will the user do with the product once they’re done with it?
This is where the truly exciting concepts of Cradle to Cradle design, Green Chemistry, Biomimicry, Circular Economy, and Industrial Ecology (amongst others) come together to form the fundamental basis from which businesses and products must be built if we, as a society, an economy, and an ecosystem are to thrive and prosper.
By Ben Bezark is Certification Manager at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, and lifetime garbage enthusiast.