Recycling Opportunities as a Designer

Waste is a topic I tend to fret over regularly. Its a big problem and I’ve always felt helpless about the idea especially as a designer who contributes to plastic products for a living. My initial perception was that our behaviour as consumers and our cultural values were at the core of this problem. For the most part, this is still true. We are creatures of habit, but also creatures of convenience. What ever method of use and disposal requires the least amount of effort or time is inevitably the method that becomes the norm. Especially in our fast paced world, we have no time for dealing with the problem. Our waste has no value to us so we throw it away and further separate ourselves from the consequences. We believe that someone will take care of the waste just as long as we put our garbage in the right container. Still, the piles of garbage and toxicity continue to pile up. Our current approach to waste management is ineffective. Private recycling facilities have made incredible leaps in this process by reselling plastics, glass and paper to third parties in order to make new products, but the majority of our waste ultimately ends up compressed in a deoxygenated landfill incapable of decomposition. In visiting a waste management facility for the first time, I’ve uncovered many insights about how our waste is processed and the several ways in which designers can have a positive impact.

New York is unique in the sense that the city is filled with so many high rise buildings with numerous occupants. In most places, we are able to track which building is contributing the most waste, ie. who’s recycling and who’s not. There’s a sense of accountability, but here, it’s difficult to hold individuals accountable because they are impossible to track. That anonymity is an excuse to be lazy and laziness leads to  improper waste disposal. This is an area where designers can step in. I believe it’s possible to design for accountability, just like it’s possible to design for ownership or material status. Further, we’re approaching an age of total transparency and data accumulation. I believe it is possible, and necessary, to design such a system.

Amazon has one of the most sophisticated logistics operations in the world. They are able to track every package and assign products to users, recommending their next purchase. Why can’t we track and monitor the entire lifecycle of a product including the collection at the end of its life? Over time, each consumer would be assigned a score and that score could work to your advantage or disadvantage in buying your next product. People who accumulate a record of improper disposal or excessive waste could be charged with a waste tax on their future purchases. Consumers would be incentivized to bring down their score in order to save money and protect their image. The infrastructure is readily available, we need to design how it can be profitable and usable.

Another, less complex opportunity for design is in how packaging is produced. I was surprised to find out that small plastic containers under 2 inches in diameter don’t get recycled at all, regardless of what material is used. The most common case was sauce containers, but I could only imagine things like straws or sample cups getting the same treatment. As designers, we could use effective packaging design to incorporate these insights and build containers that serve multiple purposes.