Both as a designer and a private person, I tend to abhor inefficiency and always seek out the simplest solution. These two tenets typically dovetail nicely—and in truth seem to stem from the same instinctive draw toward clarity and restraint—but when the resulting habits and tendencies are viewed under the ‘sustainability microscope,’ an array of conflicts can arise.
To be efficient is to use the least input to create the most output while expending the least energy and producing the least wasteful output (in development of a product, or any other pursuit). Thus, my dedication to efficiency coincides neatly with my newly stoked commitment to minimizing the environmental impacts of my personal and professional waste.
However, my preference for the ‘simplest’ solutions often really means a tendency to the most time-efficient answers on my personal timescale. Recent learnings have forced me to confront that what may be the quickest for me personally may in fact contribute to a larger process that is incredibly inefficient, occurring on a non-sustainable, geologic timescale.
For years, I have packed my own lunch each morning before work. It typically consists of a sandwich and apple. The sandwich is wrapped in Saran wrap, and the whole meal housed in a reused plastic bag from my grocery store. When I finish my lunch, both plastic pieces go into the trash bin. (At my old office, the waste management company allegedly sorted out recyclables, so I could assume in ignorant bliss that these would make it to the right place.) On our recent trip to the Sims Municipal Recycling Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, I learned a great deal about the industry of city-scale recycling—and about the fate of my discarded cling wrap and grocery bags.
Thin plastic bags and films are extremely difficult to recycle, as the additional labor cost required to sort and clean these small (and often very dirty, by the time they reach the processing plant) bags greatly outweighs the cost of creating new ones instead. So, even though they have minimal color added to them (old dyed plastic is even harder to find recycling buyers for, as it can never be un-dyed), they almost always find their way into a landfill—not a new plastic product.
Sims still collects and bales plastic grocery bags rather than sending them straight to the landfill, as they get such an enormous volume of the bags each day, but Sims typically struggles to find a buyer. Only Chinese companies are willing to pay the shipping costs to import these bales, as Chinese labor costs are low enough that they can affordably clean and deconstruct the old bags. These companies are only able to use this low-grade plastic to create more of the same type of plastic grocery bags, so they are essentially delaying the inevitable trajectory toward landfill.
In order to minimize the negative impact my life and work have on the environment, I must expand the scope of my ‘efficiency consideration’ to encompass a greater timescale than my own. Additionally, I must broaden my understanding of the materials I use on a recurring basis to know where they come from and where they go when I’ve finished with them. Armed with greater knowledge and a broader perspective, I will be empowered to make more conscientious decisions around what I use and how I use it.
Some of the solutions will be challenging, but some may be surprisingly simple. For instance, did you know that tin foil and brown paper bags are infinitely more recyclable than their plastic counterparts? Because I do now. And I have the power to change my behavior for the better.