Abandoned shared bikes in Xiamen, Fujian Province, PRC. Photo from Reuters

Design to Last: a reflection on waste

Design is and always have been, a complex field. In essence, it is a continuous process of decision making, using information from many sources to ensure that the decision is in fact the best choice in context to the constraints.

Industrial design as a branch of design, is very well connected and impacted by the industry. Changes in the industry such as trends, methods, fields and policies ultimately affect the decisions designers make.

As the industrial revolution kicked in to motion and mass production became worldwide trend, a problem emerged: goods are constantly produced, but people only need so many of them. This results in overproduction —too many products left unsold due to absence of demand. Of course, the industries soon found the solution: planned obsolescence.

Designed to (not) Last

Do we really need to switch our phones as often as we do? Poravute Siriphiroon / Shutterstock.com

Planned Obsolescence comes from a simple idea: if people don’t want new products, what if the product loses value over time so the user will have no choice but buy new products? This simple idea dates back from the 1920s, in the automobile industry. As the American market design began reaching saturation, General Motors decided to make an annual model-year design changes to convince car owners to buy a new replacement model, an it worked, as GM surpassed Ford sales in 1931 and would become a dominant player in the industry, and this tradition of annual redesigns of existing models are still prevalent in the form of facelifts.

A modern day example would be smartphones. Non-user-replaceable batteries have been the norm for most new smartphones, and for a reason. Most of the people who want a smartphone already has one, and manufacturers are struggling to convince existing owners to upgrade their phone. This is where batteries play their part, batteries degrade over use, and will eventually need to be replaced. This used to be an easy task, as most phones had a removable back-cover where the user can easily swap the old battery for a new one and extend the life of a phone. Today however, it is increasingly rare for a new phone to even have a back cover that can be opened, and opening the phone up requires several tools, a proper understanding of how to open it and making sure it didn’t break; problems that we didn’t use to face with the phones of old. This is in fact, one of the many tactics manufacturers use to urge us to buy a new phone, simply because it is far easier as a user to buy a new one than to fix it.

As a result of the need of constant designs, naturally the need for the role of designers grew as well. The mere idea of planned obsolescence is seemingly appealing, as new products are constantly pushed to be better than what they originally do to convince the customer that they need it. As designers, we’d be more than happy to improve what we have already designed, but have we stopped and taken in consideration what happens to products after we have designed them?

The Waste Makers

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an icon of modern waste mismanagement. Photo from The Brag

Tim Brown, in the documentary ‘Objectified’ (2009) noted “if one were really honest about one’s self, most of what you design ends up in a landfill somewhere... It really didn’t occur to me as a designer because perhaps it didn’t occur to us as a society.”

The disposable age is a term coined by many journalists to describe the normalization of these disposable products. Most consumers are now so acclimated to the process that they don’t even think about it. After all, advertising has taught us that new is good and that old isn’t. So, we spend, spend and spend some more. It has become a social norm for us to have so many objects and using them for such a short period of time, due to how much disposable products exists in our lives.

Plastic continues to be one of the largest contributors of waste. What seemed like a small plastic bag accumulates to become over 8 million tons drifting in seas worldwide. As plastic production increase significantly every year, waste mismanagement closely follows, as only 9% of plastic waste is recycled and around 12% is incinerated, the rest lie to endlessly drift in oceans and landfills around the world for hundreds of years to come, which will in turn threaten food safety and quality, human health, coastal tourism, and contributes to climate change. It is no longer permissible to ignore how much waste is circulating around the world, and how that waste will come back to haunt us.

Design with waste in mind

Becoming more sustainable, and in turn reduce waste, has became one of the major goals of design. Many people think that designing for a sustainable future is as simple as replacing our plastic products with wood, bamboo or some degradeable bioplastic, but it’s much more than that. Alice Rawsthorn stated “It’s no longer for designers to ignore the implication of producing more and more new things… Sustainibility is about redesigning every single aspect from sourcing material, to designing, to manufacturing, to shipping to the way it is used and disposed responsibly, so it’s no wonder why designers and manufacturers are finding it so difficult.”

Planned obsolescence might be a victim of their own ingenius, as customers are becoming more and more environmentally-aware, they are pushing designs to be more sustainable and green, not only that, the fact is that people disliked being tricked, cheated and or the thought of doing something out of their will. The world and society is shifting to a more sustainable, post-disposable society, and just like how designers brought the world into computers, the smartphone and the internet, designing the world into a more sustainable society is what every designer should aspire to do.

Volkspods, a motorcycle body made with the fenders of an old Volkswagen Beetle. Photo by Brent Walker

Upcycling, a process of transforming waste, useless or unwanted products into new products perceived to have value, is an example of a sustainable design that reconfigures the manufacturing process. It has seen significant growth worldwide as a reflection of an increased interest in eco-friendly products. Its massive growth in the US should be indicative of the future of sustainable design and how it can shift the current industry trends.

The Vessel Mug from creates a new system to reduce disposable coffee cup waste. Graphic from Vessel Works

Design can come in many forms, as how Vessel reduced the waste from disposable coffee cups with a mug with a system similar to a library, where subscribers “rent” stainless steel mugs for free and return it to coffee shops when they are finished. This system not only reduces waste and the impact on the environment, but also reduces spending for cafes that regularly stock on paper cups. Vessel shows that designing an object is no longer just designing how an object can last, but how it can be used in the bigger picture.

Take the metal straw. It seemingly was a great solution to replace plastic straws, but the environmental impact of it was far greater than a normal disposable straw, and the diminishing returns for it was far too great to warrant the replacement. The lack of well-designed system for people to continuously use the metal straw made what was a societal transformation to a mere fad, and ended up hurting the environment when trying to save it.

A wooden necklace i made using leftover wood found in my woodworking workshop.

Even in the educational field, things can be improved. How many prototypes do students make that ends up collecting dust, or thrown away? The design process itself can be made to be more sustainable and reduce waste, such as disposing unused or excess material made from experimenting to a recycling plant, or collecting them to be used in the future, a practice that has been done in the woodworking workshop of my campus, where a student may pick up unused and excess material for experimenting.

In the age of disposability, it’s very easy to think that when we throw our things away, we no longer have any connection to it as a product, that we have shifted our responsibility over it. As designers, it ultimately becomes our responsibility that what we create and produce will impact the environment we live in, and take that into consideration when designing our products.

Product Design Student from Indonesia — eternally stuck between knowing too little and wanting to learn more

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