Can design save us from the Waste Age?

‘We must face the problem of waste – we can no longer ignore what happens to things when we get rid of them. Instead of thinking of objects as things that have an end life, they can have many lives. This is not just an exhibition it is a campaign, and we all have an active part in our future.’

Gemma Curtin, Curator

This autumn (2021), the Design Museum in London is exhibiting ‘Waste Age: What can design do?’, a showcase of designers that reimagine waste, transforming the discards of society into creative and useful materials. From plastic to fashion to construction, trash becomes treasure in this thought-provoking (and at times rather smelly) exhibition.

Although it acknowledged systemic problems with waste, the exhibit did not explicitly critique the role of capitalism and growth as the perpetrators of unbridled waste creation. The aim of being a ‘campaign’ as described by its curator Gemma Curtin may be lost in its overreliance on branding and continued production for growth’s sake. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the exhibition hugely and feel inspired by the ingenuity and innovation presented through the installations.

At the entrance, a variety of illustrative statistics adorned the walls. One graphic depicted global waste generation by income. It highlighted that the upper-middle and high incomes generate two thirds of waste in the world. It is important to show that waste is the responsibility of richer nations and individuals, but I would have also liked to have seen the corporate version of this. How many companies are responsible for producing the most waste? High income earners may waste the most, but who is creating the products that can be wasted so easily to begin with?

A history of waste greeted us in one of the first exhibits. I was glad to see that here visitors were introduced to the business practice of ‘planned obsolescence’, whereby products are designed to wear out, break or need replacing regularly, so that companies can continue to sell them and make profits. The introduction claimed: ‘the economic model of deliberately wasteful consumption is no longer sustainable’. I would argue that it was never sustainable, but now it’s no longer acceptable.

There was unfortunately not much room for political nuance on the timeline. For example, it explained that the UK will implement a deposit return scheme for drinks containers in 2024, failing to mention that the scheme was meant to begin in 2023, but the government delayed and diluted the scheme with another consultation earlier this year due to industry lobbying. Moreover, Scotland has legislated to implement their deposit return scheme in 2022, ahead of the rest of the UK nations.

Food waste only featured a couple of times on the timeline, which is a testament to how recent the issue has been identified as a vast climate and resource problem, and how few campaigns have focused on it so far.

We winded round the exhibition and saw displays of new designs from the electronic, fashion, construction, and packaging industries. As my friend Saskia pointed out, it was quite brand-heavy with Sony, Stella McCartney and Adidas featuring prominently. Adidas showcased its ‘ocean trainer’, trainers made from recycled fishing waste, and boasted that since 2017, they have produced more than 25 million recycled trainers. That shocked me. All I could think of was ‘that’s too many trainers’. Why do we need so many trainers in the world?

Of course, what I was most interested in was the food waste section, and it did not disappoint.

Totomoxtle in the Design Museum

I immediately recognised Totomoxtle as an old favourite from the V&A Museum exhibition in 2019, a beautiful patchwork of tiles made from discarded corn husks. It was not alone in converting inedible food parts into products. Sunflower Power is a project by Atelier Luma, which uses the stems of sunflowers after their seeds are harvested. Usually regarded as waste, the stems and other organic parts of the plant are reproduced as alternative to synthetic insultation and cladding. The project is small-scale at the moment, as upscaling faces challenges like seasonality of the plant and lack of suitable storage facilities.

Image by Atelier Luma

Something I had never thought of before was the 7 million tonnes of shells that are discarded by the fishing industry every year. The vast majority of this will be abandoned along shores and coastlines or goes to landfill. Newtab-22 is a Seoul and London-based company that has developed the ‘Sea Stone’, a material that uses discarded seashells to create an environmentally friendly material. They have said they do not want to compete with concrete, as this will mean abandoning their manual process which currently does not require heat or chemical treatments. The material has so far been used to manufacture products such as decorative tiles, countertops, baseboards and vases.

Image by Newtab-22
Image by Newtab-22

From South Korea to India, where a research project of two people – Susmith, a product designer from Kerala (a province in the South of India) and Zuzana, a material researcher from Slovakia – founded Malai. Every day a small coconut processing unit in South India disposes of up to 4000 litres of ‘waste’ coconut water after they’ve harvested the white flesh. Normally the water would be released into the drainage system, which causes water pollution and acidification of the soil. Malai instead uses this coconut waste to feed a bacteria culture, which produces a leather-like material when combined with other natural resins and gums.

Image by Malai
Susmith and Zuzana
Image by Malai

The smelliest exhibit was ‘Calcareous Arabesque’, a sugar wall. During the sugar-refining process at Tate and Lyle, calcium carbonate and bagasse waste are made, and the designers turned it into a wall, or an ‘architectural wall prototype’. The complex form is made through self-generative computer designs. For indoor spaces, the ridges and material of the wall mean that the construction has thermal and acoustic properties, and for outdoor spaces, the wall offers infrastructure for plants and wildlife to thrive. However, as Saskia pointed out, who would want something so smelly in their house?

Calcareous Arabesque

Overall, at times I felt that the exhibit was justifying the production of waste. We will not reduce our waste without addressing the obsession of growth for growth’s sake. Designing materials from waste can monetise the waste stream and incentivise more waste generation; what we need to do is stop producing so much stuff in the first place.

But that is why I enjoyed the food waste section so much: we are always going to need food, and I loved seeing how inventive people from around the world were making useful material from the parts that are impossible to eat.

Published by foodwastestories

The first food waste magazine.

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