Recycling Futures

Why truly sustainable design cannot rely on recycling plastic

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Sustainable design, recycling and upcycling are popular words these days. As awareness grows, many companies are making an effort to regulate their production process and produce their materials in more efficient ways. Many scholars and activists try to find better solutions to the “climate crisis.” But it is worth questioning the idea of upcycling and so-called “sustainable” design. In my opinion, it is more illusion than solution.

The main elements of sustainable design can be broken down into three parts: materials & resources, production & systems, and consumption & use. What is often not taken into account, however, is the time needed to produce the resources and the time spent for the resolution of the materials. Raw materials take over 10,000 years to develop but are only used for a few years or even hours in the form of products. After disposal, the same products also take around 400 years to disappear from our planet. At the end of the process, what we have are products being burned using fossil fuels, CO2 emissions released and piles of rubbish created. While this a simplification of a process that  is more complex, we should not underestimate the obvious outcomes related to environmental impact.

I often say that sustainable design should be synchronized with the rhythm of nature. Atelier Luma’s current project Algae Platform, for example, is focused on the synchronization of design with nature, using algae to make a material that could substitute plastics. Biologists, designers and academics work on this project in order to develop the idea. Also, as rector of Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe (HfG), one of my main aims is to create a greenhouse and laboratory of the future in order to make meaningful changes, as happened in the Bauhaus era in Germany.

Bio-materials are becoming a new way of avoiding upcycling.
Products of Algae Platform, which researches new values for wetlands as incubators for locally grown bio-materials and builds an extensive network of scientists, engineers, farmers, makers and artists, researching the potentials of algae. Photo © Victor Picon

Furthermore, sustainable design should involve circular processes and flow into the circular economy. In other words, products and raw materials should be reused naturally. When it comes to consumption, people should increasingly place emphasis on a “healthy design” and carry out a kind of health check. That is to say, our behaviors should be reflecting whether what we consume is not only good for ourselves but also good for our neighborhood, for our city or for the region. Such reflections would lead us to become more aware of the consequences of our consumption and to change our behavior. For example, switching to public transport or taking a bike. We would behave and move differently if we are aware enough of what is going wrong in today’s world.

Last but not least, an intelligent life cycle of materials should be at the core of  sustainable design. Many high-quality plastic products can survive for generations, and can even be repaired and reused. I am not against plastic per se, but against inferior plastic products. Low-quality, mass-produced plastic products from large furnishing companies give the illusion that they will last a lifetime but become obsolete after a few years of use. At the end of the day, it is society that pays for that. Products are cheap but we pay an immense environmental cost.

All in all, I have found that the upcycling process is similar to that of low-quality materials because recycled plastic will inevitably be of lower quality than the original material. The approach to recycling plastic is wrong because the original quality can never be achieved. The decomposition of molecules and associated emissions inevitably reduce the quality. Recycling plastic cannot be compared, to say, recycling  metal or aluminium. The processes required for this level of efficiency do not currently exist and probably never will.

Main image: Algae Lab is a biolaboratory set up in collaboration with Studio Klarenbeek & Dros in order to explore the potential of growing micro and macroalgae locally. Photo © Joana Luz


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