By Kathleen O’Connor with sustainable innovation additions by Claire Attkisson
“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” – Jane Goodall
Let’s talk about plastic. As I glance around my home office, I notice it all around me: the various pens on my desk, the lens caps on my binoculars, my sparkly phone case, the leftover Lego bricks on the floor from my son’s impromptu building project, and in my laptop as I type. But, of course, a stroll down any aisle in your local grocery store will aptly show just how prolific plastic is.
Rising to popularity in the 1950s as “throw away” culture was beginning to take root with the creation of plastic plates, glasses, cutlery, and other products deemed disposable, global production today accounts for approximately 407 million tons of plastic annually. Plastics became the perfect tool to convince women from the “Rosie the Riveter” WWII era to come home, give men “their” jobs back, and fall in love with cleaning, cooking, and raising the kids. The plastic revolution made convenience synonymous with progress and the future. Remember, in the famous movie “The Graduate” the line: “I’ll give you one word, son, that will define your future: plastics.” What a cultural marketing campaign!
Plastic is everywhere.
Fast forward to today, and almost everything, it seems, is at least partially made of plastic. More than one million plastic bags are used every minute worldwide, with an average use time of around 15 minutes and a landfill decomposition rate ranging from 500 to 1,000 years. Americans alone throw away about 35 billion plastic water bottles annually. And as we’ve learned in the last decade, recycling is not the silver bullet solution to the plastic predicament we hoped it would be. Not all of our plastic is recyclable, and those plastics that are recycled eventually end up in the landfill or are incinerated anyway due to quality degradation during the recycling process. Most of these plastics can only be recycled once or twice, and recycling is often cost-prohibitive compared to producing new plastic.
In addition, The World Economic Forum estimates that 4-8% of annual global oil consumption is associated with plastics. Big oil is now scrambling to move its operations to even more plastic production as fossil fuel companies struggle to stay in business in the midst of the climate crisis. As if we could be duped again into thinking plastics aren’t made from fossil fuels. Or can we be?
Packaging is a considerable part of the plastics predicament. Though serving an essential purpose for the transport and quality of perishable food products, this benefit comes at a cost. In 2015, 42% of all plastic production was attributed to the packaging industry. Packaging contributes to more than half of all plastic waste globally.
Wait, let’s turn the story around
Convenience is pretty cool, right? What if instead of using chemicals and fossil fuels to create the Dixie Cup revolution, we had used natural, compostable materials that really could be “thrown away” or even eaten by the very fish and turtles that today are being suffocated by plastic? What if we designed our convenience packaging to actually be recycled and upcycled again and again? You see, the problem is not so much the idea of convenience, as it was how the Dixie Cup and so much more were designed that is the heart of the problem today.
According to architect and sustainability/circularity thought leader, William McDonough, “design is a signal of intention.” He further argues that “waste” and “pollution” are a consequence of bad design. Nearly 30% of all carbon released into the air come from our “stuff”; our clothing, chairs, bags, products and goods.
Important choices are made in the design stage.
Circular design is about changing the choices we make at the beginning of the design process. Designs also includes how people interact with goods and services and systems along their journey, such as with logistics, collection, and infrastructure systems. In the case of physical products, how different materials are combined and how easily they can be reused, repaired, refurbished, or disassembled is also decided at the design stage.
These crucial choices radiate across the entire design system, affecting sourcing, production, and how we use things. Importantly, they also determine ‘what happens next’ and what is possible after something has been used. Does it become waste? Or can it be part of a circular economy, where waste is designed out and materials are destined for one valuable application after another?
It’s hard to reverse the impacts of design decisions once they are implemented. Design decisions often lead to long-term investments that lock us into a certain model for years to come. As Radjou and Prabhu in their book Frugal Innovation argue, “over 70% of a product’s life-cycle costs and environmental footprint is determined during its design phase.”
Today, most of the materials we lose, and often after just one short use.
In industries such as fashion and plastic packaging more than 80% of all materials in our products and services are destined for landfill or incinerators, with a significant amount also leaking out of the system and into natural environments. They are part of a “take-make-waste model”. We take finite resources, use them only for a short period of time, after which they are lost from the economy. This is an enormous loss. We miss out on the opportunity to keep products and materials in circulation, and with it all the creativity, labor, and energy that went into them.
That’s why we need to adopt a fundamentally different approach in the way we create the products, services, and systems around us. We need to look ‘upstream’ to tackle the challenges we are facing — tackling them at the design stage rather than treating the symptoms of problems. We need to look at systems as a whole to understand how our creations fit into the bigger picture. And we need to have an inspiring vision and framework that can work in the long run to protect instead of harm, nature and ourselves.
Circular Design and the circular economy offer such a framework, built on the principles of eliminating waste and pollution from the outset, keeping products and materials in use at their highest value, and regenerating natural systems. Just like in nature, by design everything as food for something else — materials flow from one (life) form into the next. It is a model that can work for eons. Just like it has in nature for 3.8 billion years.
By decoupling economic activity from linear material flows, it is a model that goes beyond “doing less bad” (McDonough) to being one of regeneration.
Therefore, the more we create within the circular economy model, the better the results — for customers, businesses, society and all living things. It’s about designing better solutions for people and meeting needs within a regenerative system.
It’s easy to feel both inspired by circular design thinking and overwhelmed at the same time by the sea of plastic (pun intended), as it accumulates in our oceans and our landfills. But the good news is that how this story ends is yet to be determined. Our collective actions- what we buy (and don’t), how designers design and embrace circular principles, and businesses adopting zero tolerance for plastics in their supply chains, products, and – will have a significant and scalable impact on solving the problem.
Live Creative Studio launched the Durango Sustainable Business Guide featuring local, solution-based businesses that are address the many challenges our planet faces, including solving for plastic waste by redesigning their business models, products, and building in re-use systems.
WeFill Durango is one such business. Since its inception in 2018, WeFill has prevented approximately 31,935 plastic containers from landfills through its refilling station for household cleaning products, as well as for bath and beauty supplies. WeFill also provides alternative options to single-use plastic products, such as the bamboo travel cutlery set. One of these sets can eliminate the use of 1,625 plastic forks, knives, and spoons one uses throughout a lifetime.
Betty Bluebird Homemade is another Durango local business doing its part to promote sustainable practices by reducing plastic packaging in favor of reusable, recyclable, and compostable options. Betty Bluebird’s soy and beeswax candle products are all wrapped in reusable cloth napkins that can also serve as reusable wrapping paper. In addition, customers are given the option of receiving a discount on candle products when they return used candle jars, paper gift bags, packaging, and even old t-shirts and fabrics for reuse, thus providing a circular model for reducing waste.
Cura.te is also joining in to reduce plastic packaging by offering eco-friendly, plant-based alternatives to traditionally plastic-packaged products such as shampoo bars, toothpaste powders, dishwashing, and laundry soap.
These are just some of the 32 (and growing) local companies (with more highlights to come!) that are a part of the Durango Sustainable Business Guide, a one-stop shopping source for the conscientious consumer looking for more sustainable, earth-friendly options. Live Creative Studio is a sustainable business, marketing, and shopping hub. Our purpose is to empower shoppers and inform their spending choices through this guide and also through our global Sustainable Marketplace.
Sustainable innovations that eliminate the concept of waste, use non-toxic chemicals, and reuse existing materials to generate new ones are rapidly redesigning our world of every day things, even here in our hometown of Durango. And you can make a difference just by supporting these new innovations and businesses every time you shop.
Never doubt that your daily choices can make a difference.
- Stats taken from OurWorldinData.org
Live Creative Studio is a sustainable business, marketing, and shopping hub.