We Need To Design Life Cycle-Conscious Products
An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year. At this rate, there is more plastic in the ocean than there are stars in the milky way. Globally, 2.12 billion tons of waste are produced every year and 99 percent of it was tossed after only six months of use. The world is running out of room for waste and its negative impacts are being exponentially felt. Despite the effort and resources that go into creating products, very few are designed to be reused or recycled. The aesthetics, ergonomics, and branding are all major components that go into products design, yet the entire life cycle of a product is rarely considered as it’s being developed. Design is involved in the supply chains needed to create a product as well as in the business models that deliver it. Design influences the materials used, the wrapping required, and how It gets shipped and delivered.
The current linear economy and “take-make-waste” system that is in place allows for products to generally be discarded after a single use. Some items are even designed to last as little as possible for reasons regarding convenience, cost, or hygiene. However, this approach overlooks major issues we face today like resource scarcity, pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. Not only are materials being wasted, but it is also a waste of the embedded energy, resources, labour, and social and cultural value of creativity. Within this system, most goods that are purchased are not returned for further use, resulting in a significant economic loss that amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars. Additionally, it enables poor industry practices such as exposure to hazardous substances and unsafe working conditions.
While efforts are underway to minimize the amount of materials and resources used to create products, the proper systems have to be in place as well to address end-of-life issues. Swapping plastic packing for a flexible film container may reduce fossil fuel consumption, waste, and production costs as it uses less plastic and is lighter to transport, and in turn reduces CO2 emissions. However, it overlooks the entire life cycle as the film is not widely recycled and will then once again become waste in our oceans or landfills. As the Ellen Macarthur Foundation explains, “Without considering overall system effectiveness, design tweaks which prioritise efficiency can even have unintended detrimental effects […] Rebound effects of design decisions can mean that what is gained on one hand, is lost on the other.”
Other efforts have included using waste as a resource, such as turning water bottles into clothing or shoes. However, simply designing with waste, rather than designing out waste, only addresses part of the problem. By designing products to be more durable repairable, as well as reusable would ensure both stay in the economy. The challenge is not preserving them for one extra cycle, rather ensuring that they never become waste at all. A circular approach to product design focuses on eliminating waste, circulating products, and regenerating resources. There is increased momentum towards this type of transition among business and finance, with more companies adopting sustainable circular economy practices to create value, increase competitive, and satisfy customer demand. Policymakers are also supporting this transition, particularly in Europe, and working to establish better waste regulations and infrastructure. Circular design has positive impacts beyond reducing waste and conserving resources, it also creates jobs and improves public health. At MikaCycle we aim to support product designers and manufacturers by providing them with the recycled plastic they need while upholding traceability and transparency. Recycling may not be the single solution but combined with better waste management systems and infrastructure, and with proper product design, it is a way to harness what is currently ending up as waste and pollution and extract its full value.