Jargon Watch: Design for Disposability

susan spotless
© Big companies have trained us from childhood to pick up their garbage

Leyla Acaroglu explains how we got into this mess.

Every November 15, on America Recycles Day, I trot out the history of how we got into this Culture of Disposability, how we destroyed a system of returnables and reusables for disposables. Now Leyla Acaroglu, "UNEP Champion of the Earth, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability Provocateur, TED Speaker, PhD, Experimental Educator," writes Design for Disposability: How we got into this mess. She also notes, as we have, that it started with the bottlers of beer and cola:

The big beverage companies wanted to give up on the reusable system that required them to manage the full life cycle of their products. Collecting and washing glass bottles ate into profits, and so the shift to the new cheap, disposable plastic bottle options was a well-orchestrated coup on the general public (and the planet).

She writes that the drive to disposability was hugely successful, how we came to think it as normal that we should pay for picking up their garbage.

We are set to see a perpetuation of the addictive cycle that has led us to the mess we are in — that being the all-pervasive disposability practices that designers replicate, governments try to manage and clean up, and everyday citizens like you and me have to accept all of it as normal.

But then Acaroglu goes deep into the economics of a hyper-consumption lifestyle, about how consumption was the measure of a nation's success, and the more everyone consumed, the better off society was. She quotes economist Victor Lebow in 1955:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms.

Sure enough, that is what we have now.

Within 50 years we have moved from everyday reusable products to single-use disposable items that are a blight on our wallets and the environment. Countries spend billions of dollars every year to build and manage landfills that just compress and bury this stuff. While people complain about dirty cities and giant ocean plastic waste islands, producers continue to deflect all responsibility for the end of life management of their products, and designers are complacent in the perpetuation of stuff designed for disposability.

Acaroglu has some suggestions that are better than Design for Disposability:

Design for Disassembly,
Design for Longevity,
Design for Reusability,
Design for Modularity,
Design for Circularity.

Leyla Acaroglu has done a wonderful job, not only explaining how we got into this mess, but also how we might get out of it, and the important role designers have to play in it. It will not be easy, given that everyone has so much invested in making plastic and throwing it away, but as we have noted recently, we may be at a Sputnik moment where we have no choice but to change. Read the entire inspiring article here on Medium.

Here on TreeHugger, we have also tried to articulate a solution to these problems with our 7Rs:

Reduce: Just use less.
Return: Producers should take back what they sell.
Reuse: Almost boring, but we throw too much stuff out too soon.
Repair: Fix and mend things rather than replacing them.
Refill: In Ontario, Canada, 88% of beer bottles are returned to the beer store, washed and refilled; just south of the border in the USA, the number drops to under 5%.
Rot: Compost what is left over, turning it into valuable nutrients.
Refuse: Simply refuse to accept this crap from the manufacturers any more.

Recycling isn't on the list, because we aren't going to reinforce a culture of disposability. And TreeHugger Margaret even made a video about it:

Rethinking Recycling from Margaret Badore on Vimeo.

Related Content on Treehugger.com