How Design for Disposability and Convenience Will Bury Us in Waste

Boeing building planes

credit: Wikipedia/ Boeing building planes

This is a series where I take my lectures presented as adjunct professor teaching sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto and distill them down to a sort of Pecha Kucha slideshow of the essentials.

Building up to and during the Second World War, aluminum production capacity in the States was vastly increased to churn out airplanes. Dams were built to generate electricity specifically for making aluminum (which is sometimes known as solid electricity because it takes so much to make it). After the war, there was more aluminum production capacity and electrical power than anyone knew what to do with. There were huge numbers of planes to recycle, the production facilities were idled, the electricity was going unused. How would they use up all that aluminum? Bucky Fuller tried building houses but that didn't take off. Something had to be done.

credit: Swanson TV dinner

The aluminum companies actually held contests to come up with uses, inventing the aluminum folding chair and aluminum siding. But the real score was disposable packaging and foil. According to Carl A. Zimrig in Aluminum Upcycled, the stroke of genius was the disposable aluminum container that became the bottom of TV dinners and frozen food. An Alcoa exec is quoted: “the day was at hand when packages would replace pots and pans in the preparation of meals.” And then, the biggest score of them all, the aluminum beer and pop can, which like the disposable bottle, was not recycled but thrown out the car window.

credit: Wisconsin Historical society

The National System of interstate and defense highways, as it is properly known, was more a product of the Cold War, built to induce sprawl and spread people around so that the Russians would need a lot more bombs.

In 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began advocating for "dispersal," or "defense through decentralization" as the only realistic defense against nuclear weapons, and the federal government realized this was an important strategic move. Most city planners agreed, and America adopted a completely new way of life, one that was different from anything that had come before, by directing all new construction "away from congested central areas to their outer fringes and suburbs in low-density continuous development."

But in one way, it had the opposite effect; it made it easy to move goods by truck, and to centralize production of the kinds of things that used to be made locally, like beer and Coke.

credit: Coca Cola bottling plant Columbus, Ohio

But you couldn't centralize production with returnable bottles; they were too heavy and too expensive to return back to the centralized facility. That's where the aluminum can, the disposable glass bottle and finally, the PET plastic bottle came into play. Now the aluminum and glass factories could expand business, because what had been a returnable was now a consumable. This made money for everyone; it became an economic engine. In her brilliant article Design for Disposability, Leyla Acaroglu quotes economist Victor Lebow, writing in 1955, in which he explains how consumption IS the economy:

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.... We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.
credit: Nighthawks/ Edward Hopper

It also used to be that if you wanted to eat, you went to a restaurant or diner, sat down and got served your coffee in a porcelain mug and ate off a china plate. There was not much waste at all, but after the Second World War, lifestyles and expectations were changing, Emelyn Rude writes in Time:

By the early 1950s, the burgeoning American middle class had purchased second cars, moved to the suburbs and discovered the primal joys of television. As families increasingly spent their leisure time in their own homes glued to the boob tube, restaurants saw their profits steadily declining. With an “if you can’t beat ‘em” attitude, restaurant associations quickly declared “the take-home trade has come as a solution to the problem”

This required disposable packaging, the famous take-out containers of the fifties with the metal handles.

credit: Scene from The Founder, the history of McDonalds

But Rude continues, describing the changes that came with the car:

After solving the television problem, take-out and delivery only continued to evolve. By the 1960s, private automobiles had taken over American roads and fast-food joints catering almost exclusively in food to-go became the fastest growing facet of the restaurant industry.

Now we were all eating out of paper, using foam or paper cups, straws, forks, everything was disposable. But while there may have been waste bins at the McDonalds' parking lot, there weren't any on the roads or in the cities; this was all a new phenomenon.

credit: Keep America Beautiful

The problem was that people didn't know what to do; they just threw their garbage out of their car windows or just dropped where they were. There was no culture of throwing things out, because when there were china plates and returnable bottles, there was no waste to speak of. They had to be trained. So the Keep America Beautiful organization, founding members Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola, was formed to teach Americans how to pick up after themselves with campaigns like "Don't be a litterbug 'cause every litter bit hurts" in the sixties:

And in the seventies, the famous campaign with the "Crying Indian ad" starring actor " Iron Eyes Cody, who portrayed a Native American man devastated to see the destruction of the earth's natural beauty caused by the thoughtless pollution and litter of a modern society."

He was, in fact, an Italian named Espera Oscar de Corti, but then the whole campaign was a fake too; as Heather Rogers wrote in her essay, Message in a Bottle,

KAB downplayed industry's role in despoiling the earth, while relentlessly hammering home the message of each person's responsibility for the destruction of nature, one wrapper at a time. ....KAB was a pioneer in sowing confusion about the environmental impact of mass production and consumption.
credit: Ashley Feldon, Wikipedia

So now people were mostly picking up their litter and putting it in the garbage. But according to Heather Rogers, this led to an entirely new set of problems: the dumps were all filling up.

All this eco-friendly activity put business and manufacturers on the defensive. With landfill space shrinking, new incinerators ruled out, water dumping long ago outlawed and the public becoming more environmentally aware by the hour, the solutions to the garbage disposal problem were narrowing. Looking forward, manufacturers must have perceived their range of options as truly horrifying: bans on certain materials and industrial processes; production controls; minimum standards for product durability.

Local and State governments brought in bottle bills to put deposits on everything, which would have sent the bottlers and the entire convenience industry back to the dark ages. So they had to invent recycling.

credit: Playmobil recycling truck

The campaign was a tremendous success; we are trained from our first Playmobil set that recycling is among the most virtuous things that we can do in our lives. Studies have shown that for many people, it is the ONLY "green" thing that they do. And it is an extraordinary scam. We have come to accept that we should carefully separate our waste and store it, then pay serious taxes for men in special trucks to come and take it away and separate it further, and then try and recover the cost by selling the stuff. The trouble is, it isn't really recycling; it is downcycling.

Every time you do it, the materials are a little weaker, the contents a little bit dirtier. So much of it is designed simply to make us feel good; As I once said about coffee pod recycling, where the pods are shipped across the country and downcycled into plastic benches and compost, calling it " the worst kind of phoney feel-good environmental marketing, designed for the sole purpose of assuaging the guilt about consuming overpriced and unnecessary crap." Or as Ruben Anderson described Tetrapak recycling of wine boxes:

First, even if you can get the drunkards off their lazy asses to join the mere quarter of the North American population that recycles, few places recycle Tetra Paks. Second, the places that say they recycle Tetra Paks are liars. What does "re" mean? It means again. Can a Tetra Pak be made into another Tetra Pak? No. Tetra Paks are seven incomprehensibly thin layers of paper, plastic and aluminum. The poor suckers who try to recycle them use giant blenders to mush the paper pulp off the plastic and metal, then they need to separate the plastic from the metal. What idiot thought this would be a better idea than washing a bottle and refilling it?
credit: Deer Park bottled water

And we cannot forget what much of that recycling actually is: the biggest scam of all, the waste from bottled water. First, they had to convince us to drink this stuff instead of tap, which they did by constantly impugning the quality of tap water (even though 64 percent of bottled water is tap water) and charging us 2000 times the price for the convenience of it being in a bottle. As I noted in my review of Elizabeth Royte's Bottlemania, this was extremely well done.

Then there is the marketing of it; as one Pepsico marketing VP said to investors in 2000, "when we are done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes." And don't call those bottles garbage; Coke's "Director of Sustainable Packaging" says "Our vision is to no longer have our packaging viewed as waste but as a resource for future use."

And to make us buy more, they convinced us that we had to stay hydrated, drinking eight servings of water per day, preferably each in an individual bottle. Even though this is a total myth.

There is no proof that you need to drink this much water.

A significant number of advertisers and news media reports are trying to convince you otherwise. The number of people who carry around water each day seems to be larger every year. Bottled water sales continue to increase.
credit: Waste Management

And this is how we got to where we are today: Recycling makes you a hero, even though it only recovers a small proportion of waste. Except for cardboard (thanks, Amazon!) there is no market for the glass and since China stopped accepting plastic waste, it is piling up in warehouses and yards across North America and Europe, unless it is burned and turned into CO2. Recycling has proven to be expensive and not very effective. On the other hand, Adam Minter, an expert on waste and China, notes that recycling isn't perfect, but that it is better than nothing, especially if people actually use it as a resource.

Folks need to get over this notion that recycling is an unabashed good. It requires energy, generates waste, and is a threat to human safety, even in the best plants. But as someone who has visited some of the worst recycling sites in the world, including in China, I can say without reservation that the worst recycling is still better than the best open pit mine, forest clear cut, or oil field. Alas, that kind of nuanced view of the recycling industry has long been missing from media commentary and coverage of it.

He is right. So we have to do both.

credit: Ellen Macarthur Foundation

As the Ellen Macarthur Foundation points out, if we keep going the way we are going, we really are going to drown in plastic. The industry is aiming to almost quadruple production, the ratio of fish to plastic will be one to one, and the making of plastic will contribute 15 percent of the greenhouse gases. This truly will kill us all. We have to simply stop pretending that we can recycle our way out of this madness; we have to redesign our lives.

Design for Circularity


This old drawing of a zero waste world, the circular economy, is still the best I have seen because most of the newer ones leave off Producer Responsibility, which is one of the most important aspects. We have to think of everything that we make or buy in terms of this circle.

Design for Reusability

credit: Steam Whistle Beer sold in refillable bottles in Ontario Canada

Think about beer. In the USA, only three percent of beer is sold in refillable containers; that is so that they can brew almost all of it in one big brewery in Colorado and ship it by truck all over the country. North of the border in Canada, beer is sold in refillable bottles; 88 percent of them get refilled. In Norway, it is about 96 percent. It saves a huge amount of greenhouse gases and significantly reduces waste and litter. There is a cottage industry of Chinese ladies with buggies picking up bottles for their deposits. It would work perfectly well in the USA but of course, the producers don't want to do it so they don't. But it is a circular economy, and there is almost zero waste in the beer delivery system. It is Design for Reusability.

Design for Disassembly

credit: Kieran Timberlake Loblolly House

Everything we make should be designed for disassembly so that the components can be reused and repurposed. Alex Diener on Core77 explains it wonderfully:

Design for Disassembly is a design strategy that considers the future need to disassemble a product for repair, refurbish or recycle. Will a product need to be repaired? Which parts will need replacement? Who will repair it? How can the experience be simple and intuitive? Can the product be reclaimed, refurbished, and resold? If it must be discarded, how can we facilitate its disassembly into easily recyclable components? By responding to questions like these, the DfD method increases the effectiveness of a product both during and after its life.
My favorite modern house, the Loblolly House designed by Kieran Timberlake and built by Tedd Benson is designed so that the whole thing can come apart.
This methodology confronts not only the question of how we assemble our architecture, but our obligation to assume responsibility for its disassembly. Just as the components may be assembled at the site swiftly with a wrench, so may they be disassembled swiftly, and most importantly, whole. Instead of the stream of decomposed debris that comprises much of what we are left with to recycle today, this house poses a far more extensive agenda of wholesale reclamation. It is a vision in which our architecture, even as it is disassembled at some unknown moment, can be relocated and reassembled in new ways from reclaimed parts.

Design for Sufficiency

credit: Cycling in Stockholm

One that I will add is Design for Sufficiency: How much do we really need? Do we have to manufacture electric self-driving cars, or can the majority of people get around on a simple, efficient bicycle? Do we need big houses or can we live happily in smaller apartments in walkable neighborhoods? Do we have to, as that economist said in 1955, keep consuming more and more all the time? When I started here on TreeHugger, I wrote my personal description:

In the course of his work developing small residential units and prefabs, Lloyd became convinced that we just use too much of everything- too much space, too much land, too much food, too much fuel, too much money, and that the key to sustainability is to simply use less. And, the key to happily using less is to design things better.

A dozen years later, I wouldn't change a word of it. The best way to solve this problem is simply to use less of everything.

A Change

credit: Greenpeace

Things are beginning to change. In the UK, panicked over China closing its doors to plastic trash, we learn that they are considering banning plastic straws, a drop in the ocean but a start. Katherine wrote recently about how the entire beverage industry is in crisis mode.

The tide of public opinion has turned rapidly against companies that use plastic bottles for water, soda, and juice. They are no longer viewed as providers of convenience, but rather as environmental villains, responsible for polluting the planet's oceans.

But it is not just plastic, it is everything, and it has to happen now.