Business 21c
Business 21C - Published by UTS Business
September 7th, 2010

Waste in the city

When manufacturing giants like General Electric, Eastman Kodak and Pye were churning out vacuum cleaners, cameras and televisions back in the 20th century, the fate of these products at the end of the life cycle just wasn’t a consideration for their designers.

The main aim of the manufacturer was to, well, manufacture. To engineer a product that was built to last. If the day arrived when it was beyond repair, it was cast off at the local tip and that was that.

It wasn’t until words like sustainable, recyclable, renewable, biodegradable, eco-friendly and more significantly, corporate responsibility, entered common usage that design and waste became inextricably linked. Marketers clicked that ‘going green’ held a certain cachet with consumers and the world of product design was forever changed. Unfortunately good intentions have not always met with actual benefits for the planet. Green shopping bag anyone?

Beyond the balance sheet, modern designers must also now be mindful of satisfying governments’ legislation on sustainability. Since 2005, the European Union has required that any motor vehicle manufactured in a member state must be 85 percent recyclable and 95 percent reusable.

Closer to home, and more recently, the Australian Packaging Covenant commenced on July 1 2010. An agreement between manufacturers and all levels of government, the covenant encourages the design of more resource efficient and recyclable packaging; increased recovery and recycling of used packaging; and a reduction in the incidence and impact of litter.

Recognising the (eco)challenges confronting young designers, Professor Marie O’Mahony and her staff at the UTS Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building have developed a multidisciplinary module titled ‘Waste in the City’. Offered to third year students across all design strands, the course aims to foster the development of creative ideas for products, services and systems to reduce Sydney’s rising level of waste.

Central to the course was a seminar on August 24 that brought together leading thinkers and practitioners in the fields of design and waste management to discuss the integration of waste contingencies into the design process. On the panel were Emma Synnott, Associate at Arup; Dr Damien Giruco, Research Director at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures; Jo Kellock, Executive Director of the Council of Textile & Fashion Industries of Australia (TFIA); Dr Helen Lewis, Adjunct Professor at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and consultant with the Sustainable Packaging Alliance; and Stephen Ormandy, founder and Director of Dinosaur Designs.
Exciting times for design

Rather than hindering good design, the search for ethical post-consumption solutions offers an exciting creative challenge. The focus of sustainability has well and truly moved from recycling to design, and achieving intelligent and innovative results could potentially create a powerful point of difference for a product in the marketplace.

The big BUT, as Dr Helen Lewis suggests, is that without proper R&D, well-intentioned designs risk failing to achieve their sustainability or actual objectives – which she calls the ‘sustainability conundrum’.

A study conducted by Dr Lewis at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) on the actual environmental worth of the ubiquitous green polypropylene shopping bag found that a bag must be used 80-100 times to be of benefit to the planet.

On the other side of the sustainability conundrum are the biodegradable plastic bags made from cornstarch, which tick the sustainability box, but are of questionable durability.

Dr Lewis offers four rules for effective sustainable packaging:

  • Effective: in terms of cost, performance, convenience and accessibility
  • Efficient: lightweight; have a minimum of waste and be energy and water efficient
  • Cyclic: should use renewable materials and energy; be recyclable and reusable; reduce litter
  • Safe: elimination of hazardous substances; reduce pollution; promote ecological stewardship.

Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging is a prime example of the principle in practice. By working with manufacturers, Amazon is able to have products packaged in a recycled cardboard box, directly off the assembly line. Although marketed as a more simple way for an Amazon customer to open the product, it does away with the manufacturer’s packaging, which often contains a lot of plastic, and also Amazon’s need for an additional shipping box.

Although progress has been made on the reduction of packaging waste, Emma Synnott from Arup reminded attendees that despite our best efforts to separate waste for recycling, (99 percent of Australian households recycle their waste) 60 percent of Sydney’s refuse still ends up in the ground. In addition our consumption of raw materials is increasing exponentially.
Mining for mobiles

As precious metals become scarcer in the natural environment we could one day see prospectors staking claims on rubbish dumps in the hope of mining gold, silver or palladium.

With gold hitting a record price of $US1265.30 (AU$1424.65) an ounce in June and expected to shortly have another run, the humble mobile becoming a viable source of the shiny stuff suddenly doesn’t seem so far fetched. Significant amounts of plastics and ceramics could also be retrieved from the phones. According to Dr Damien Giurco from the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, there is currently no commercial enterprise in Australia engaged in this work.

A 2006 US Geological Survey report found that mobiles contain an average of US40 cents of gold, 13 cents of palladium and six cents of silver, among other metals. It estimated that in that year there were 500 million retired mobile phones in the US, representing 10 percent of the country’s recycled silver market and 18 percent of the recycled gold market.

And in 2006 the gold price averaged just $US605 an ounce!

Michael Pollack

Michael Pollack is a freelance writer and editor with a background in print and broadcast media and financial markets.