An image of a massive pile of tires in Westley California. Courtesy Design Museum.
Oxford Tire Pile , Westley, California, USA, 1999. Image by Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Can Designers Help End the Waste Age?

On view at London’s Design Museum, Waste Age: What Can Design Do? gives hope for change.

At a party during the 1967 film The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character is taken aside by a friend of his parents to deliver just one word of advice: “Plastics.” It is this material—its ubiquity, robustness, and sheer utility—that account for much of our current predicament. We’ve developed a throwaway culture of convenience around a substance that refuses to be destroyed and now, as London’s Design Museum reminds us: “Our planet is drowning in humanity’s pollution.”

Its exhibition, Waste Age: What can Design Do?, lays out how humanity got to this point—an era in which phony rocks made of pressed together junk routinely wash up on our beaches—via the past century’s worst excesses (takeaway cups, disposable cutlery, cigarette butts, and planned obsolescence) as well as the groundbreaking advances (syringes, keyboards, wipeable surfaces, and underground pipes) that have made plastic practically indispensable. It then presents possible solutions including the work of the ingenious designers who have turned their back on creating pretty commodities to tackle the problems their industry has been complicit in generating.

It remains to be seen whether we’ll be collectively willing to make the lifestyle sacrifices that are needed to end the waste age, or whether the planet becomes yet another thing we decide to throw away.

View of exhibition installation with a wall covered in decaying waste materials with labels like "this was a coffee cup" and "this was a plastic bag"
Courtesy Felix Speller

To see the problem so starkly laid out is uncomfortable, to say the least. An installation of 6,600 bottle tops collected over a single winter in Cornwall covers half a wall, while Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of mines and landfill sites serve as a reminder of the irreversible damage we have done to the earth. It is further illustrated by exhibits such as Italian design studio Formafantasma’s Ore Streams project, on electronic waste and how to curb it, and Dutch practice Studio Drift’s Materialism, which catalogs the materials that make up everyday objects—such as cars and phones—and presents them as a series of relatively-sized blocks.

Primed with all this information, the exhibition gives hope that things can change. With examples of how waste can be embraced or reimagined, visitors are shown everything from fashion made from offcuts to chairs 3D printed out of recycled plastic, to kintsugi-esque efforts to make a virtue of damage and repair, to biomaterials created out of discarded organic matter. Other displays illustrate how to stop creating waste in the first place—rentable lightbulbs, a toaster that never breaks, and easy to disassemble furniture that can be upgraded. It’s an optimistic and heartening vision of the future—not one of hardship and scarcity in face of our future challenges but one in which we live more communally and compassionately, with greater respect for our resources and surroundings.

An image of a person walking past a wall of old thrown out electronics.
Courtesy Felix Speller

What is largely missing in this show, though, is an analysis of how these solutions will be implemented and the underlying political context they need to respond to—the answer simply cannot just be to make more stuff. The opaquely presented statistic that low-income people account for only five percent of the waste generated (it’s not clear how this is defined or how it relates to population share) and an installation by artist Ibrahim Mahama made from e-waste dumped by Western countries in Ghana, is a reminder of the political nature of the waste age, and the economic structures that keep it going.

A more circular production system, the sharing economy, and the need to revisit pre-industrial practices are topics that are gaining increasing attention, but the disappointments of the recent COP26 conference made it clear that meaningful change requires enormous political will, ambitious investment, radical legislation, unprecedented co-operation, and the kind of long-term thinking that has so far been absent on the world stage. This may well not be the domain of the Design Museum, but it remains to be seen whether—beyond these creative innovations—we’ll be collectively willing to make the lifestyle sacrifices that are needed to end the waste age, or whether the planet becomes yet another thing we decide to throw away.

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