BEYOND RECYCLING

Applying design to environmental issues

 

In our consumer oriented society, the design of the items we commonly purchase often falls victim to marketing the virtues of cost and convenience. How often do we think about design and the environment in the same context  and what can we do about it?

 

The design attributes of our homes and work places start with the environment in mind  mostly to keep warmth in and cold and rain out  but our most commonly purchased consumer items are often designed with little consideration for the environment.

 

We see hundreds of examples of this in our visits to our shopping centres, but probably remain blissfully unaware it.

 

Our food is beautifully presented in packaging that is designed to minimise cost and maximise convenience and appeal. About 60% of New Zealands plastics production is used for food packaging (domestic and export) in one form or another. People will happily buy bananas and oranges wrapped in polystyrene and cling film instead of relying on natures packaging, fruit skins, to keep the edible contents clean.

 

Daily shots of functional foods, bakery items, meats, dairy products, soft drinks, spreads, snacks and a host of other foods, and non-foods, are presented to consumers in plastics or made with plastics  and we buy them. Then we dispose of them without thought to the consequences because a truck comes along once a week and takes them away – out of sight, out of mind.

 

Those of us who think we care about the environment when we make our purchasing decisions will choose items designed and packaged in recyclable plastics and we put the waste materials out on rubbish collection day. But how environmentally friendly is plastics recycling? Is it better than nothing, or are there alternative approaches?

 

Non-renewable petroleum resources are used to make most of the plastics we currently use, but with each cycle of recycling (melting and reuse) the properties of the plastic deteriorate and eventually the plastic cannot be reused. Non-renewable fuel is used to pick up the plastics and transport them to recycling centres. At the recycling centre the plastics have to be hand-sorted and then more fuel used to transport each type of plastic to a reprocessing plant where more energy or fuel is used to melt and reprocess the plastic. Fuel is again used to take the recycled plastic back to a manufacturing centre and then back to the consumer as a product and the cycle of energy use starts all over again.

 

World-wide, concerns about the environment and sustainable use of finite resources have been a major driver behind governments legislating to try and force manufacturer and consumer behavioural changes. This in turn has meant that in the last twenty years or so, there has been increasing scientific research directed towards finding alternatives to oil-based plastics. Some of these alternatives are now starting to emerge as commercial products  they are new materials (e.g. biodegradable plastics) based on using feed stocks such as starches, oils and proteins derived from plants or of microbiological origin. Ideally this alternative approach will bring us closer to truly sustainable production systems that are not using non-renewable resources, but we still have a long way to go.

 

Most of our modern farming systems rely on external energy (fuels) and nutrient (i.e. fertiliser) inputs. The latter, such as urea, are largely derived from petroleum resources. Truly sustainable farming systems in the future will probably have to be built around acceptance of lower crop yields as a result of less intensive nutrient inputs within totally closed systems. To do this, we can design and develop compostable packaging out of some of the new generation plant-origin materials such as poly-lactic acid. End-of-life disposal of these materials into composting systems would mean that we can then add the compost back to our farms to replenish nutrient loss.

 

Having addressed potential solutions to our environmental challenges, where does this leave design?

 

Design can help lead the way by developing new farming, industrial and social systems. Design can also lead the way by learning how to use the new generation materials for both new types of packaging and as structural components in the household and industrial items we use daily. This will be a major challenge as these new materials do not have the same chemical and physical properties as the oil-based plastics we have become used to. Hence new industrial and product and marketing designs will need to be developed.

 

And as consumers we will need to change our lifestyles, expectations and habits to enable this to happen.

 

Dr Nigel Larsen is the Science Group Manager, Food & Biomaterials Innovation at Crop & Food Research, and is also on the Management Committee of the Biopolymer Network. Nigels current research interests include the production of new biodegradable materials from plants and the application of nanotechnologies in materials.