Designing the next era of (zero) waste

On September 13th I participated in a discussion on the future of waste organized under Helsinki Design Week by the innovative design company Lovia that recently published their Flipside statement on the topic. I was joined by two opinion leaders on waste issues, designer Outi Korpilaako from Lovia and Otso Sillanaukee, a visible proponent of zero waste lifestyle.

What would epitomize our current post-industrial period of transformation better than waste? The amount of waste we produce from day to day, year to year, has made visible how affluent but also literally wasteful our lifestyle is. We are also well informed on the unintended consequences that the practices of the industrial era has resulted in: the wicked problems like climate change and littered oceans that lack definitive answers. 

That awareness has also created guilt related to the fact that these dystopian consequences are intrinsically related to our contemporary consumption patterns. Now many of us ask: What is the future of waste, what could a zero-waste future be like and how can we design and implement it?

The short history of waste (and consumer society)

There has always been thrash – leftovers by human communities and their activities – but only industrial society made waste a topic it is today. Humankind developed the ability to manufacture things in mass scale, global trade opened access to a global pool of natural resources that for a while was thought to be unlimited. 

Overproduction of consumer goods was reached in the decades following World War II. That changed the way people thought of their belongings: things were not anymore replaced by new ones when old ones broke or wore down, but because something newer, more fashionable and more up to date was made available. That also changed the rationale behind product design and business models of manufacturers: it made no point to design, manufacture and sell stuff that would be long-lasting or repairable. 

Overproduction of consumer goods was reached in the decades following World War II.

These new material conditions boosted economic growth, or more precisely, made it the phenomenon it currently is – the engine of vitality of societies, the goal that integrates ambitions of different sectors and ideologies and enables formation and renewal of political coalitions. 

Therefore, nation-states were willing to take wide responsibility of the negative externalities of the expanding consumer society. In other words, handle the waste problem without putting too much pressure and restrictions on companies and consumers. Producing things designed to become waste as well as dumping it somewhere was cheap for a time, hence, we didn’t have to think about what would happen to the things we abandoned at landfills.

And here we are, in the middle of a great transformation from the industrial era to a totally new kind of society. 

How do we know that waste has no future?

What we know is that in this new period we have to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, become carbon neutral as societies, but also take care that our consumption does not result in substantial emissions somewhere outside of our national borders, where the things we keep consuming are being manufactured. 

We also know that we cannot keep producing waste on the level we do at the moment because there is no feasible solution to its afterlife. We are closing down landfills, the era of burning things is coming to its end, soon even the poorest countries refuse to take waste cargo from affluent societies, and hopefully, the symbolic ban on plastic straws will remind us of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, so that we end dumping waste into the seas. 

However, at the same time, most of us assume that we can retain the level of material wellbeing that we have enjoyed over the past decades, constantly experiencing the excitement offered by an exponentially increasing amount of novel things. The myth still persists that an affluent material reality containing an increasing amount of artefacts is a symbol of progress. 

Additionally, most of us think that also those 5-6 billion people that have yet to experience the current joys of the middle-class lifestyle will have an opportunity to do so in the future. The equation, in its current form, just doesn’t add up.

Towards a post-waste era

What are then the zero-waste futures that meet these conditions? 

We in Demos Helsinki have undertaken various scenario exercises over the past decade with an intention to open horizons to futures, in which grand challenges like climate change, depletion of natural resources and handling of waste mountains have been solved and humankind has found a recipe to wellbeing within planetary boundaries. We have tried to showcase that there are various ways of achieving such desirable conditions. No one societal model, technological boom, or type of market and business can do it alone. 

The myth still persists that an affluent material reality containing an increasing amount of artefacts is a symbol of progress. 

There is a multitude of different issues, fields of technology, society and culture that are constantly changing, and all of these changes shape the opportunities for bringing about a zero waste society. We don’t know which of these combinations will eventually happen, therefore we have to be agnostic about what types of solutions will be pivotal in shaping our relationship with waste.

In 2012 we published a report called Scenarios for Sustainable Lifestyles 2050. These four scenarios illustrate still very well some of the main alternative futures regarding the future of a zero waste society. These alternatives provide boundary conditions to what design will be like in the future, how our economy is structured and what our consumption patterns are like. 

1. The Upcycling society

Based on the ideas presented by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, this future society has undergone massive reforms in manufacturing, resource management and business models. In essence, all material objects are being designed in a way that their materials can be recycled extremely efficiently. For a manufacturer, their products in use are a valuable material stock, something they wish to get back as soon as their clients don’t need them anymore. Compared to unused natural resources, materials embedded in artefacts are easier to convert to new products. Therefore the renewal rate of stuff is fast. There is no waste because manufacturers take good care of materials they have once taken into their production loop.

2. The Post-ownership society

This is a society in which need to own things has almost ceased to exist. Ubiquitous digital sensors in all machines, tools and textiles make their shared use easy. Therefore we have as-a-service solution to almost every need or a thing previously thought of as a material product. Moreover, most products can be altered or fixed through their programmable features or through replacing some of their parts with locally 3D printed components. This all has resulted in a significant drop in the amount of stuff in use and in circulation. 

3. The Craftsman society

This is the society of good old high quality stuff. Much of it is being produced regionally by skilled craftsmen and to serve local needs, using locally abundant materials in a very efficient manner. These products have a long lifespan, they are being continuously maintained, repaired and modified. These craftsman guilds also take care of collecting waste resulting from their products and use various techniques to re-use all parts and materials available. It is a society of high producer responsibilities.

4. The Remake society

In this alternative future much of the traditional manufacturing using pristine natural resources has ceased to exist, perhaps through a collapse of the global economy. In this DIY society people are using their vast skills to adjust and remake their existing stock of artefacts to serve their current needs. New design skills are being developed to serve this purpose of turning things previously seen as trash to valuable materials and components.

The human conditions of a post-waste era

As you might guess, it is quite likely that the future will be a combination of all these four scenarios. Yet these alternatives pose challenging questions to all of us. 

To you as a designer, what are the materials your products will be made of, what is the combination of manufacturing techniques used, and what type of lifecycle they should have? 

To you as an entrepreneur, what types of business models you build around your products, how do you source your ingredients, what is your relationship with your customers like? 

To you as a political decision-maker, where do you collect taxes from (natural resources, trade, human work, underused space and stuff etc), what type of ownership do you favour, what type of legislation do you use to set responsibilities on companies and consumers, what type of businesses and production systems (linear or circular) do you favor when planning and building physical infrastructure? 

To you as a consumer/citizen, what type of future are you preparing your consumer skills for?

The future is always unknown. Yet we can train ourselves to be better prepared for changes looming in the future. Under the context of the current post-industrial transformation, it is evident that the notion of waste will change. Therefore it is important that we carry on discussing and experimenting with new practices that shape the way we understand what waste is.

Aleksi Neuvonen is the founder of Demos Helsinki. Follow Aleksi on Twitter: @leksis

Header photo: Jasmin Sessler