Monday, 21 March 2011

Sustainable Consumption: Task 2b Reflections

Task 2b: Sustainable Consumption, Industrial Design Studio 3A at UNSW

I recently watched two videos about "designing for the dump" and long-life product design--the first is called "The Story of Electronics" by The Story of Stuff Project, and the second is called "Life Psycle-ology" by The Secret Life of Things.

In the first video, "The Story of Electronics", I was surprised to hear how much of the problem of people being wasteful can be accredited to corporate managers and the bosses of designers.  I knew for example that electronics companies often like to make adapters, chargers, and accessories of previous models incompatible with newer models (i.e. each model has a version-specific adapter), because this means that consumers then have to buy these new adapters and accessories when they buy the new models...which in turn means more profit for the company.  This is particularly evident in cell phones and computers, as new models are perpetually being sold every 6 to 18 months or so.  But I don't feel that the video gave enough credit where credit is due to consumers themselves: wastefulness and short-life product use is only so big of a problem in our society as it is because people have such high demand for new phones and new computers that come with the latest and greatest speed, connectivity, and gadgets.  If Moore's Law is indeed true, that processor speed will double every 18 months and higher capacity memory storage will increasingly come in smaller and smaller packages, then it seems to me that people will always have a high demand for new products that make their old ones obsolete.

I like the idea that a change in corporate outlook might give designers more freedom to design longer-lasting, safer, more compatible devices, but would attacking the bosses of designers really solve the problem?  I'm not entirely convinced that consumers would be okay with keeping the same cell phone (or computer, for that matter) for much longer than they do now.  I personally have had the same Samsung phone for over 4 years now, and though it is a great product that has lasted the test of time, it is showing signs of wear of tear, and dirt and grime have collected over the years in its crevices.  I can't imagine that everyone would be willing to hold on to their products for longer than they already do, because people DO drop things and spill things on their electronics--after a while, people like to start over with a clean slate and a brand new product.

Even if designers move away from things that are "hard to upgrade, easy to break, and impractical to repair", would a typical consumer be okay with holding on to the same product for years and years and just buying new add-ons and accessories as upgrades?

The part of "The Story of Electronics" that definitely rang true to me is the idea that we as consumers should demand that corporations "take 'em back"--that is, collect the used or broken products and safely salvage materials from them--so that we can build more products in at least a semi-sustainable fashion and avoid letting people in third-world countries break, smash, and burn parts (poisoning themselves via the toxic chemicals that are used to make electronics).  If companies are held accountable for the toxic materials that go into their products, and by association are required to collect used products and safely recycle parts, I believe that people can actually begin to care about striving towards longer-life electronics and the impacts of quickly disposed products.  This was also the main point of "Life Psycle-ology", the second video, which focused on the end of life of a mobile phone that was left in a drawer and dubbed obsolete as soon as a newer, prettier, flashier model came out into the market.

I think this second video was more successful than "The Story of Electronics" in motivating everyday consumers to care about these problems.  While "The Story of Electronics" placed almost all of the blame on corporate bigwigs who only care about money (which I don't entirely believe to be true), "Life Psycle-ology" used a Freudian-esque story which largely removed human beings from the equation, instead personifying our products as beings who want to live as long as possible and not be forgotten.  The main character, Eric-sun (an "obsolete" mobile phone), is used in the video to help reveal that a product can "live longer" simply by being designed to be disassembled in a way in which its valuable and reusable materials can be put into future products.  Watching Eric-sun live on through his salvaged materials in the form of three new electronics products, I realized that the video focuses more on the goal of the situation than on the blame.  I think after watching both of these videos that if we continue to blame each other for the way that things are now, little or nothing will be done about it.  No one likes to be blamed and held accountable (even if it should be so), but many people are very goal-oriented and can better see the end of the road through smaller milestones.  In my mind, the plan that works best is one in which everyone is given a proposal regarding something that they could change in the way they currently do things (consumers, corporations, and designers alike)--not necessarily forcing or demanding anything, but giving a goal perhaps with a reward for successfully reaching that goal--rather than just blaming each other all day and making each other feel bad.

If we're all held equally accountable to save our products in order to save ourselves and our planet, then I think we might just be able to make some differences in the way that things are done in the field of consumer electronics.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Disassembly Exercise: Ecological Impact of Tea Kettle

 Today in a group of 5, we disassembled an old tea kettle, analyzing all of its separated parts and figuring out what each component is made of.  We analyzed the material, the assembly necessary for each part (screws, snaps, etc.), and how easily someone would be able to separate all of these things and recycle them, among other things.  The full report is posted on Brett Rushbrook's blog below, as he was our project leader:

Brett Rushbrook's blog

Monday, 14 March 2011


Task 2a: Understanding Recycling

After watching the informational videos on recycling technologies and practices in “Giving Packaging a New Life” by Duales Systems of Germany, I’m amazed at hearing of some of the incredible methods and tools that people are using to recycle used materials from consumer products.

Some things for example that stood out to me were the use of infrared sensors in order to differentiate and automatically separate different types of plastic, such as polystyrene and polyethylene and PET, as well as the use of chemical solvents and rotary kilns to remove any remaining impurities from PET chips.  If recycling plants all over the world implement the technology that is being shown in these videos, I have more hope for the possibility that sustainable lifestyles (and not just sustainable design) can take root in our cultures around the globe.  From sorting by color (mainly with glass), to sorting by size, to removing metals from plastics with industrial magnets, a lot of thought has clearly been given to the recycling efforts by institutions that run recycling plants.  I suddenly think about the effort thus that not only went into building these plants and the machinery contained within but also went into designing the stages of organized recycling, step-by-step.

If recycling plants with specific-purpose machinery are being developed and implemented in areas of the world, this means that designers and engineers have been (and still are) allocating their efforts to designing and building the industrial tools that allow the recycling process in plants to take place.  It’s not as if the plants shown in these videos “just happened”—a lot of effort is being put into reusing consumed materials.  In some cases, such as the opto-electronic scanners that detect which fragments of glass must be sorted out based on the amount of light absorbed (determining the content of the glass), combined with the use of highly accurate compressed air jets to pinpoint these pieces and blow them out, the technology being implemented is astounding.  Such tools are without a doubt designed with these sole recycling uses in mind (and I presume are not cheap to design and manufacture), and the fact that they are designed specifically for recycling plants shows to me the dedication that governments and companies have for the cause of sustainable human life.

Hearing that we can limit (or even one day eliminate) the need to mine and drill for natural resources in the earth is promising, as it has been proven in existing plants that recycled goods with the right technological processes can in many cases be completely reused for new products.  Processed and reused aluminium, for example, according to the video is “no problem” for manufacturers; aluminium sheets made via recycled aluminium only uses one twentieth of the energy needed to create new aluminium goods by other means.  My personal favourite from all of the videos was hearing that ground plastic can be used in pig iron formation, and that, as such, “plastic replaces heavy oil on a one-to-one ratio, thus helping to conserve valuable resources.”  That’s amazing!

Even with all of this technology, however, sorting and reusing materials in plants is only half the battle.  The first half of the battle (and arguably most important) is for consumers, people like you and me, to care about recycling and actually give it an effort.  I think on one hand that a better world is indeed possible through sustainable processes that are covered in these videos of “Giving Packaging a New Life”, but on the other hand I’m only just now learning about half of these processes.  How much would ordinary people in society know about recycling plants, then?  I want to believe that people as a collective can change, that information will spread about what technologies are out there to make it happen, but yet on a daily basis I still see trash on the ground, even right here at the university.  I then realize that in part this trash is the fault of the companies that produce the packaging for these goods, such as single-serving granola bars and snack packets, which is plastic that in my experience is almost always thrown away.  I know it will take a lot on everyone’s part, not just the recycling plants, to fight for a smaller global human ecological footprint, and I hope we’re moving in the right direction.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Ecological Footprints

After taking the Ecological Footprint questionnaire, I'm a little surprised to hear that it would take 4.96 Earths "if everyone on the planet lived my lifestyle", though I'm not surprised that my lifestyle has a negative influence on the environment.  With all the water, electricity, and gas that people use on a daily basis just to live comfortably, it's no wonder that there are terrible effects on the Earth; on top of that, there's all the waste and unusable material (rubbish, plastic wrappers for pre-wrapped food, etc.) that increases as the number of people living on the planet increases, even with widespread talk about sustainable design options.

Sustainable design and eco-friendly design seem to be gaining more and more popularity in recent years, but I can't help but think that it's a far-fetched dream unless something drastic happens.  I'm not saying that I'm giving up on living an ecologically conscious lifestyle, but for one person alone to change and severely reduce his footprint is quite a burden (especially if everyone around him is uncompromising and as wasteful as ever).  The only way in my mind that we can reduce our footprints is for everyone to make the commitment together, to share the burden as a community.  It's like the childhood scenario of a few friends saying they'll all jump into the pool on the count of three, while only one actually jumps and the others stand and laugh.  We all need to make the jump together, or I fear that my footprint of 77.99 global hectares won't be going down much at all in the near future.