Recycle VS Repurpose VS Downcycle
Lets imagine that you were assigned a project to develop a lamp which was sustainable through reuse or recycling. It's fairly simple say "Hey, I'm going to take some of these doodads I've got here, and make them into a lamp. That's recycling!" And it very well could be recycling. It could also be more of a repurposing of the doodad. Or, at its worst, you could have failed completely, and you could be doing what Bill McDonough calls downcycling. It's time for some examples.
First, Recycling. A perfect example of recycling is Recycline's Preserve Razor and Toothbrush handles. These snazzy guys teamed up with Stonyfield Yogurt and found a use for the tons of waste plastic cups that the factory makes which do not pass inspection. They divert this stream of plastic, combined with cleaned cups which are returned to the company by customers, back to a processor which makes casting media. Then, they mold plastic razors just like anybody else would. But here's the trick:
They're using plastic which would otherwise be waste, and using it for it's material qualities, not its cup qualities.
This is what sets recycling apart from repurposing.
Some good examples of a repurposed object, are some of the purses and belts made by Little Earth, in Pittsburgh, PA. Originally collecting all their raw materials by hand, this team of makers developed designs which used hubcaps, license plates, bottle caps, and inner tube rubber to make belts, bags, and purses. After they went international, obviously the "scouring the junkyards" sourcing model wouldn't work. Luckily, they figured out clever ways to find new waste streams, like buying out outdated stock of license plates from trucking companies and state governments, unusable bottlecaps from bottling companies, and worn inner tubes from fleet maintenance companies.
Another great little repurposing design is Pouffe by Tony Michiels for the 2005 MACEF design competition. Tony collected used tennis balls from clubs around his city, and formed them into a playful little ottoman or stool with a modern aesthetic. As we see in both these examples:
Repurposed designs use not only the material of the original object, but also that object's formal properties.
This repurposing is great for the environment if you are actually removing waste from a stream somewhere. And, if the design which you make with that waste is worth making. Making a crappy thing which will only be bought as an impulse buy, or won't be durable will create the same waste, and add in a little extra energy.
But even worse, is when designers make new things out of new items, under the guise of "recycling". This is downcycling. Taking something, like a plastic spoon, condoms, or coffee stirring sticks (shown above) and using it to make a product which ends up crippled by the limitations of the medium. In the case of this coffee spoon chandelier, the chances that a chandelier made of real used stirrers would be much more muddy colored; basically a very poor quality chandelier. It's probable that the same material and energy which went into making that chandelier could have been more effective if it had been directed at making a lamp in the first place.
Downcycling takes an object which is not waste, and forces it into an ugly or ineffective new design which is then marketed as being eco-friendly.
This may seem like an isolated case. It is not. Next time you are in Urban Outfitters, Crate and Barrel, Cost Plus World Market or Restoration Hardware, take a look at the "Vintage" items which are being hammered out in India and China.
Good design is about good design. Good design is not about sales based on a tagline. If your goal is to reduce waste, then your design should not only take it's waste stream into account, but also whether your new product will have any long-term staying power. When you work with recycled materials, you're already accepting lower quality to begin with; You'd better be sure that the effort you're putting into things is worth it.
It would be a shame to let your time go to waste
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team