Today’s Waste is Tomorrow’s Product: A Manifesto for ashortwalk® makers of rCUP ®
Why it’s time for the ashortwalk® manifesto
ashortwalk is a circular design practice. We make products from materials no-one wants, and we help others make unwanted materials viable, useful and desirable.
When ashortwalk was founded 15 years ago, our vision was simple: to live and work a short walk from the sea. We can hear the waves from our studio. Moving closer to the ocean was about making sure that we all remember, every day, what matters most: our relationships with people and our environment and our contribution to both.
Back then no one had heard of ‘circular design’ or the ‘circular economy’. We talked about ‘the Environment’, or being ‘eco friendly’. More recently, the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘conscious’ have been used to describe product design that attempts to reduce waste or limit toxicity.
For 15 years ashortwalk has been quietly impactful: we’re interested in meaningful change, not superficial fixes. But right now circularity, our specialist subject, is big news and we recognise that it’s time to raise our voice.
ashortwalk now works with Unilever, McDonald’s, Costa, Network Rail, Pret a Manger… This would have been unimaginable a decade ago, but Planet Earth II and Hugh’s War on Waste have put an end to any lingering doubt that our throwaway culture has passed its sell-by-date. Being ‘green’ isn’t marginal any more: the problem is simply too large.
Of the 300 million tonnes of plastic now produced every year, 40% is for single-use. That 40% alone weighs about the same as 120 million small cars, or 70 million blue whales. After its short life, most of this valuable material and the energy used to create it are lost, irretrievably, to landfill or incineration.
A little while ago Professor Richard Thompson, a world-leading expert on plastic pollution, gave a speech that resonated deeply with us. “We will never be in this space again,” he said, “where everybody is aligned and wanting to make a change.” He’s absolutely right, and it’s exciting. And it’s terrifying. What if we miss this one chance?
As product designers and recycling consultants, we listen every day to consumers and shops, manufacturers and waste collectors, politicians and campaigners. Everyone knows the issues. Our urgent emphasis has to be on solutions. We’ve identified five, and there’s a role for everyone.
What follows is our view: from where we sit, this is what we see.
As designers, it’s our job to see problems as creative opportunities, and our name, ashortwalk, is a reminder that solutions are never as complicated or far away as you think.
As designers, it’s our job to see problems as creative opportunities, and our name, ashortwalk, is a reminder that solutions are never as complicated or far away as you think. The solution to waste is simple, in theory anyway: reinvest it with value by making recycling not just viable, but lucrative.
The wonderful thing is that this is not a compromise. As Edwin Datschefski showed in The Total Beauty of Sustainable Products, most things that we use in our everyday lives contain hidden ugliness: pollution, deforestation, species loss and global warming. Cyclic products are different. Designed to be attractive and functional so they can serve us for a long time, design that does good also looks and feels good, as consumer comparison tests like Which? Best Buy Reusable Coffee Cups attest.
i. Reduce - Reuse - Recycle - Repeat
Perhaps we should all be a bit more materialistic. Not by increasing the volume of products that pass through our hands, but by valuing each material more; by choosing items that are well made from the most appropriate materials we will reduce what we consume and will want to reuse these respected and pleasing items again and again.
Eventually though, our possessions reach the end of their lives, and that’s ok. Circular design means we can reincorporate them, via recycling, into new products, and humans can continue to innovate and explore without feeling like planetary villains.
This is what excites ashortwalk about the circular economy. We design and sell products that will last, using unloved materials diverted from landfill. Our ECOPOTS, for example, are made from recycled plastics; our Time and Tide Clock, which looks like slate but lasts far longer, is made from recycled paper.
And we have recently reached new audiences with rCUP, of which we are very proud. rCUP is the first reusable cup in the world to be made from disposable coffee cups of the sort targeted by Hugh’s War on Waste as ‘unrecyclable’. We hope rCUP will provide a model for converting ‘worthless’ materials into ‘worthwhile’ products.
Thinking and working in circles instead of along the same old line, means today's waste IS tomorrow's product. And, as in nature, materials and energy flow in cycles, and don't run out.
ii. Incentivise and Legislate
Imagine a child taking all of his/her toys out of a box at the start of the day, playing with them once, and then, instead of putting them back in the box, throwing them all away. What will (s)he do tomorrow?
It’s obvious that the linear model - mining raw materials, using loads of energy to transform them into short-lived products and then incinerating or burying them - is totally unsustainable, and morally unacceptable.
Thinking and working in circles instead of along the same old line, means today’s waste IS tomorrow’s product. And, as in nature, materials and energy flow in cycles, and don’t run out.
Designers like us should be required to minimise waste emissions and required to design with the end of the product’s life in mind so that its valuable materials stand the best chance of being recycled and reused.
The emphasis must be on businesses to design and make products with maximum extended lives. It is unrealistic and unfair to place this burden on consumers, who have little power over how things are made, and of what. The individual has another, profoundly impactful, role: to make the good choices that drive demand for recycled and reusable options, exerting financial pressure on businesses to switch models and invest in recycling.
iii. Invest in Infrastructure
Infrastructure is difficult to get excited about, but when it is well funded and works efficiently, it is a joy. If you’ve used public transport in Austria or walked the immaculate of streets of Norway or Japan, you’ll know what we mean.
Recycling only works if we invest in infrastructure. We urgently need from our local councils and national ministers more clarity, more recycling bins, more collections and more processing facilities.
Without this investment we place the impossible burden on consumers to solve the problem, and as we know, despite our best efforts as individuals to recycle our waste, we wonder if our recycling is ever actually recycled.
A demoralising combination of confusing and contradictory information and inadequate recycling collection facilities leaves us dejectedly telling our children: “sorry, we can’t recycle that.”
iv. Don’t Demonise Plastic
We have to be realistic: we can’t banish plastic. In many cases it’s actually the better material choice for the environment, reducing food wastage and out-performing other materials. The challenge is to eradicate unnecessary consumption and harness plastic’s functional benefits without the side effects, and this should be our focus.
We must always look to reduce where possible, but recognise there are applications where plastic is the best choice of material. If plastic is to be used then it must be designed with circularity in mind so it stands the best chance of being captured, recycled and reused time and time again.
There’s a danger of using plastic as a scapegoat, when the real problem is the linear system. Where plastic is robust and designed to be recycled with zero waste emissions into new products, it has a valuable role to play in reducing other types of material waste. rCUP is 100% recyclable within our current infrastructure, so none of it will be lost when it is broken down and becomes a valued component in the next new thing.
Recycling only works if we invest in infrastructure. We urgently need more from our local councils and national ministers.
v. Beware of Greenwash
Many of the words used to talk about waste are full of potential: recyclable, sustainable, compostable… they sound attractive and achievable. But who is responsible for turning these potentials into actualities?
Actually, nothing is recycled until it has been reused. Anything is theoretically ‘recyclable’ but we have to design within the cold realities of the recycling infrastructure we have.
Compostable and biodegradable products are seemingly convenient solutions, but in this context the vast majority require an industrial process to be broken down. In fact, compostables require huge infrastructure to work in the real world, and contaminate recycling processes when mixed with other materials. Fundamentally, compostable and biodegradable products are disposables, part of a linear process in which valuable raw materials are made into products and packaging that we use once before discarding and losing forever.
We have to be realistic: we can’t banish plastic. In many cases it’s actually the better material choice for the environment. There’s a danger of using plastic as a scapegoat, when the real problem is the linear system.
A clear PET bottle, for example, will be recycled readily in the UK because it has a good sell-on value. The same PET bottle in blue, green or any other colour however, is unlikely to be recycled because there is no resell value. These bottles are all ‘recyclable’ but the company that chooses coloured PET and adds a reassuring ‘recyclable’ icon is designing for disposability. This kind of ‘greenwashing’, leading consumers to believe products are more environmentally responsible than they are, can only set us back.
During the talk that so inspired us, Professor Thompson expressed his concern about “headless chicken mode”. We share that concern. Over the course of the last decade and a half, we have seen the same mistakes repeated time and again when businesses reassess their relationship with materials. Right now, we’re worried about compostables.
Being a short walk from the sea means a nurturing place to grow. It’s a daily commitment to slowing down, listening, making connections and taking logical steps. It’s been nearly 6,000 days now, and this much we know: The linear model doesn’t work; the future is round.