System Failures: Planned Obsolescence and Enforced Disposability
We live in a world made up of complex interconnected systems — natural, industrial, and social. Industrial systems involve all the manufactured goods and services that fill our lives, social systems are the intangible social scaffolding that humans have developed over time to function as a society, and ecosystems are all the natural services that keep the Earth alive. The intersection of these systems is often where our social and environmental issues occur.
In this series of essays, I will be exploring some of these complex ‘system failures’, exposing the reinforcing systems that we have accidentally created, and posing the challenge of how we can redesign the negative externalities and find pathways to a more regenerative future.
I want to start this series with one of the most prominent and destructive system failures: the absurdity of intentionally designing things to have reduced value, break or be wasted and the cycles of enforced disposability that this creates.
Humans create things that lose value over time
Waste in all its incarnations — ocean plastic waste, street litter, curbside trash collection, air pollution — these are all human inventions. Nothing in nature is ‘waste’; everything has a purpose and is cycled through ecosystems to contribute and increase value over time.
It is through the human-designed social and technical systems that we have created systems that intentionally produce waste, things that cannot be reintegrated into nature in productive ways. As a result of this, we have had to build special technical facilities to house our discarded products. Landfills are an externality to bad design. They are costly, often become a toxic soup of chemicals, can leach these back into nature, produce methane (a 25 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), and literally stink.
Our current economic system incentivizes waste generation and encourages producers to manipulate their products to be used up and then discarded for something new in increasingly shorter cycles. This has bred the practice of planned obsolescence in many of our industries — from technology to toothpaste, we see the active integration of failure and reduced lifespans.
Our daily lives are now predominantly scripted and defined by single-use throwaway stuff. Think of how many of your normal daily interactions involve an enforced aspect of disposability. The food industry is one of the worst — cups, plates, bags, packaging, cutlery — but recently, design for disposability has moved into the medical, transport, and government sectors just as much.
Many of the goods and services we all rely on are created with the specific intent to lose value over time so that the consumer is stuck in an enforced consumption service cycle, which increases value for the producer, but not for the customer nor the planet. And the cost of dealing with all of this reduced value stuff is placed on the customer and local governments in the form of funding local waste management services.
Recycling validates waste
Daily options for obtaining basic needs from food to water over the last two decades have slowly been swapped from a reusable user experience to a crappy plastic or paper single-use disposable option. For many, it feels cheap because it is, and it feeds into the speedy convenience-fueled lifestyles currently dominating societies. But the long-term costs are much greater than the immediate cost cutting and time-saving perceived benefits.
The burden of disposability is shifted away from the producer and onto the consumer through taxes and costs to governments in cleaning up the damage that this creates. Look at the collective systems loss of the ocean due to the plastic waste disaster — a situation with complex remedies due to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ that the oceans fall victim to.
Or, just look at the global recycling crises that has recently surfaced as a result of China rightfully refusing to take the world's waste! Australia’s, the UK’s, the USA’s and many parts of Europe’s recycling systems are falling apart under the recent ban on importing contaminated recycling streams. Given that until recently, over 50% of the worlds plastic waste went to China for processing, many countries have now had to face the ramifications of their cheap disposability addiction.
The big issue with the up trend to ‘make it recyclable’ as a solution to disposability has validated the production of single-use product streams. In many advanced recycling markets, we see an increase in the net use of disposable products, which has a collective loss of value of raw materials and ultimately produces bigger ecological issues. The big thing is that it also costs the consumers rather than the producers, and it’s the local governments that have to fit the bill of waste removal and processing.
The wastefulness of our everyday experiences in the world has become so normal, it now takes more energy to question how it has become this way than it does to just accept it as a part of life. Disposability is an absurd business model that was originally encouraged as a way of increasing consumption for the benefit of the entire economy, but it is now used as a manipulative tactic to keep consumers locked into enforced consumption cycles where you have to pay for upgrades, buy the newest version, or accept the limited use option.
As I have written about before, this is all very much by design. The systems of disposability permeating our lives are a product of economic incentives and the systems archetype of a race to the bottom, offering the cheapest price tag by the producer and the most convenient solution to the ‘consumer’, at the cost of the society and the planet. But whilst it may seem like cheaper products are better for the consumer, the net gain is always skewed towards the producer. Over time, individuals have to spend more on the collection of disposable products as more are required to achieve the functional needs.
Since developing a systems mindset, I can’t help but notice systems designed to maximize waste all around us. I see the pointless plastic stirrers in the cocktail glass in the fancy bar, the disposable chopsticks in the sit-down restaurant, the plastic wrapped plastic cutlery in the cafeteria with ceramic plates… so much of our lives involves unintentional waste production, and it’s a trend that needs to be redesigned.
I recently was at an opening event for a conference at a lovely museum, and they had real wine glasses but used expanded polystyrene disposable coffee cups for the soup they were serving for dinner. Clearly they would be washing the wine glasses — they must have had other reusable glasses on hand, so why can’t they be used for the soup? 1000 people were implicated in the absurdity of normalized disposability; they kept talking about how crappy the cups were and didn’t know what to do with them.
The most infuriating thing about all of this is that in nearly every one of these cases, a reusable option is possible and just as easy, but for some reason, no one thought about the disconnect. Disposability has become so normal that often no one thinks about it anymore.
When service design maximizes waste
The blatant lack of long-term economic and environmental considerations of the impacts of disposability-focused service design is infuriating. It might be cheaper for some to swap from reusable to disposable in the short term (no washing up costs for example), but the cost of landfilling waste is always going up, and the collective impact of ocean plastic waste along with all the other shitty by-products of these decisions (or lack thereof) is causing systems-wide negative impacts that we are all now implicated in trying to resolve.
These are all symptoms of a very sick system, and the prognosis is not good — unless we fix the systemic issue of normalized hyper-disposability.
By far one of the biggest environmental and social issues we face right now is the ramifications of disposability, the devaluing of materials, and the perpetual normalization of waste built into every part of our daily lives. It’s not fair to expect individual consumers to fix this mess. We no longer have consumer sovereignty in so many of our day-to-day interactions with companies; even government agencies and services have taken the easy road and moved to forceful waste production.
On a global scale, we have quickly replaced things that have continued and sustained value for newly designed things that are literally created to be valueless. You get take out that includes several disposable plastic forks, and you think, “Oh well, they are not worth anything anyway.” In New York City, there is some weird cultural norm of putting a paper bag inside a plastic bag when getting a delivery. It makes no sense. In San Francisco, the eco community bans plastic bags, but then the Whole Foods supermarkets offer TRIPLE paper bags as a precaution, since single paper bags (and apparently double bags) are not strong enough to deal with all the heavy tin cans and bottles.
This doesn’t solve any problems — it increases them. In my 2014 TED talk, I explain how material impacts are based on functional unit delivery. Just because a material is biodegradable, such as paper, does not give it instant environmental benefits — it’s the system-wide impacts that determine the degree of impact. Paper bags are worse than plastic when you consider the functionality of it across its entire life, but really the issues need to be addressed at the service delivery and systems design level.
Hyper-disposability is the real-life incarnation of cultural absurdity. As a society, we have come to accept that things made from non-renewable resources, that will live for a very very long time, like plastic and high tech electronics, are literally worthless. For all the things we have turned into disposable useless crap in our lives, we will eventually have to pay the price in the loss of ecosystems services and through the collective guilt of messing up the things we all appreciate, like the oceans…which is the one defining difference that our planet has to all other planets and the main ingredient that made life possible, where over 50% of our oxygen comes from, and where we get a large amount of our food products!
Last New Years Eve, I sat on a street and cried in frustration at the magnitude of the plastic waste left behind after revellers had gathered to watch the fireworks. Mountains of cups and bags and straws and now unloved plastic party glasses were all just thrown on the ground for someone else to deal with as the families departed for home. At 3am, an army of hired city street cleaners came through, and I watched in awe as they quickly gathered up the discards of other people’s moments of happiness into a ginormous pile of single-use crap, and then a truck swiftly came along and carried it away. Had the festivities been disrupted by rain, then the party goers leftover refuse would have yet again all been whisked away into the oceans.
Several years ago I was on a design challenge in Thailand, looking at the issue of rapid transitions by street food sellers from natural packaging, like banana leaves, to expanded polystyrene disposable packaging. The impacts were immediate and immerse in the mega city of Bangkok, where there were very few municipality waste collection services and a culture of throwing the (what was once biodegradable) packaging on the ground. In the floods of 2011, one of the suspected culprits was plastic packaging blocking the drains, as the extra water could not escape out into the ocean.
We live in an interconnected world, and all water eventually leads to the oceans.
Allow me to demonstrate several other everyday scenarios where the tragedy of planned obsolescence and disposability has become a ubiquitous phenomenon:
1. Long-Haul Transport
In economy class on long-haul transport like planes and trains, you have no choice but to accept the plastic-wrapped disposable pile of small portioned crappy food and drinks issued to you. Everything beyond the rations of overpacked processed food stuffs is designed for disposability. Don’t try to console yourself with the recycling content of it either, as most airlines do not recycle (they usually have to incinerate everything), and when they do, the separated waste streams with the amount of recovered content pales in comparison to the amount that is produced. The same with trains, though often considered the more sustainable travel option, you will be lucky to get a reusable anything, even in the more executive classes. This is another point of constant contention. Why is it that in business class, everything is reusable, but in economy, it is a plastic waste wonderland? We are reminded of our socio-economic position by the cheapness of the disposable items.
The global trend towards bottled water use is staggering. Since 2000, bottled water consumption has doubled each year per capita in the US. One million disposable water bottles are used every single minute of every single day around the world. Germany, Norway, and soon the UK have container deposit legislations that incentivize people to return drink vessels and get a refund on their drink bottles. This type of system is designed with thicker glass or plastic bottles so that they can be easily washed and reused by manufacturers, dramatically reducing waste but still allowing for convenience. Another important simple fix to the water bottle problem is to put in water-filling stations in public places so people can refill a reusable bottle.
3. Overpriced Technology
Yes, your cell phone and sexy brand name headphones are designed for disposability too. Electronic waste is a global pandemic, with almost 50 million tons of it being trafficked around the world for some hazardous ‘recycling’ in often emerging economies where environmental legislation is lax.
Technology contains so many different materials, and some are valuable (like gold and copper), while others are not. So, the incentive is to just get to the valuable materials in whatever ways possible. Cell phones are often shredded up into tiny pieces, a conglomerate of toxic and benign materials, just to get to the gold. Producers could definitely design for disassembly so that it is quick and easy to get the good stuff out, but they don’t. Instead they design to lock the consumer out and make it impossible to repair old items. Why? So people are forced to buy a new one on average every 2 years. France announced it is now a crime to design planned obsolescence into products, but the norm is pervasive across the industry. Certainly there needs to be more effective design approaches, but also investment by tech companies in the development of advanced recycling and recapturing facilities, especially in markets where processing is already happening and where there is an economic reliance on e-waste handling.
Breaking the social norms
Disposability is a disease that has infected our societies and polluted our planet. It is not normal nor necessary to have so much pointless stuff. The ramifications of this increase in waste have led to the pollution of our oceans, the logging of our forests, and the messiness of our city streets. Recycling is no match for this beast of a social norm, as it further motivates the production of wasteful products.
The insidious nature of these social norms where disposability, single-use, and entitled access to new stuff makes it extremely difficult for people to opt out of the hyper-disposable lifestyles that plague the Earth with waste. I consider myself a very considered consumer. I carry a reusable water bottle, don’t get disposable coffee cups, have my own fork and straw with me. I refuse things I don’t need and avoid using disposable chopsticks or napkins when dining in places that seem to throw these things at you. But even then, I find it extremely difficult to have people understand the reason why I am refusing to partake in the normalized disposability. Raised eyebrows or ‘difficult customer’ looks are a plenty. These are all social conformity practices that further perpetuate the problem. I often have store clerks say to me, “But the paper bag is recyclable…” when I opt to stuff the 6 items at the grocery store into my handbag instead of taking the free bag.
The mindlessly discarded waste of our modern lives desperately requires reflection and questioning on a societal level. Waste is a human created design flaw. It is a solvable system failure that addressing it will bring about significant collective society value.
Everything is interconnected on this planet. Our collective choices have impacts, and our disposable economy needs to be shifted to a circular one.
The Solution is Post Disposable Design
The goal of design-led systems change is to be able to deeply understand the connections and relationships that maintain a system; these are usually reinforcing feedback loops in all directions that take time to decipher and explore
When looked at from a systems perspective, the only real solution to this design flaw is the shift to a post disposable society, one where we reinstate the value in consumer goods and find closed-loop production and delivery services that design out disposability. No matter how you try to spin it, if your company produces products that are designed to be used once and then discarded, you are part of one of the biggest social issues to infect our planet.
Take examples like like this coffee cup library system and this reusable packaging trial in NYC. Approaches like this fit within the growing circular economy movement where business and governments around the world are taking responsibility to design products that fit within a service model that maximizes benefits to the system. These approaches circularize the supply chain by designing for the full life-cycle impacts right from the start.
We all have the power to demand post disposable products and help transition to a future that is not plagued by single-use products and cheap disposable crap.
If we are to address the tragic contributions that these design flaws have have made to the planet, then we must design new systems that make the old disposability-focused approach obsolete.
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All of the illustrations by Emma Segal