What Will it Take to Redesign a Hyper-Disposable World?

Nearly everything that is created has waste designed into it. Be it in the manufacturing, packaging or the product itself, disposability has become ubiquitous and normalized throughout the entire supply chain. The stuff that you actually generate and see — essentially the things you pop in the trash — are the tiny tip of the iceberg when it comes to global waste generation.

We have become a hyper-disposable society that values convenience and immediate necessity over all else.

The result of these inefficient systems is an incredible amount of land, air, and sea pollution. All the result of our collective and recent hyper normalization of disposability throughout the world.

We have become accustomed to global production and distribution processes that systematically devalue the goods we create. So much of what we see as ‘normal’ is intentionally wasteful, designed to break, and ultimately ends up in a cycle of pollution that we then complain about.

It’s not fair for companies to claim that consumers want fast, cheap, easy, disposable goods. In so many cases, they are flung upon us with no alternative options. We have become the victims of hyper-fast, hyper-disposable global systems.

Think of how many experiences you have had recently where disposable, single-use products designed to be used for a moment in time are thrust upon you. Disposable chopsticks in sit-down restaurants, plastic cutlery wrapped in plastic, the two straws you don’t need in your fancy cocktail, the disposable iced tea cup you get when you are still sitting in the café (and where the coffee comes in a reusable cup) the plastic you can’t get into when you purchase a product that has the extra thick theft-deterrent packaging.

We all intuitively know (even the producers, and yes, us consumers) that disposable products are a shitty blight on our experience of the world. People hate packaging, no one likes to hang out in trash, we complain about litter on the streets, and we all want someone else to take responsibility for it.

We all buy stuff and we all have jobs that usually buy even bigger quantities of stuff. We are all part of perpetuating this disposable consumer cycle. But, being part of the problem means that we are all also part of the solution. From the biggest packaging producers in the world, to the smallest corner store, from the CEO to the intern, we all have the capacity and opportunity to redesign these systems so we can rapidly move to a post disposable future.

Convenience, Necessity and Desirability

There are three main reasons why we have moved to this single-use model of consumption, and that is a combination of convenience, necessity, and aesthetics.

Necessity is a deep-rooted issue, whereby the disposable products created are often related to very real human needs, such as access to drinkable water. Take, for example, single use water bottles. Many of the nations that produce and use the most single-use water bottles are in regions where there is not safe drinking water, so the need for potable water is significant. Addressing the issues of water sanitation for human consumption is a critical point of intervention in addressing the flow of plastic waste in the ocean.

Further to need is convenience — we have rapidly moved to a hyper fast-paced lifestyle where busy is the new black. Thus, there is a pervasive perception that convenience of things to-go and take-out are signs of modernity and prestige. The cumulative impacts of these individual lifestyle changes have a massive impact on the extraction of natural resources and end-of-life impacts as we churn through single-use cutlery, take-out containers, and cups. Don’t even start me on the k-cup epidemic — ironically the founder regrets ever making them, given that around 8 billion non-recyclable cups are sold every year.

Then we have aesthetics, the things that are desirable, fulfill marketing quotas and manipulate us into wanting more. The perception of desirability often drives all sorts of disposable decisions, from wooden chopsticks to a fancy plastic drink stirrer. This is everywhere — an aesthetically motivated, completely non-functional disposable addition to a product, included because it will subtly manipulate the consumer to feel a particular way, which increases the likelihood of consuming more.

Shifting cultural conversations around how we fill our immediate needs (such as hydration and food) will have a tremendous positive impact on the planet. Closing the loop on the production and end-of-life processes for service delivery products (such as cups and containers) will significantly address the ocean and air pollution issues that affect us all.

Recycling validates waste

People hate it when I tell them this. But it’s no longer good enough to just make it recyclable, because recycling validates waste production. The more we recycle, the more raw materials are extracted and the more disposable products are consumed.

Just look at the dramatic increase in the amount of plastic use globally. If you are in the business of collecting and processing recyclable material, then you are investing in maximizing the amount of raw material being used, and thus the cycle continues.

Image source: Smithsonian Magazine

Designing Change

This hyper-disposable world I’m outlining was ALL by design. It was intentionally constructed to facilitate linear markets and maximize profits in an addiction to single-use items. Think about it — reusable and durable things reduce the profit margins for organizations who can benefit from having you continually purchase things. Be it waste to landfill or recycling, it drives demand for new products to be produced to replace whatever it is that just got thrown away.

Since this linear system was designed to function this way in the first place, we can absolutely redesign it to be more sustainable, regenerative, and aligned with the natural systems that sustain our life on this planet. After all, disposability is not normal; there is absolutely no waste in nature and everything fits together to make a complex whole that we all benefit from.

The post disposable revolution that we need to start designing now should always take the parameters of nature’s limits into account, so that we can solve and evolve problems like ocean plastic waste. No amount of band-aid solution cleaning will fix the magnitude of the recurring problem we have created. The design changes need to come from the systems level, and from the self.

If you are in the design business, then you’re part of this system. If you are in the business of making stuff to sell to people, then you too are contributors to the problem area, and you have a choice to make: you could continue with business as usual, but you risk being made obsolete by those that will design a better, more circular and regenerative future.

Start with Intent

Of course, there are many exceptions that buck the hyper disposable consumer trend, and find unique ways to design in longevity, value and a philosophy of ethics. This is designing with the intent to have a positive impact through the things we create. This is a design trend that should be normalized and adopted at break-neck speed. Design has so much influence on the world, and it is in need of more champions for change.

To have intent is to actively understand the impacts of our decisions — not to deflect responsibility to other parts of the supply chain, or to claim that our actions are too small have an effect on the world.

People who work in today’s constantly changing fashion-based industries must know at least some of the impacts that ever changing trends have on the way we farm, materials, and the ethics of mass manufacturing for quick market needs. Electronic producers must not be ignorant to the conflicts fought over the metals that they use in all our devices, or the end-of-life nightmare created from products designed to not be easily disassembled.

Redesigning these systems is the great challenge of our time, and the winners will be the flexible forward thinkers who are willing to challenge the status quo. They will be ready to not just innovate, but evolve the systems we rely on so that the future works better than today. One doesn’t have to look far to see that designing systems to reduce waste, into new, circular, and even regenerative ones will empower all agents in the system to contribute to a more positive future for our planet.

The Global Redesign Challenge — Are you In or Out?

We want to redesign systems so that waste becomes obsolete. A post disposable future starts with a movement, one that energizes all 7.4 billions of us to start to change our needs, desires, expectation, choices, and the services that fill our lives. How long will it take all 7.4 billion of us to move to a post disposable world? That is the global redesign challenge that we have, and the quicker we can get there the better our lives, planet and fellow people will be.

This challenge affects all of us, and requires all of us to participate — from CEO’s, to kids getting their candy fix. This challenge is completely doable — actions creates reactions. That’s how the world works.

Today we launched this global initiative as part of the Dispute Innovation Festival. Check out our live sessions over the next 2 weeks, connect with the campaign on our Facebook page or join the group page for people pledging to go post disposable.

On the 24th November, we will launch a free activation kit that anyone, anywhere can use to design a post disposable activation (we will need people to help with translations, so let us know if you are keen to help!).

Check out my article from last week that discusses reframing the negativity bias and building problem lovers.