The Re-Use Atlas: A designer’s guide to the circular economy
Purchase link use code “reuse5” to receive a £5.00 discount
Entry number 12
Would you like to visit the previous entry? Click here
Since the Waste House was completed in June 2014, Duncan Baker-Brown has been working on a book that considers the challenges and opportunities presenting designers and clients who wish to ‘mine the anthropocene’, i.e.work with existing places, communities and stuff previously mined and processed. Duncan’s recently published book is entitled ‘The Re-Use Atlas: A Designer’s Guide to the Circular Economy’ and this blog provides an opportunity to read parts of the book, enjoy!
Part 2 of the atlas is divided into four chapters, taking the reader on a step-by-step route towards closed loop systems. Each ‘step’ contains a number of case studies that capture some of Duncan’s first-hand research, gleaned from interviewing over fifty people involved in inspiring projects from around the world that tackle recycling, re-use, the reduction of resource use, and finally closed loop systems. These case studies are supplemented with one longer interview with a significant protagonist from each of the aforementioned steps. Therefore unless stated otherwise, any comments quoted from people in the case studies have been taken directly from interviews Duncan had personally with them.
Step 1 Reprocessing Waste
Interview – Cyrill Gutsch, designer and creative entrepreneur, founder of Parley for the Oceans
DBB: Is recycling ‘just slowing down the inevitable’?
CG: For me recycling is not a solution. It’s really the first conversation, because when you look at material – and specifically I’m talking about plastic – people use something and toss it away, then it loses all value. It’s very obvious now with plastic, but it was not perceived as a problem until recently. Obviously there are specialists who are well aware of the problems of plastic waste, but in the mainstream you couldn’t find an awareness of plastic being any sort of problem when we started with Parley for the Oceans, even in so-called highly developed countries with an awareness of environmental issues. The idea of recycling, with its nicely designed logos stating ‘recyclable’, [is] quite disempowering for people, who tend to think that any plastic product with this type of symbol on it is being reused, because it doesn’t make sense that it wouldn’t be. This is an illusion that we need to disrupt: the illusion that ‘somebody takes care of my trash’. That’s why I feel it is important to visualise the process and the efforts that go into retrieving these materials, all that waste – retrieving it from the shoreline or getting it out of the water.
DBB: You come from a design, marketing, brand-developing background. Had you always been preoccupied with environmental issues?
CG: No not at all. My career has always been about solving problems, but I gave up on the environment at a very young age. As a German growing up in southern Germany, you try to do all the right things. Then you realise that the problems are so big and you wonder ‘How can we solve them?’ So for a long time I was very cynical about the environment.
I wasn’t interested in environmental issues for a long time, not until I met with Paul Watson [the marine wildlife conservationist and an environmental activist, who founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society] in 2012. When I met him, I asked him: ‘Listen, Paul, how can you be so positive about all this? When you are fighting this cause, it looks so lost.’ And he replied, ‘The only causes that are worth fighting are the lost ones.’ I thought ‘That’s cool. You are right.’
DBB: So how did you meet Paul Watson?
CG: It was in Frankfurt at a small little law firm. We had a mutual friend who I met up with in Basel in 2012. She told me that Paul had just been arrested in Frankfurt on suspicion of intending to ‘cause a shipwreck’ 10 years earlier. I was shocked because he was a hero for me. There wasn’t really another environmental activist that I knew the name of. She told me he had been arrested and she said ‘You should campaign for him: you should get him out.’ So I went to Frankfurt to meet with him.
During this meeting I began to understand one thing that I had completely missed before, and that is that the oceans are under serious threat, and it is not something that is going to happen 200 years from now; you are speaking about a disaster within 10 or 15 years from now. Paul then told me about his story – where he started out from at the age of 13 by liberating and freeing animals from traps. I thought, ‘I was so busy creating stuff and being in love with my skills.’ However, I also thought that I could use what I did for brands or personalities for the oceans.
DBB: So on that day, what did you agree to do?
CG: I just saw very clearly that day that every environmental issue to do with the oceans is caused by a faulty and very old-fashioned business model. I then thought, well, this is what I do anyway! I am redesigning business models and redesigning brands, creating added value where there is none. I am shifting things, effecting change. So we have to find ways to make it more lucrative to protect the oceans rather than destroy them. Which means we have to change the whole way our systems function. I also realised that people in creative industries have more power than people think. We create businesses, technologies, we design stuff, we make things famous and we create trends – and trends can change things overnight! Technology and fashion trends are perhaps the fastest change agents we have. While there is a place for talking about these problems in a logical and rational way, it can take forever. We don’t have that much time. So what I realised in the office in Frankfurt in 2012 is this. There is a big problem: the oceans are collapsing. The idea that we could be powerful enough to destroy the sea was something crazy for me.
Often it is the consumer who is blamed for environmental problems, but it is so difficult to be well informed, so difficult to do the right thing, especially if there aren’t the products out there to support better environmental practice. What can a consumer do apart from pick from the options offered?
Brands are often blamed for environmental problems as well. However, the truth is that many brands do not know who or what comprises their supply chain. They don’t even invent their products anymore. They may design and assemble them, but they are not in control of their supply chain and they often don’t have the knowledge to question their supply chain. So they are just depending upon what other people tell them.
So it comes down to material. Yes of course people want to sell what they have in stock. Nobody wants to change anything. Change comes with pain. You pretty much have to make a massive buzz with the consumer to get the brands understanding that there is a trend happening and then to create a demand for alternatives that have not yet been invented, which makes it difficult and very frustrating. But still, once these brands understand that the market has certain new [environmentally sensitive] requirements, then they have the power to push it through – if they make bold decisions. Where there is demand, there is always an immediate answer to that.
So that’s what Parley is trying to tackle from different angles. First we educate the consumer about plastic pollution in the oceans and then we go to the brands and say ‘Listen, you don’t have to stand there stunned. Learn about your supply chain. Go deep and then you will identify the problems. Be nagging and demanding towards your suppliers and stuff will happen.’ You can’t expect miracles overnight. It’s not as simple as identifying one thing, like plastic, that we all depend upon and then turning it off overnight. It’s not possible. I believe that we need a transition phase. [We need] a long-term solution and a short- term solution.
DBB: So what is the role of these recycling strategies in a circular economy?
CG: The final long-term solution for plastic pollution is reinventing the material, because plastic is a design failure.
DBB: Is that not the big problem you have with plastic: by raising awareness of the problem and turning plastic into products such as training shoes and jeans, are you not just perpetuating the production of the toxic plastic in the first place?
CG: Good question. The truth is that the short-term objective that we have developed in our AIR (Avoid, Intercept, Redesign) strategy is to accept plastic as a design failure. We have to accept that we will only solve this problem long-term by developing new materials. However, in between, to prepare the market and to prepare the supply chains and then make it possible to solve the problem long-term we need our replacement drug. Right now we are addicted to plastic. Yes, if you can avoid plastic then do it. But if you can’t avoid it and you need all these attributes that plastic gives us, then use recycled plastic. That is the one step everybody can do now.
DBB: What were your first ideas for Parley for the Oceans?
CG: We decided when we started Parley that our first mission was overfishing, but we had huge problems getting people involved with the cause. We then realised that we had to start with something to make it easier for everybody – a gateway project, if you like, to the oceans. Plastic was the obvious choice because plastic is so graphic and it is not controversial, in a way. Nobody is anxious to speak about it and it is not so complicated to understand. It’s material lying around on a beach. It’s very, very simple to communicate the problems. Therefore in the first place it was just important to make the problem known.
DBB: You are working with Paul Watson on these projects. What are the networks you are employing here? You obviously have contacts with large corporates because of your background.
CG: Parley is a collaboration network. At the core of the creative industries there is the artist, then there are brands because they are super-influential, and then there are environmentalists, and finally there are governments. At the beginning we started working with Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Now we are working with over 100 organisations. If you consider a mosaic, we are the glue that holds it together. The truth is that everything we need to solve our problems is already here. The knowledge is here. The specialists are here. All the environmental groups are here. Everything is in place, we are just about assembling it and developing strategies that actually cater for the different needs of different people. I think at this point there is nobody out there who should not win from turning their organisation, their brand, their private life into an ocean-friendly, environmentally friendly situation.
DBB: You must be promoting this idea as a positive business strategy as well?
CH: Yes, of course it is, for different reasons. Our partners explain how they normally go about their business, particularly looking at areas where they feel there is little scope for changing practice. We will bring people in that do not normally work for large corporations to look at the business. We question everything, which is an idea that is often scary for many companies, but we create this collaboration stage where everybody can put everything on the table and just look at it and question everything. We then go back and say ‘OK, here is our ideal scenario: that would be the perfect world. Where do we stand today?’ We then develop a road map and say, ‘These are the things that we can aim for. This is our vision.’ Companies become their own best consultants. They know what they have to do themselves.
DBB: In many ways then, you are doing what you have always done, just in a different way?
CG: Exactly, and that is the point. The decision I had to make when I was in that little office with Paul in 2012 was, ‘Do I become an activist, go on a ship and skin potatoes, or do I just take my skills and do exactly what I have always done – redesigning stuff, reinventing things – but do it for a different objective?’
DBB: What are the big challenges for Parley in the short to medium term?
CG: The biggest change happened in 2015, because before then people felt that the whole environmental cause was something they can just touch a bit and perhaps play around with it, but there was no urgency. Then in 2015 two things happened. Firstly, some of the most conservative scientists began to recognise that we are entering the sixth mass extinction event. Films like Louie Psihoyos’ Racing Extinction helped in a specific demographic to promote that knowledge. The second thing was COP21 in Paris [the United Nations conference on climate change] in December 2015. Even if this agreement has no legal value, it did something. It made clear that something has to happen. What I also see is that people finally understand that no superhero or one person will solve these problems. It will only work in collaboration. I never saw so much desire for collaboration than during 2016.
We have developed this strategy called AIR which we can break down for a single household or build up to the level of a government. We have created a lot of buzz that questions our collective decision back in the day to put plastic into everything. We have created awareness of the problem. Now we can’t leave people alone, we can’t put the fingers on them and say, ‘You made the mess, solve it yourself.’ So we have to empower people and break it down for people who don’t have a long attention span or much time, or can’t afford to focus 100% on these issues. So we say, ‘These are the three items to use,’ or ‘These are the five decisions that you and your company can make.’
We are starting with island communities because they are the contrast of beauty and fragility, and this is never so obvious as when you are in paradise, places such as the Maldives, the Seychelles or Caribbean islands. The oceans are dying. You see the coral reefs showing us the ‘white flag’. It’s like the oceans have surrendered and you can see it. So we are going country to country and forming national alliances.
DBB: What happens with the Adidas training shoes? If they start mass-producing them, what is the mechanism for getting enough fishing nets or ocean plastic?
CG: We are focusing on three types of plastic right now. One is the nylon from fishing nets. The other is PET, which you will know as plastic for water bottles, and the third one is HTP, which is all the other plastic you will know from shampoo bottles, or whatever.
So this experiment we did with Adidas: we said ‘We need a symbol.’ So we made a training shoe only six days before we had a big presentation with Parley at the United Nations on 29 June 2015, which was a pre-conference to COP21. We achieved something together. The conversation changed overnight. It became very pragmatic, very real, very creative. It’s not about the shoe really. It was the catalyst.
Now a year later we have a full supply chain, from collecting the material, to creating a high-performance yarn that you can use on the highest-performance products. Every step in the manufacturing process is a Parley Certified Step. We have now established Parley Ocean Plastic. By using this material, companies show that they are part of Parley, but they also have to commit to AIR. They also have to contribute towards the funding of our ocean plastic programme. This pretty much brings AIR to life.
DBB: Does Parley have a lab? I’m trying to understand exactly what Parley does.
CG: Parley has four ‘pillars’. One is communication and education. You will know about our talks and conferences. We are doing Parley Ocean School where we put people on an island to figure out problems and a lot of communication where we are working with artists, creating art projects. The second angle is direct action: going out into the oceans and collecting stuff, in this case plastic. The next pillar is research and development. We are also working with our own labs that we pay for, developing solutions to problems where perhaps other people wouldn’t look. There is so much need for technology. We are doing this in different segments. One part is upcycling trash, another is replacing plastic; then intercepting as well. There are different ways to intercept plastic. One is the biotech way by eating it: the whole enzyme thing. One is a mechanical way, and finally there is another idea to find ways of attracting plastic, like a magnet for plastic.
DBB: Is that last idea a reality or a fantasy?
CG: It’s a fantasy that is close to reality. I didn’t get to explain Parley’s fourth ‘pillar’. The fourth ‘pillar’ is product innovation. So we are actively developing product concepts or pushing and supporting other people to do so. For example, if you go after very plastic-centric products like water bottles or plastic bags or packaging, you have to reinvent the product, not only the material.
DBB: How do you finance this work?
CG: In the beginning we just financed it with our own money. We took a big risk, plus a big load from friends and family. The second level is with membership fees – there are different ways to become a member, whether it’s individuals, private companies or governments. They just contribute at different levels. The third way is via donations and grants – that is the newest way of funding. We are just starting the Parley Foundation that is focusing on areas where there is definitely more commercial interest. Then there is merchandising, as I call it. People will use our brands. We are very selective. You have to earn our brand. We have a very high rejection rate as we have to be very careful whom we take on.
DBB: In terms of the next two years, what are the products you have to launch?
CG: From the product angle, we are launching a full range of materials with all the partners. We are creating yarns and other materials for the fashion industry. With our Parley Ocean Plastic there is a tonne of stuff coming with very good manufacturers. From the brand angle, from every category we have identified the one brand who we would like to work with. We will open it up later: we will not stay exclusive, but we start with one brand. We are going into furniture, automotive design and (don’t laugh!) super-yachting.
DBB: Well, these super-rich people are the ones with the huge carbon footprints a hundred times bigger than most people. Reducing this is a big deal.
CG: Exactly. Transform the sinner! It is easy to go and specialize on the little brands that are already doing the right thing, but that is not challenging as they already do everything right. You want to change where change is most impossible. There it gets surprising and then you get the ‘ear’ of people.