Waste Age: What can design do?

Thursday 3rd Feb

Lecture notes:

We then read as a group: Waste age: What can design do? This is the catalogue for the exhibition we went to see at The Design Museum, in last October.

(below) Waste Age banner from the Design Museum shop webpage. The designer has interspersed images of plastic waste with leaves. The effect is subtle and elegant.


The copy of the catalogue, our lecturer brought to class.

Photos I took at the exhibition: (Read the original blog here.)

Posters outside the museum
(above) I was shocked and surprised to see this vintage bag in the exhibition. Printed on the bag is a list of the pro’s for using plastic carrier bags. ‘Great for school books’, ‘Ideal for beach parties and picnics.’ While these selling points might be true, I wonder if people at the time questioned the environmental impact of plastic.

There were several displays like this one at the start of the exhibition. These displays demonstrate the multiple uses of plastic in the present day. The shocking point was that I have never been aware of the amount of everyday objects we interact with that are currently made of plastic.

Paragraph #1 Covering the problem of nature vs culture

This paragraph talks about the blurred lines between nature and culture. We are introduced to the problem of waste.

Bombs in the DMZ Vietnam War https://www.divergenttravelers.com/immersion-vietnam-war/

Paragraph #2 Dominated by waste

This paragraph introduces us to the idea of our current culture of waste. The fact that waste is not just around us, but in our digestive tract as well for example. This made me think of the microplastics presented at the exhibition. The display showed the particles of car/bus tyres in our atmosphere. (‘The Tyre Collective’)

photo taken at the exhibition shows us pollution from vehicle tyres being in contact with the road surface.

#3 Illusion of dematerialisation

Here we are made aware of the sheer amount of rubbish created by humans. The 500 billion tonnes of plastic bags consumed per year and how easy it is to ignore this fact.

The image below illustrates the change in phone designs over the years. As technology looks lighter and more elegant we could be fooled into thinking that we are producing less waste than before. The opposite has been proven to be true.


#4 Anthropocene

‘Anthropocene’ refers to the new layer of earth we are contributing to as humans.


#5 From need to desire

The capitalist culture created a shift from consumers buying just what they needed, to desire objects they have no need for. This allowed companies to make big money, but has had a detrimental effect on our Earth.

(A scene from the movie ‘Shopperholic’) http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20140407001361

#6 Planned obsolescence

The role of the designer has been to make products look desirable to the consumer. The iPhone has been particularly criticised for its low repairability. Products that break earlier, mean more sales.

Three children tossing paper cups, plates, aluminum foil pans, lunch trays, straws and napkins through the air illustrating the usefulness of disposable dishes. https://thedieline.com/blog/2020/3/10/the-history-of-plastic-the-invention-of-throwaway-living?

#7 Design the possibility of repair

The designer has a role within the product cycle. They can focus on designing repairable products. (below) The iPhone 13 Pro is less repairable than its predecessors.


The article then goes on to suggest practical solutions.

  • Electronics can be designed with modular parts
  • Stop fusing plastics and metals together, this will be more can be recycled
  • adapt and re-use good buildings instead of demolishing and replacing
  • reducing carbon-heavy steel and concrete

#8 The consequences on reality

Consumers need to demand these sustainable products/ methods. The designer could blindly follow what they are told to do by their paymasters, but then nothing would change.

The metaphor of fungus is mentioned here. An organism that survives and thrives.

The article mentions Bio-design, which is a new phrase for me. We then watched a short student-made video about the possibilities of bio design in the future, including the dyeing of fabrics in a sustainable way. We have only just begun to explore the possibilities of bacteria.


Anna Tsing is mentioned within the catalogue. Her book (left) explores the story of the Matsutake mushroom. Amazon.com says about the book- ‘In all its contradictions, matsutake offers insights into areas far beyond just mushrooms and addresses a crucial question: what manages to live in the ruins we have made?’ 

Within the article, we also see mention of the famous architect, Cedric Price.


‘Price’s architectural style came from his belief that buildings should serve the needs of the people, and be radically transformed or demolished if they no longer served their purpose. A life-long socialist, Price was deeply skeptical of political institutions and their tendency to use grand, monumental buildings as a means of consolidating power. Instead, Price proposed building temporary and mutable structures which would be open and accessible to all.’

Karl Marx is also mentioned within the text.

The board from today’s lecture. We annotated the text as a group. This was particularly helpful, as it allowed us to see each other’s interpretations.

We condensed down the topics within each paragraph. It was helpful to write them as short phrases. This exercise helped me to understand what I had read, and I will be using this method when looking at articles in my future research.

London Design Museum- Waste Age: What can design do?

First a bit of London…

Looking at Gothic architecture in Kensington. These elaborate buildings are based in the same area of London. The architecture makes me want to explore the inside of the buildings.

Downstairs in the design museum, I found the exhibition Waste Age: What can design do? At first, I was not sure what connection the exhibition would make between the climate crisis and design. I was not disappointed.

It was an emotional experience, but equally insightful. This exhibition forced me to think about the origins of the objects we see around us everyday and what happens to them after they are thrown away.

I was happy that I had seen Designer Maker User before Waste Age because I first was focusing on the designs rather than the affect of the materials on the planet. If I had seen Waste Age first, these ideas would have influenced the way I looked at the objects upstairs.

Everyday objects were placed on a plinth in the centre of the room, upon entering the exhibition.

It was overwhelming to be surrounding by so many familiar objects that are made of plastic.

This poster was originally in a magazine, advertising polystyrene cups. It was shocking to see that their disposable quality was their selling point.

Textile woven from industrial waste. (above and below)

One section of the exhibition displayed many objects made from recycled materials. Also on display were designs which aim to lower our impact on the planet. The exhibition is about re-thinking how we design, then make and use objects. A video showed us interviews with people in the design industry, discussing changes we could make. One person commented on the fact that human’s behaviour goes against nature. Where other animals do not leave behind waste that can’t be broken down or re-used, we do.

My first response when seeing so many objects made from recycling materials, is ‘why isn’t this done everywhere, since we know it is possible?’

These prints are made using waste ink. I really like the designs. They are clever and eye-catching. The words visually get across the meaning by the way they are laid out on the page.

One thought I was left with after the exhibition:

Plastic has only come into use during my mum’s lifetime. In such as short period we have done so much harm. But people are working on the solutions every day. For the short amount of time plastics have been in use, an even shorter amount of time has been spent researching technologies and designs to help us undo the mess we are in. We may need to go back to some of the old ways. People turned to throw-away design solutions for convenience. During the Covid-19 pandemic, public health and hygiene has been the reason for creating even more waste. We have something to overcome which is a mental attitude of how we approach the problem. It is the responsibility of designers and users. But we also need data. The data to figure out which is worse: throwing away a plastic cup or producing recycled cups which takes energy to manufacture.