Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday Lunchtime Linkages

Since the earlier post was entirely dedicated to local issues, I need a second one today to link to a couple articles that are more globally oriented or general in nature.

The first, from Metropolis entitled "The High Cost of Convenience," gets at what I feel is one of the great issues we face today: production processes, the recycling of dirty materials, and the painful transition away from planned obsolescence. Rather than selling more and more of the same product, the profit potential of the 21st century will be in closing cradle-to-grave material loops and the discovery of multiple ways of turning waste into profit.

Thwaites designed a toaster not to enjoy warm, crisped bread but rather to comment on waste, production processes, cheap products that never represent their true costs—and to point out that companies aren’t particularly interested in solving those issues. Thwaites’s plastic adviser, Axion Recycling, exists because of WEEE—not some kids’ toy but a piece of European Union legislation, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. Approved in 2003, it requires companies to break down and recycle their castoffs. Its passing heralded the promise of a brave new world in which companies would be responsible for the afterlives of their products. They’d design things differently—fewer parts but more of them interchangeable and easy to break down. It would transform design. “The invisible hand of the market would lead to products that were easier to recycle,” Thwaites remembers thinking.

It didn’t turn out like that. Companies only have to purchase a certificate from a business like Axion proving that they purchased the same amount of recycled material by weight as they’d sold. To recycle a product in the age of WEEE, it is first crushed, with bits like copper and steel extracted, and then sent to Axion for plastic retrieval. But the problem is, Thwaites notes wryly, “There are quite a lot of parts in even something as simple as a toaster.” Extracting them in a pure form is difficult, and there are limits to just how often something can be recycled. Metal, plastic, paper, or cardboard can only can be reused once or twice before it’s got too many impurities. Thwaites knows that toasters are artificially cheap, but no one (not even he) wants to pay more. “Part of the solution is making sure the toasters we buy last longer, and we invest as much ingenuity and money into taking them apart as we do putting them together,” he says.
And The Guardian raises another question of the day, that of the design challenge of cities, global urbanization, and standard of living disparity:
The question is this: how do we create cities that are not just containers for tightly-packed populations, but pleasant and equitable places to live? Someone once described the identical high-rises that ring so many capitals as the easyJet of urban living, because they offer everyone affordable access to the city; but they're not what you could call idealistic. The segregation and social polarisation of cities is getting so extreme that a violent future may be inevitable. The UN report has said as much. Now that city-making has become a priority, politicians need to have faith in designers. Because if there's one lesson to be learned from the last quarter of a century, it's that we need to shift our focus away from liberty and the free market, and move towards equality.