An Eco Awakening

A Cleaner Future.

Every year, U.S. landfills are piled high with 139.6 M tons of waste.

These days consumers and corporations alike are rethinking how to create a better future. With nature playing a central role in the pandemic, a big question being asked personally and professionally is, “How do we as a society gauge what is appropriate for the environment?”

“We need to find solutions that get better over time,” commented Brandi Parker, with Pearlfisher New York, an independent brand design agency. Parker deals with brand problem solving for consumer goods focusing on product packaging. She advocates a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach in her work as head of realization at Pearlfisher. “It is critical to have a material strategy right from the beginning that includes planning for the end,” said Parker, who participated in a June webinar series hosted by Material ConneXion on “The Future Relationship of Materials & Design.”

To that end, Parker concluded, “Design doesn’t work without materials. New materials influence design.” Parker cited materials that are recyclable and degradable and disappear immediately in the future as key priorities.

She shared this example from the food industry: “A cucumber needs plastic wrap to keep fresh in the supermarket, but then consumers throw the wrap away. However if cucumbers were bought from a local source, there would be no need for packaging. Or what about using a bio-based spray that would protect the cucumber’s freshness, but is washed off after purchase?”  

Parker also suggested the use of mono-materials going forward. “If a product is designed with one material, or at least fewer materials, it is easier to recycle and also be recyclable.” She highlighted algae as a great resource, and is excited about technologies that use enzymes to break down plastic.

“If I look at consumer goods at the individual level, the more convenient the product, the less sustainable. There is an innate tension between the two.” — Brandi Parker, head of realization, Pearlfisher NY

The Importance of Circularity

Jason Belaire, outdoor industry veteran and current incoming president of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) spoke of concerns about a culture of behaviors and emotions that feed into buying and creating without critical thinking. To make his point, Belaire offered a try-this-at-home exercise: Close your eyes and see a landfill. Stare at that image for a minute or two. Then ask yourself what you see. (In this reporter’s case it was an old kitchen appliance, a ratty looking pair of pants, a broken chair, and a worse for wear sneaker.)

“The reality,” said Belaire, “is that designers created all these products, and all have ended up in a landfill. That’s why circular design is so important.”

Acting on this belief, Belaire organized The Sustainability Deep Dive 2020, a three-day virtual event held in June that featured a mix of expert presentations and skill-building sessions meant to “produce a wellspring of innovative ideas and possibilities that are desperately needed to bring about change.” The inaugural event drew upwards of 600 attendees, shining a light on the industrial design community’s hunger for knowledge around sustainability and circularity, according to Belaire.

Convenience also deserves some critical thinking. As the pandemic continues to disrupt routines, convenience is a priority, leading to an increase in home delivery services and take out meals, with sustainability often placed on the backburner.  

“If I look at consumer goods at the individual level, the more convenient the product, the less sustainable. There is an innate tension between the two,” said Parker. “The problem is how to retain convenience and make something more sustainable.

Maybe the pandemic will serve as a catalyst to rethink human behavior and concept of convenience.”

That’s why Parker believes biodegradable innovation is so important. She commented,  “Sometimes I see something I made on the side of the sidewalk, and I think, ‘I made pretty trash.’”

Parker shared her personal “lightweighting” manifesto that is based on the idea of shifting the weight of environmental responsibility back to the brand, in terms of sustainable design and circularity. “Brands have been pumping out product and leaving the problems to the consumer, in how and when to recycle and what to do when we don’t want or need the product any longer. Consumers shouldn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting when it comes to recycling and end of life process.”