What would a world without single-use plastic look like? One only has to look back about 60 years, when the vast majority of the single-use plastics we use today didn’t exist.
That’s what Christina Cogdell, chair of the design department at the University of California at Davis, wants her class to imagine. Since taking on the role of department chair in 2017, Cogdell has required every design major to take a class called “Energy Materials and Design Across Time”—all about designing for the full life cycle of objects.
Over the course of the semester, her students populate a website called designlife-cycle.com, which has been featured in Smithsonian magazine and on educational billboards in Bangalore, India. Each entry is an investigation into the materials and energy that go into making a common household item—a Sharpie marker, Adidas sneakers, a coil mattress, an LCD television, a HydroFlask water bottle—and what happens to them after they get discarded. Do they ever break down? Can they be recycled? What kind of pollution do they create?
“PhD students from around the world have emailed wanting to talk with the students of certain projects to learn more about the sources they found. It’s been super rewarding in every way,” Cogdell tells me. “Students say it changes how they think and live—me too, actually.”
In a packed lecture hall on a bright October afternoon, Cogdell begins her class at the beginning of design: How humans began making early tools, starting with the Stone Age, and moving into the Bronze and Iron Ages. Each new material required hotter furnaces, demanding more trees to turn into ever-more charcoal. By the time of the Roman Empire, virtually all of Europe had been deforested to supply ironsmiths with fuel. “This is not the first time we used everything up to the point of not being able to go further,” she says.
She highlights a few ingenious inventions—leather scrapers, sickle blades, a hand-crank drill from about 6,000 BC that stores energy as a person twists it (“I absolutely love this one. You could make this! If you’re on Survivor you should make one,” she says).
Cogdell pauses to ask the class a question: Could they see any flaw with thinking of civilization as progressively advanced only as it adopts new materials? A student named Claire raises her hand. By calling certain materials “primitive,” she says, it sounds like “there’s a stigma.”
Right, Cogdell says. “It is the idea that the more energy a culture expends, the more ‘civilized’ or ‘advanced’ it is.” In the modern era, when colonizing Europeans encountered a society that was still using stone tools, or that never had a “bronze age” because they used different materials, she told the class the Europeans would label it “arrested development,” or “archaism.”
And it’s by continuing to equate civilization with the use of more and more resources and energy that we’ve found ourselves stuck in an unsustainable Plastic Age.
Humans are using more energy and materials than we ever have before, to the point where the available resources of the entire world are no longer enough. If the world’s population consumed natural resources and produced waste at the rate that the US does, it would take five Earths to sustainably meet those needs. Our collective techno-superiority complex, in other words, has brought us climate change, plus extreme wealth disparities and ecological devastation as resources are depleted.
But that’s why they are all here now: Design, Cogdell tells her students, is the framework that has made the massive boom in energy use and a disposable consumer culture possible. But it is also the tool that can get us out of it.
“Sustainability,” take two
Cogdell is preparing her students to enter a design market that has already tried once to address the challenges posed by plastic—by making single-use items that don’t stick around as long. For the most part, it has failed.
Take compostable fiber bowls, like the kind popping up at fast-food restaurants. They’re an improvement on single-use plastic containers, to be sure. But if Cogdell’s students were to apply their lifecycle framework to the bowls, their shortcomings would soon become clear.
First, most of these food containers must be composted in industrial, heat-treated compost facilities that also accept food waste, of which there are very few. The US has about 4,700 municipal composting centers, but, as Fast Company points out, they were designed to take yard waste, not food. Today, only 3% take food—and even those are reluctant to take the new material, in part because they tend to take longer than food to break down.
Recent research has also found that many compostable fiber to-go containers—including those at fast-food chains like Chipotle and Sweetgreen—are often coated with a layer of PFAS, a class of chemicals also referred to as “perfluorinated” or “fluorinated” compounds. Surfaces coated in PFAS become nonstick and greaseproof, which are great qualities for food packaging. But the chemicals have been linked to a range of health risks in humans including cancer, immune system disorders, reproductive abnormalities, and problems with fetal development.
When these bowls are composted, the chemicals can make their way into the soil. One study of compost from five US states found PFAS levels as much as 10 times higher in the soil from facilities that accepted food packaging. This year, composting facilities in Oregon sent a letter to a biodegradable packaging industry group saying they wouldn’t take any more food packaging. Earlier this year, Denmark became the first country to ban PFAS from food containers.
Another design hack, so-called “bioplastic” or “compostable plastic,” runs into similar issues. These plastics, often made from non-petroleum products, are intended to degrade in the natural environment. But they often don’t—or at least not as quickly as people might think.
Most products labeled as “compostable plastic” degrade only in the special heat-treated industrial composting facilities that are reluctant to accept them because they are so difficult to sort from regular plastic. They also can’t be recycled, because they would contaminate the recycling stream. If a community doesn’t have an industrial composting facility, that “compostable” object is going straight to the landfill.
This year, a team of researchers from the University of Plymouth in the UK tested compostable, biodegradable, and oxo-biodegradable plastic bags (oxo-biodegradable plastics are meant to be able to degrade by way of exposure to heat or light rather than microbes). The team buried bags in soil, left them outdoors, and submerged them in seawater for three years.
At the end of the three years, the only one that fully disappeared was the compostable bag left in seawater. Both the “biodegradable” and “oxo-biodegradable” bags could still hold a full load of groceries after three years in the marine environment or buried in soil.
Now that these flaws have been exposed, a new generation of designers are beginning to tackle the challenge of truly temporary single-use materials anew. A New York-based startup called Loliware is making seaweed-based straws that completely dissolve and, though flavorless, can even be eaten. In another case, a Scottish startup called Cuantec has begun making a clear film out of shellfish shells to replace plastic wrap. The material is naturally antimicrobial and can be composted in a backyard compost pile.
But true change won’t result from simply designing low-impact, single-use material. Instead, designers are dreaming up systems that can rebuild a culture of reusable materials.
New habits don’t have to be a drag
Making that shift doesn’t have to feel like pulling teeth. Several companies—future employers of Cogdell’s students, perhaps—are trying to make the transition towards reuse as seamless as possible.
Vessel, a Colorado-based startup, has begun installing stainless steel cup check-outs in cafes. Instead of a plastic-lined paper cup with a plastic lid, the customer gets their coffee in a QR-code-tagged steel cup, which can be chucked into a bin nearby that looks like a huge trash can. Vessel picks them up, washes them, and returns them to the cafe, much like restaurants use linen services for napkins and tablecloths. According to the company, they can match the cost to what a cafe would spend buying paper and plastic goods.
Supermarkets in many places are expanding their bulk section offerings, which cuts way down on plastic packaging, though challenges still remain: What good is buying unpackaged grains and legumes if you’re still pouring them into plastic bags each time? Containers clearly labeled with their tare weight, like those sold by Goods Holding Company, could promote use of personal containers just like many shoppers have adopted bring-your-own-bag policies.
As Vox reported, the South African supermarket chain Pick and Pay is currently piloting “nude zones,” where produce is laser-etched with the supplier code to eliminate plastic stickers, and customers can bring their own containers to carry them home. And this April, the Quebec supermarket Metro became Canada’s first major grocer to permit customers to bring their own containers to take home meat, seafood, pastries, and ready-to-eat meals.
In most cases, the demand for new ideas is driven by conscious customers willing or able to go slightly out of their way, or pay slightly more for a “greener” option. But sometimes, the design solutions are being prodded into existence by newly-minted laws aimed at phasing out single-use items.
Vessel, for example, is growing in Berkeley, California, where a novel local ordinance requires food businesses to serve customers in real plates, cups, and utensils when they’re dining on-site, with few exceptions (foil wrappers for burritos get to stay). For drinks, businesses must charge customers 25 cents for a disposable cup. The fee is a charge, not a tax, so the business keeps all the money—which both incentivizes customers to bring their own to-go containers, and businesses to stick to the ordinance.
San Francisco followed suit, passing an ordinance requiring customers to request cutlery and other accessories with their take-out orders; throwing a handful of single-use foodware in with a takeout order is no longer the default. It also completely banned plastic versions of drink plugs, stirrers, and cocktail sticks, which are virtually unrecyclable. Both ordinances have a crucial clause: They shun compostable foodservice containers unless they’ve been certified to be free of fluorinated chemicals like PFAS.
“We’re spreading this policy model—this Berkeley ordinance model—across the country,” says Miriam Gordon, the program director of Upstream, an organization that advocates for ways to reduce waste. US cities and town governments, she says, regularly reach out to Upstream to do something about their plastic pollution. “They ask, should we go compostable? Or increase recycling?” Gordon says.
She immediately tells them no. “Those things aren’t really working.” Instead, she says they have to staunch the flow of waste at its source.
Outside of the US, major plastic bans are cropping up. European Union member states have until 2021 to implement a ban on plastic straws, cutlery, cups, drink stirrers, and sticks for balloons. Plus, companies that produce single-use food containers, wrappers, cups, balloons, wet wipes, and flimsy plastic bags will also be required to pay for their cleanup.
India was about to pass a ban on all single-use plastic in the country, but shelved the measure at the eleventh hour last month. It would have been the most ambitious ban of its kind.
The US could be considering its own version of the failed India ban as soon as this year. The bill, as outlined, would shift the burden for paying for curbside recycling programs away from governments and taxpayers, and towards the companies who make and use the plastic packaging for their products. It would also ban the most common single-use plastic products, like lightweight plastic carryout bags, cutlery, straws, and drink stirrers, with exceptions made for people with disabilities who rely on them.
The problem of recycling and plastic waste, it turns out, is more about what we choose to put into the environment than what we can take out of it. And solving it can be done, because it’s been done before. Think about the original Coke bottles: Those iconic fluted glass bottles could be returned, washed out, and refilled with more Coke.
Today, plastic Coke bottles litter beaches and pollute rivers globally. But when the EU ban was proposed, the European Commission released a statement that included one telling line: “The industry will also be given incentives to develop less polluting alternatives for these products,” they wrote. In other words, unless companies resign themselves to pay endlessly for cleanup, they will have to design themselves out of this mess.