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Can design help break our addiction to single-use plastic?

REUTERS/Rafiqur Rahman
Tiffin lunch carriers, like the ones being carried through a street in Dhaka, are a perfect example of convenient, reusable design that predates disposable plastic by a longshot.
  • Zoë Schlanger
By Zoë Schlanger

Environment reporter


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, 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?

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