By now most have seen whimsical examples of craft tradition co-mingling with the notion of reduce, reuse, & recycle. From cufflinks made from recycled keyboard parts, Whole Food’s “I used to be a Plastic Bottle” grocery bags, to bowls made from old records, products that combine whimsy and function have an established niche in the design field. In the realm of environmental issues these products frequently provide an avenue to promote awareness, and continue a conversation that’s wrapped in fun. With critiques from within and outside of “green” circles about environmental messages being too dramatic or too “preachy”, crafting a message that has room for a sense of play becomes increasingly important.
However, at Terracycle that sense is not just a spoonful of sugar with environmental medicine, but a way to start a dialogue about the products we make and the materials used to make them. Founded about 10 years ago by Tom Szaky at Princeton Univ., Terracycle’s objective is to “Eliminate the Idea of Waste” by finding innovative solutions to dealing with materials that would otherwise end up in our landfills. In 2001 that meant marketing fertilizer created from worms eating kitchen scraps, and in 2010 that meant introducing displays in Wal-Marts nationwide that featured products like Capri-Sun bags – repurposed from materials usually seen as garbage. In a recent NY Times feature their design team describes the “trashy redesign” of their office including wall dividers from vinyl records, staff desks made from salvaged doors and fire hydrants, and a recycled glass bottle retaining wall. Some Facebook users may even be familiar with their new game helping to educate consumers about upcycling.
However playful, Terracycle’s aesthetic – feeding our ever-growing need to combine fun with our activism – pushes a fundamental reconsideration of the concept of virgin materials. Their mantra “Waste Does Not Exist” pushes a part of argument for sustainability that needs more traction in the larger design community. In the rush to develop new Energy Star appliances, produce more bottles that hold the same amount of our favorite water in less space, and make more to consume from sustainable materials, Terracycle is saying that by looking at landfills not only as places products can avoid, but as a serious resource for the creation new products, we can compound our environmental efforts. In that light, the fact that we can have fun doing it seems like icing on the cake.