‘This is the age of waste’: the show about our throwaway addiction and how to cure it

How will this age be remembered? After the stone age, the bronze age, the steam age and the information age, what material or innovation will most define the current era? According to a new exhibition at the Design Museum, the most ubiquitous hallmark of the Anthropocene is not a gamechanging material, nor the mastery of technology. It’s trash.

“We are arguably living in the waste age,” says Justin McGuirk, the London museum’s chief curator, who has spent the last three years rifling through rubbish with co-curator Gemma Curtin to put together this timely show. “The production of waste is absolutely central to our way of life, a fundamental part of how the global economy operates. We wanted to show how design is deeply complicit in the waste problem – and also best placed to address it.”

Opening on the eve of the Cop26 climate summit, Waste Age is a powerful wake-up call, not so much to consumers, but to the manufacturers, retailers and, most crucially, government regulators. It is not intended to be a slap around the face for buying that takeaway coffee on your way to the museum, or forgetting your cotton tote bag yet again, but an eye-opening look at the sheer scale of the issue, and the people working on ingenious solutions.

The exhibition begins with a useful reminder that we didn’t get here by accident. Humans are not inherently wasteful creatures. Throwaway culture was something we had to learn – indeed, it was a lifestyle choice, marketed from the mid-20th century onwards as a decadent release, following the austerity of wartime. It was the intentional opposite of “make do and mend”. One advert from the 1960s extolls the wonders of the new-fangled polystyrene cup: “New and very in! The party ‘glass’ you just enjoy … and throw away.” It hangs next to a plastic carrier bag from the 1980s, printed with descriptions of its many advantages over paper. Little did we know that, four decades later, the world would be consuming more than a million plastic bags a minute.

Generating waste, the curators argue, has long been a primary engine of the economy. The history of the lightbulb is an illuminating case in point. En la década de 1920, bulbs were so long-lasting that they were deemed commercially unviable. General Electric, Philips and others formed the Phoebus cartel en 1924 to standardise the life expectancy of lightbulbs at 1,000 hours – down from the previous 2,500 horas. And so the culture of planned obsolescence was born. Almost a century later, similar practices continue: el año pasado Apple agreed to pay up to $500m, after it was accused of deliberately slowing down older phone models to encourage consumers to buy the latest handsets.

A striking installation by Ibrahim Mahama brings home the reality of where such defunct electronics end up. He has erected a giant wall of old TV monitors that play clips from Agbogbloshie in Ghana, for many years the world’s largest e-waste dump, where informal workers burn electrical cables to harvest the copper wire and other precious metals. Mahama has commissioned them to cast the salvaged metal in the form of TV screen surrounds, which frame footage showing this toxic process. The scenes are desperate, but the message is clear: waste is precious.

Acerca de 7% of the world’s gold supplies are trapped inside existing electronic devices, significa que, according to some estimates, por 2080 the largest metal reserves will not be underground but in circulation as existing products. Y lo que es más, one tonne of extracted gold ore yields 3g of gold, whereas recycling one tonne of mobile phones yields 300g. So waste dumps and landfill sites are the new resource-rich mines.

“In many ways ‘waste’ is a category error,” says McGuirk. “It’s often perfectly good material that’s simply undervalued.” The exhibition includes designers who are already working on what a future of “above-ground mining” might look like, exploring how objects and buildings can be dismantled and their parts reused. There is the work of pioneering Belgian group Rotor, a team of architects who set up a demolition company to carefully remove materials and components from buildings slated for the wrecking ball.

Their Brussels warehouse brims with everything from marble slabs to vintage lamps, the spoils of what they call “forestry in the city”. It is shown alongside the refurbishment projects of French architects Lacaton & Vassal, for whom demolition is “a waste of energy, a waste of material, a waste of history [y] an act of violence”. At a time when global construction waste is set to double to 2.2bn tonnes a year by 2025, su joint calls to re-use what we already have couldn’t be more urgent.

In the consumer goods sphere, the re-use cause is championed by the likes of iFixit, an online global repair platform that publishes free repair guides and sells spare parts and tools, like a screwdriver to disassemble the iPhone. It has been lobbying governments for repairability legislation since 2003, with some success. France is the first country in Europe to implement a Repairability Index, adopted in January, which requires manufacturers to provide clear information on the repairability of smartphones, laptops, washing machines, televisions and lawnmowers, and award their products scores out of 10. El iphone 11 may include some recycled rare earth elements, but it got a repairability score of 4.5 fuera de 10.

The final section of the exhibition moves beyond fixing and recycling to imagine a “post-waste” world, where materials are grown rather than extracted. Design exhibition regulars might be familiar with the wonders of hempcrete or mycelium insulation, but this show includes a dazzling range of innovations, desde water-soluble electronic circuit boards made of natural fibres, to “sea stone", a concrete-like material made from crushed seashells. Also featured are Sony’s packaging made from bamboo and sugarcane (embossed rather than printed, to save ink waste), Notpla’s seaweed-based sachets for liquids and condiments, a polystyrene substitute made from sunflowers, and a new kind of leather made from coconut water – alongside things made from algae, corn husks and organic pulps of all kinds.

Such biodegradable solutions come with their own pitfalls: how many times have you thrown a plastic container in the recycling bin, before realising it was actually compostable Vegware? And should it go in the compost bin or landfill? Behaviour and expectations will have to adjust to meet the brave new bio-future. “Our aesthetic sensibilities may have to adapt,” McGuirk writes in the exhibition catalogue. “After nearly a century of appreciating the hard-smooth-shiny perfection of plastics, we may begin to embrace irregularity, imperfection, decay and decomposition.”

Your future organo-laptop might not overheat, slow down, or need its battery constantly replaced. But it might start to go mouldy instead.

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