Even in design, the most uncomfortable truths sooner or later become commonplaces. Slogans, such as that according to which plastic is the sworn enemy of an ecologically perfect world. Or the other that states how wood and natural materials are the ideal tools for a sustainable industry.
They are two of the most popular refrains of eco-design, that frayed world that has its strengths in sustainable design - and therefore in recycling, in manufacturing with decomposable and reusable pieces and in dozens of other virtuous practices. Because a world without plastics, with more natural raw materials and in which almost nothing ends up in landfills, is a better world.
“It's certainly true in principle,” says Andrea Corona of Quantis, an international environmental consultancy agency. “But if we focus the lens on the more complex mechanisms that regulate any human activity, we realize how certain realities that we have rightly decided to fight hide complex issues, to be solved with dedicated strategies. And that the solution that seems perfect in the abstract may not be the best in practice.”
The school case generally cited to demonstrate how a right battle can have wrong objectives is that of straws: if it is true that plastic ones are destined to become non-recyclable waste, it is also true that the steel alternative makes sense to certain conditions, namely that each metal straw is used at least one hundred and fifty times before being thrown away: below these numbers, the footprint generated by its production will have been a high price for the environment. “In other words, if we don't follow a scientific and quantitative approach, our perception can lead us in the wrong direction,” summarizes Corona.
The criterion, the approach, almost the philosophy that teaches us to move among the pitfalls of the just war that we risk fighting with the wrong straw has a precise name, long on everyone's lips and in the hearts of many, but perhaps in the mind of few, at least as it really should be. It is called circular economy and, unlike the linear economy – that of the extraction of resources, of their processing and transformation into products that sooner or later will become garbage – it focuses on the ‘cycle’, a closed system in which everything is regenerated avoiding new extraction of materials, the use of energy from fossil sources and the production of waste.
In the circular economy - thanks to a coherent design – the life of products is extended with ad hoc strategies: sharing, repairing, reusing... Practices that alone would never be enough, but which all together define a basket of valid and effective solutions to reduce the impact on the environment.
Even in design, circularity is now a key word, if we think of virtuous stories such as that of Jannelli & Volpi, wallpaper excellence that for a year has been transforming vinyl paper scraps into thermoplastic granules that become the basis for synthetic grass surfaces. of play areas and football fields. Or, again, the Sacco armchair by Zanotta, launched a year ago for the fiftieth anniversary of this made in Italy icon in an edition with Econyl® casing (nylon obtained from waste) and bioplastic padding obtained from sugar cane. The Sacco also has another ‘circular’ feature: durability, since it is a piece destined to pass from house to house, from generation to generation. But if this durability is discounted in pieces of thousands of euros that we would hardly want to get rid of, the most difficult bet is to give these qualities, aesthetics and durability to products to which we associate a shorter duration, more subject to the taste of the moment and generally destined to be thrown away and replaced after a while.
Food containers, for example. And so circular economy also means giving a lunch bag the same destiny as an iconic armchair. This is what Simone Spalvieri and Valentina Del Ciotto did with Re-Generation, the collection of bottles, lunch boxes, bags and kitchen containers designed for Fratelli Guzzini and distributed by Coop. "A collection to demonstrate that sustainability and beauty are possible not only in the most demanding furnishings, but also in everyday tools, including shopping bags and cutlery". The Re-Generation pieces are manufactured with a 70 percent post-consumer (recycled) plastic percentage (50 percent in the bottle only), in almost all cases coming from Italy.
From the iconic armchairs to the lunch boxes, it is all design that explains well how each solution must be specifically tailored and never derive from abstract rules. “And in fact the circular economy is more a philosophy than a decalogue. The solutions it can provide must be evaluated from time to time and case by case, with a science-based approach to avoid greenwashing” explains Corona of Quantis. “For example, is plastic always the worst solution? Or are counterproductive effects also hidden in the use of natural materials that are often not optimized, causing waste in extraction and in the supply chain? Even bioplastics, starting from those with which supermarket shopping bags are made, can hide greater pitfalls than traditional plastics, given that to produce them, water consumption is not indifferent to the price of the risk of polluting the aquifers. also that it takes up to ninety days of treatment at high temperatures to dissolve them. If, on the other hand, we think of recycling, we must keep in mind that the recycling system of some materials such as polycarbonate or plexiglass, with which many historical pieces of Italian design are manufactured, still has little advanced recovery systems and low business volumes. This does not mean that we must prefer traditional plastic to organic plastic or give up recycling: it means, if anything, that we must be aware of how there is no human activity that does not leave a footprint and that, faced with a crossroads, we will have to choose the road with the least impact”.
The key expression that completes the circle of a truly circular economy, and gives this and design itself a horizon of meaning beyond the slogans, teaching how to evaluate how to move in front of the famous crossroads that Corona speaks of, is Life Cycle Assessment. That is the study that calculates and certifies the environmental cost of each product with quantifiable parameters 'from cradle to grave': how much energy was used to produce it, from raw materials to transport? How much will it take to make it work? And how much will it cost to dispose of it? Can related emissions be reduced? “The challenge of our work” explains Corona “is to focus on a holistic and science-based perspective, where each step must be evaluated based on the consequences in the context. To put it in medical language, we do not cure individual malaise, but we seek general well-being ”.
To go back to the example of the straw, it helps to understand whether it is better to pick up the Spritz from plastic or from steel. Widespread mainly in Northern European countries, the Life Cycle Assessment is also gaining ground in Italy, where Arper,, to make a design case, has chosen it to evaluate the impact of some collections. "In the last five years, the use of Life Cycle Assessment and in general of scientific metrics for evaluating the sustainability of products has also grown at the decision-making level and assessments of this kind are now considered strategic", explains Corona. A litmus test is the Italian growth of Quantis, which started in our country last year with a staff of three units that have become ten in 2020.
This holistic research, which for an environmental analyst is a scientific calculation, in the case of a designer corresponds to the professional and ethical challenge par excellence of these years. In the words of Spalvieri and Del Ciotto: “One morning we designers woke up suddenly with the world telling us things that we actually knew very well, and against which many of us had already been fighting for years together with the most alert companies. And that is that plastic, if used unconsciously, is a problem and that we have to design objects that last longer. But circularity was not an unknown issue to the most responsible designers. And in fact today we find ourselves signing a collection in which recycled plastic covers 70% of the material used. Then, of course, our job is also to explain why the remaining 30 percent is made of traditional plastic.” Yes, why? “Because design also means balancing different needs, in this case health and industrial, such as the difficulty of working and printing an object that is 100% organic. No designer can change the world all of a sudden, but one step at a time we can all do better what hasn't been so far ”. As if to say that even the compromise, if it is noble and on the upside, becomes circularity.
Cover photo and in the article:‘Materiality & Aggregation’, project by Kajsa Willner, part of the research program Stepts (Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways) of Lund University. Exhibition at Form/Design Center, in Malmö, Sweden, from 9 to 27 September 2020. Ph. Kennet Ruona.