Richard Hutten thinks plastic recycling is bullshit. On stage at an international architecture and design conference, Mr. Hutten, a Dutch designer, flatly relayed this opinion to Andrew Morlet, head of The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the eminent circular-design advocacy organization.
At the one day conference organized by Dezeen, the two discussed design for a circular economy. Mr. Hutten’s strong phrasing was a response to Mr. Morlet’s espousing of the virtues of plastic as a modern and versatile wonder material, and his assertion that chemical recycling processes will allow polymers to be kept in use in a circular economy.
“That is such bullshit”, replied Mr. Hutten, going on to describe plastics as “the cancer of our planet”. “No matter what people are saying, that you can recycle it, that’s bullshit. You cannot recycle it. There are 4000 different kinds of plastic. PET can be recycled a little bit, all the other plastics cannot.” It should be noted that there are considerable international markets for other resin types such as high-density polyethylene (#2)and polypropylene (#5), but Mr. Hutten somewhat accurately asserts that PET (#1) is one of the most commonly recycled.
To Mr. Morlet’s credit, he sensibly offered that “Pretty much everything that we have in the economy today is designed for short lifespans and disposability. We’re trying to recycle and recover materials that were never designed to be recovered, so the yields that we get from those types of activities are very low.”
A relatively recent development in human material culture is designing “things” in such a way as to render them unrecyclable from inception. Half hearted circularity attempts abound, likely to end up in the hands of the privileged few. On a mass scale, obsolescence reigns supreme. From idea to design to manufacture, there has been virtually no consideration of a seamless re-integration of these objects back into the material economy once their usability, or, more likely, their popularity, comes to a natural end.
There is in fact nothing natural about their ends. Synthetic materials, the bedrock of modern day technological advancements, are wholly incompatible with natural systems of decomposition and renewal. Conversely, organic materials become trapped in human-made landfills, converting to methane and contributing to climate change.
A recent study in Nature indicates that “the mass of all human-produced materials — concrete, steel, plastics, asphalt, etc. — has now grown to equal the mass of all life on the planet, its biomass.”.
On human timescales, we’re creating objects of purely linear usefulness that will only be fully re-integrated back into the earth on geological timescales, perhaps for as long as it takes for our landfills to to be swallowed up by the nearest subduction zone and it’s contents reduced back into their fundamental parts by the earth’s mantle.
That isn’t to say that every object needs to be designed for deep time, but there’s certainly room to start implementing circular design that will allow humanity to meet its basic needs not at the expense of ecological systems.
Consumption is unavoidable and necessary to life- water, food, shelter, and certain mechanisms that keep us connected to one another to meet our most fundamental of social needs. But what of the objects of desire?
In dogged pursuit of the good life and armed with a short sighted perspective, we launch arrows wildy in all directions, lodge them in dirt, bury them deep, forget about them, reaching ever deeper into the quiver for another. One way arrows from here to there.
Let’s consider the chasing arrows, those exceptions to linearity. Bio-based alternatives to synthetic materials are increasingly entering the market. A market for truly compostable packaging is in its nascent stages. Adoption of renewable energy sources is surging. Composting is the new recycling. Zero waste influencers abound.
The chasing arrows have come to represent all of this, and more. And from where did these chasing arrows come? Modeling our beloved minimal mobius, we began with a design conference, and return to a design conference.
The 1970 International Design Conference at Aspen culminated in a clash of two cultures. It was meeting of Davids and Goliaths, where Goliath wore a tweed suit, David a denim jacket. The Goliaths were giants of their industry, the Davids a small but highly influential collective of Berkeley student activists.
On one side was the IDCA board, which counted among its membership Herbert Bayer, architect and designer, consultant for the Container Corporation of America, and designer of the large auditorium tent in which the conference proceedings occurred (Eero Saarinen designed a previous iteration of the tent auditorium).
Evening cocktail parties gathered participants on the patio of a Bayer designed modernist home. CCA’s founder, Walter Paepcke founded the IDCA in 1951 to create synergy between business executives and designers. Paepcke is credited with popularizing Aspen into the chic ski and culture destination it’s known as today. He passed away in 1960.
Also in attendance were other creatives and design luminaries of the day: Saul Bass, Eliot Noyes (the event was documented on film by his son Eli Noyes, and girlfriend Claudia Weill), and George Nelson, of high end furniture maker Herman Miller.
Among the activists: Cliff Humphrey of Ecology Action, members of the San Francisco avant garde design collective Ant Farm, and UC Berkeley architecture professor Sim Van der Ryn, who would later become California State Architect under then Governor Jerry Brown.
A bridge between the two worlds, Sim Van der Ryn acted as representative of the student and environmental action groups. A few years earlier he had acted as university negotiator during the occupation and establishment of People’s Park, formerly a vacant UC Berkeley lot. This “pissed off Ronald Reagan (the governor at the time), who called out troops and helicopters to spray [tear] gas.”
These student activists had a different take on design, and a far different vision for participation at the conference. The students proposed to conduct performances amidst inflatable structures, hold meetings, and exhibit work where they felt like. Influenced by Fullerian thinking, for them design was a tool for systems thinking, specifically of the ecological variety.
As to how these groups ended up there, Chip Lord, founding member of the Ant Farm collective, had this to say: “We wanted to go to Boston to shut down the AIA conference but we didn’t have money to get there. So we pushed buttons and pulled levers and threatened to have thousands of hippies show up at Aspen. We said we were going to put an ad in the underground newspapers in Berkeley advertising free food and hanging out with Aquarian age architects and all that bullshit. I guess they bought it.” Such disruptions to design conferences of the era were not uncommon.
Their radically different agenda and ideas for how the conference should be run manifested in radical antics. In response to the conference’s traditionally linear transfer of knowledge — from speaker to audience — and in the spirit of collective participation, the students and activists used a turn on stage to conduct a name tag swap and hunt, a demonstration of an interdependent “ecological chain”.
Cliff Humphrey suggested an attendee outing to the local dump for a lesson in consumerism and when that didn’t pan out, he brought the dump to them. In the film by Noyes and Weill, various speakers can be seen speaking from the podium with trash generated by the event strewn about their feet. Cliff Humphrey, with Ecology Action, founded one of the first, if not the first, neighborhood drop off recycling center in the country in Berkeley, California, circa 1969. In 1970 he moved with his family Modesto and started the country’s first curbside recycling collection program.
The theme of IDCA 1970 was “Environment by Design”. US Senator Gaylord Nelson had just created the world’s first Earth Day two months prior. The idea of Earth Day occurred to the senator, “in the summer of 1969 while on a conservation speaking tour out west,” a hotbed of Hippie Modernism where young minds had been broadened and stimulated by such influences as the Whole Earth Catalog. Later that year Dick Nixon would create the Environmental Protection Agency.
To celebrate the first Earth Day, the Container Corporation of America sponsored a contest for art and design students at high schools and colleges across the country, soliciting designs that would symbolize the recycling process. At that time, CCA was the nation’s largest paper recycler. The winning design would appear on the company’s recycled paperboard products. The prize included $2500 and a fellowship to attend IDCA 1970.
The submissions, of which there were over 500, were evaluated by a panel of distinguished designers at IDCA 1970. The award went to Gary Anderson, then a student at the University of Southern California. His trippy yet minimal design is now universally recognized as the symbol of recycling. The symbol has since come to represent not only recycling, but ecological thinking and environmental design as a whole.
Ultimately, the agitators appeared to have achieved their goal for shaking things up. Their valid criticisms of the conference, and design at large, broke through and were cause for soul searching among the organizers. The events of the conference left them feeling “shaken” and “bruised”. Eliot Noyes, IDCA board president, was alone in voting to discontinue to the event and ultimately resigned his position. Reyner Banham, the English architectural historian, summed things up in describing the whole exchange as a “guaranteed communications failure”. The conflicts that occurred provide a fitting representation of the cultural (and literal) wars being waged by the country at the time.
Following the arrow again, back to the future, on Dezeen Day in 2019, two designers sit on stage and debate the role of design in environmental action.