“I don’t think we are going to become extinct. We are very clever and very resourceful.” Sir David Attenborough
As teachers, we are charged with educating the future generation to make sure this statement holds true. We need to help them to turn the tide on consumerism, waste and pollution. I introduce the topic of sustainability to my classes by showing them a series of products – batteries, drinks bottles and mobile phones – and asking them what they think the term “sustainable design” means.
Looking at these everyday objects and particularly ones that are systematically discarded, we can assess how manufacturing them can continue as resources become scarcer. The term "sustainable" has become a metaphor for the good sense of society, realising that in order to meet the needs of the present, we must not compromise the needs of future generations. We know now that the use of non-renewables cannot continue at its current rate. So how can we help our students to understand the issues and think about solutions in a positive light?
Circular economy/life-cycle analysis
It's a good idea to begin at the beginning. Explore how materials are sourced, right back to the extraction of ores and sulphates for metal; crude oil to be turned into plastic; and the growing of timber for paper. Then look into processing, how the product is used, and how it's managed at the end of its life.
Have students analyse a product they have at home, such as a kitchen implement or gardening tool. Get them to research where the raw materials came from and how they were processed and manufactured. This doesn’t only link with ideas around energy consumption, but also deforestation, movement of indigenous people and scarring of the landscape, enabling you to discuss wide-ranging environmental, moral and social implications.
Packaging is an easy starting point for sustainable design. Give the example of a biscuit box that is over-engineered: the vacuum-formed polystyrene insert, wrapped in a cellophane cover, contained within a cardboard box. Get your students to come up with a redesign that still contains and protects the product, but with a more thoughtful and informed approach. Look at the shapes and structures that provide most strength, such as cylinders, triangles, honeycombs, etc, and what materials are easy to recycle and reuse.
How to adapt our transport systems is also a vital future consideration. Over half of the world’s population now lives in cities and the ways that we choose to live and travel can have a huge impact on the environment.
Introduce students to the history of society’s love affair with the car; get them to consider the nature of concern and possible positive solutions, for example by analysing diesel and petrol cars versus hybrid and electric. They could research the developments in government interventions for reducing cars in the inner cities – such as odd and even number plate days, as seen in China and Paris – and ways that people can be encouraged to use public transport and car share. Students can also explore practical ways to reduce their own carbon footprint with BMW’s urban mobility guide.
Sustainable design cannot eliminate plastic completely. Economically and socially, plastic has been integrated into our lives and it would be naïve to imagine that consumers, as well as governments, would abandon the benefits and cost implications of stopping its use altogether. It’s also worth noting that many people depend on the plastics industry to make a living. In the UK the plastics industry is an economic strength. It has an annual sales turnover of over £23.5 billion and employs approximately 170,000 workers.
However, you and your students can explore the issue of safe working practices within the industry. Chemical sequestration programmes filter the carbon out of gases which can be released through industrial processes. In the manufacture of products, biodegradable polymers can be used, such as PLA (polylactic acid), the same plastic we used in 3D printers.
One of the main culprits for pollution in the oceans is the single-use PET bottles we use for water/soft drinks. Six-pack can holders now can be processed as a fish food. Workers in the industry can use transferable skills and manufacture in a similar way.
There’s also great value in exploring the concept of a closed-loop cycle of design and manufacture, where once the material is extracted it can be used again and again through reimagining the use of materials to remanufacture another product, such as the PET bottle into Nike football shirts. The process involves melting down recycled plastic drinking bottles to produce a fine yarn. The bottles are cleaned, shredded into flakes then converted into pellets. From there, the pellets are melted and extruded into the high-quality yarn used to create the kits, delivering peak performance with a lower impact on the environment. This is a common practice for larger retail companies trying to offset their carbon footprint.
In order to move forward, it’s essential that students understand what a sustainable form of energy is (and what it isn’t). Introduce them to the many alternatives to the energy production of proceeding generations. For example, wind, water, geo-thermal, solar, hydroelectric, as opposed to nuclear, coal, gas. As a designer, it's important to identify how the product will be made, and how the energy provided to process the material, manufacture and package the product is harvested. Encourage students to explore and consider examples of environmental good practice.
Informing students about how they can create a greener, cleaner planet through sustainable living is essential. These are the designers, engineers and decision-makers of the future, and they can be educated now toward a better understanding of positive action and involvement. As the author and explorer Robert Swan wrote: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
Sally Houchin is head of product design, Colchester Sixth Form College