‘Of all the products of the hand of man, [waste] is the work that no one wants to own, discuss, or even prefer to see, âsays Justin McGuirk, chief curator of the Design Museum, as the institution unveilsâ Waste Age: What Can Design Do? (until February 20, 2022). Co-curated by McGuirk alongside Gemma Curtin, the exhibition coincides with the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and showcases the work of design visionaries and pioneers in new ways to reuse and reinvent our relationship with waste.
The waste problem
Pile of Oxford tires # 1, Westley, California, 1999, from the series ‘Extraction and Landfill’ by Edward Burtynsky. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
The exhibition opens with a section titled ‘Peak Waste’, highlighting the environmental cost and waste of mass production. Looking at landfills, mass production, and throwaway culture through history and design, the exhibition concludes with a timeline exploring humanity’s relationship to waste from the 1700s to the present day.
The timeline in particular offers a sense of the urgency of the problem, as issues of production, consumption and waste become increasingly multifaceted and complex in contemporary history. âWe have to deal with the waste problem – we can no longer ignore what happens to things when we get rid of them,â Curtin says.
Design with waste
After browsing through data and images that could give visitors a sense of fact-induced catastrophe, the exhibition opens (literally and figuratively) in a room filled with ideas, proposals, prototypes and ideas. ‘hope. This section, divided into âprecious wasteâ (celebrating designers who reuse leftover materials in their work) and âpost-wasteâ (exploring ways in which waste can be reused for design) is where things get. optimistic, highlighting how designers, manufacturers and creatives approach the problem with practical solutions.
âInstead of viewing objects as things that have an end of life, this exhibition proposes that they can have multiple lives,â Curtin explains.
“Materialism” by Drift
The exhibits on display testify to the breadth and depth of the design industry’s involvement in tackling the waste problem, from Formafantasma’s “Ore Streams” surveys to Christien Meindertsma’s “Renoleum” project, to ” Materialism âfrom Drift, the result of ongoing research into materials (steel and rubber, tomato oil and porcelain) and their appearance.
The âPrecious Wasteâ section’s exhibits range from fashion by Stella McCartney and Adidas x Parley for the oceans, to recycled plastic furniture designs by Soft Baroque, James Shaw and Jasper Morrison for Emeco, and packaging design to take away “Zero” from PriestmanGoode. Bricks, tiles and other building materials are also presented, as well as projects to reuse architectural structures in the spirit of adaptation and repair.
‘Post Waste’, on the other hand, includes the ongoing work of designers who work with materials such as mycelium, rice husks, fish farming and agricultural waste. This section includes innovations such as the âProject Coelicolorâ by Faber Futures or the agave and corn waste furniture by Fernando Laposse.
âDesign has helped create our wasteful society, and it will be crucial in building a cleaner future,â says McGuirk. âIt means rethinking the lifestyles and the materials that do so much damage. This upbeat exhibit demonstrates the energy and ingenuity put into meeting the challenge – and we want it to be a turning point. There is so much we can do, but it starts with understanding our waste.
Specially commissioned installations
Dawn, by Arthur Mamou-Mani, in partnership with Dassault SystÃ¨mes
Dawn by Arthur Mamou Mani. Photography: FÃ©lix Speller
Suspended from the atrium of the Design Museum, a modular installation 3D printed by the French architect based in London Arthur Mamou-Mani, a pioneer of additive manufacturing. The architect, who created a 3D printed architecture for Burning Man and Milan Design Week, for the occasion imagined a cascading curtain of some 300 modules, printed from bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA), a non-toxic thermoplastic. derived from sugar cane. Title Dawn, it’s an example of how design, science and industry can come together and allow us to produce more sustainably.
With slight variations in shape and opacity, the attractive patterned modules demonstrate the capabilities of parametric design and 3D printing; their relatively small size and the simple metal rods that hold them in place ensure that they can be easily taken apart and reassembled in another location, or reused as room dividers after the exhibit is over. Spotlights have been strategically placed around the installation, filtering through the translucent modules to create playful patterns of light and shadow on the atrium floor.
An accompanying mezzanine level display includes statistics that illustrate the virtues of PLA – compared to ABS, a petroleum-derived thermoplastic, it requires less water, minerals and metals and is less risky respiratory and carcinogenic effects. A 3D printer and plastic crusher are installed next door, so visitors can witness the grinding, melting, and reforming of the modules, while the PLA is recycled and printed again in a continuous loop.
According to Mamou-Mani about the presentation: âIt is crucial that designers start to think beyond the time frame of their projects, where the material comes from, where it goes, how it can be reconfigured. The entire life cycle must be taken into account. Dawn shows that it is possible today, if only we adapt the way we think. ‘
Fadama 40, by Ibrahim Mahama
Fadama 40, by Ibrahim Mahama
Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama, known for transforming materials collected in urban environments into ambitious installations that explore migration, trade and exploitation, has created a new installation for ‘Waste Age’. Title Fadama 40, it includes 40 CRT televisions collected from Agbogbloshie, the world’s largest electronic waste dump, located outside the city of Accra.
Agbogbloshie is a consequence of the developed world’s craze for the new – in our aggressive pursuit of sleeker, faster, and thinner electronics, we rarely hesitate to throw out the old versions. Many of our old electronics end up here, imported as “second-hand consumer goods” and then disposed of inappropriately, causing widespread pollution and chronic disease. Mahama’s installation, which has all 40 televisions arranged in a gigantic media wall, suggests the enormity of the problem, but also highlights the hard work and ingenuity of Agogbloshie’s scrap metal dealers, recyclers, and manufacturers.
On some screens we see video footage of people using rudimentary methods to extract copper from electrical wires, burning the plastic insulation and creating toxic fumes in the process. Mahama used this salvaged copper to create new frames for televisions, offering physical evidence of the possibility of renewal but also highlighting its human cost.
Not many people take the time to understand the people of Agbogbloshie, Mahama explained during a talk at the Design Museum shortly before the opening of ‘Waste Age’. They have often been stereotyped, their house equated with Sodom and Gomorrah. He hopes the installation will give visitors a renewed sense of perspective, a greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into recycling, as well as an increased awareness of the global implications of our relentless consumption. Â§