I want a toaster with screws
Make it circular, or just don’t make it at all!
Too many products are made in such a way that you cannot repair them. Only design things you can screw open, argues designer Richard van der Laken
At magic school Hogwarts, they have a good understanding of circularity. The magic spell ‘Reparo’ makes everything broken in the world of Harry Potter whole.
Come to think of it, when your three-month-old toaster unexpectedly stops working and you try in vain to open the thing to see what’s wrong. Not a single screw to be seen anywhere, as the appliance is moulded plastic and hermetically sealed, just like your phone, cheap electric toothbrush and printer. All virtually impossible to repair, all non-circular.
What we often take for granted as an everyday inconvenience is in fact a life-size obstacle to reducing our footprint on earth. Items that cannot be reused or repaired are an unacceptable waste of energy and resources. Taken together, this represents a huge burden on our ecosystem. As much as 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is determined by decisions that take place at the design stage. For a designer, that’s a big responsibility. And that’s where things very often go completely wrong.
Fully demountable smartphone
Our addictive throwaway culture needs to be fought much harder. And designers, with consumers and regulators on their side, hold a key to pushing manufacturers towards a circular society. For Dutch designer Bas van Abel, annoyance at not being able to open his own expensive phone prompted him to develop a new smartphone: the Fairphone, fully disassemblable.
For successful fashion designer Borre Akkersdijk, frustration with the heavily polluting clothing industry – responsible for 10 per cent of global CO2 emissions – was even reason to stop his successful annual ByBorre collection altogether. He now focuses almost entirely on making responsible yarn and fabric.
Design it circularly, or just don’t make it because the supply is already too great, as Akkersdijk decided. Perhaps he also knows that ¬14 million kilos of textiles are thrown away every year in Amsterdam alone. There urgently needs to be an answer to that quickly broken printer that was cheaper than the ink cartridges that go into it, a rickety 17-euro toaster on Amazon.com, or covetable smart¬phones that are replaced after one hiccup.
To meet the climate goals – the Netherlands wants a fully circular economy by 2050 – designer, consumer and government must work together and force manufacturers to change. Not the temptingly cheap end product is paramount, but a responsible manufacturing process and reparability. Ecological footprint over price, reusability over aesthetics.
In this circular shift, consumers must be helped, but they must also do something themselves: refuse to buy a product that does not contain screws. Don’t scrape the bottom of the market, but look for stuff that is cheaper in the long run and less burdensome because parts are reusable.
Besides, the government should actually help consumers choose. Why is there still not a footprint label on every consumer item showing its environmental impact, like the already mandatory energy label for a house? The government can and should enforce this on the industry that is so influential.
The switch to circular is not simple, old production systems and business models are tough. On your own, you can’t topple an entire production chain, but designers like Van Abel and Akkersdijk ensure that other makers also – have to – get moving. Very simply, as a designer, refuse to design things that cannot be opened. Make it literally manufacturable, so that everyone can take their broken toaster to the repair shop.
Richard van der Laken is a designer and founder of platform What Design Can Do. With the ‘Make It Circular Challenge’ he calls on people to come up with refreshing circular ideas.