Sunday, January 24, 2021

Foam Flush Toilets and a Toy House Without Plastic: "Wasted" finds Neat Solutions to a Dirty Problem

It's a 27 pound toy, 96% of which is plastic. By removing the plastic, I would make the greatest change to the kind of toys we're providing to parents around the world.

The average person throws away around four pounds of trash daily. Except that there is no such place as "away," say experts in waste management. Everything has to go somewhere. There is an end-of-life cost to everything. “Away” can mean storm drains, oceans, the stomachs of marine animals, a giant floating island of trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the landfill. 

It used to be easier to tell ourselves waste had gone "away" because recyclables were sent offshore and out of sight and mind, mostly to China. In 2017 that country changed policy and now takes far less of them.  Waste materials are piling up in California landfills, emitting toxins and burping methane.

Now, designers, policymakers and consumers are waking up to the need to change this picture and create products and buildings that can be recycled, repurposed, biodegrade -- or maybe not come into existence at all. 

You can hear from some of them on Wasted: Neat Solutions to the Dirty Problem of Waste, now airing on KCRW's Greater LA.

Wasted grew out of a conversation with KCRW General Manager Jennifer Ferro in 2019. She suggested “trash” as a topic for DnA. Trash became waste and we applied for a grant from the California Arts Council. This was before the pandemic started, before George Floyd lost his life at the hands of a police officer and a reckoning with race convulsed the country. 

By the time we got the grant in 2020, waste seemed a little off topic. But then we looked around and saw how plastic was piling up with the advent of PPE, how packaging was mounting in our homes as we ordered everything in; and how toxins from landfills, e-waste and carbon emissions are contributing to the soup of polluted air that weakens people’s immune systems.

So we dove in and examined creative ways to deal with waste packaging, food, electronics, construction materials, carbon and even human waste. 

Yes, foam flush, or compost, toilets are the no-wastewater solution at City Hall East, a new net zero "Living Building" designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners and Buro Happold engineers. It will open soon to staff at the City of Santa Monica, but some are nervous of the waterless toilets, as we found out in this episode.

The more we went down the waste rabbit hole, however, the more interesting and inspiring it became. 

We met scientists tinkering with plants to capture carbon from the atmosphere; formerly-incarcerated individuals at Homeboy Electronics Recycling trained to recycle computers; the founders of iFixit fighting for their right to repair their own stuff. 

We followed a strawberry on her journey from farm to fork to learn about food waste (airing January 27); and we met an artist named Julia Christensen who is working with JPL scientists on the creation of a conceptual space rocket to fly light years to a planet called Proxima B. The goal is to raise consciousness about e-waste and our incessant need for upgrades. (You can catch Julia and I in conversation, here.)

Finally, we heard from the founders of a group with the ultimate solution to waste: Buy Nothing. You can hear from them in the last episode, airing early March.

But we started with plastics.

When plastics were invented in the early twentieth century, in the form of bakelite, they were seen as a miracle material. Soon they were applied to thousands of products, including hygienic medical products, synthetic fabrics, pop furniture, pop records and endless throwaway goods.

No one thought about where the plastic went when you were done with it. In 1960, less than 400 thousand tons of plastic went to the US landfill. Now more than 35 million tons sit in landfills. Less than 10% of it is recycled. Plastic soils our rivers and oceans; it poisons our fish and ourselves.

Many designers, policy makers and advocates are trying to figure out how to reduce it. Some want it to be biodegradable. Others say the solution is to make plastic more durable, and stop throwing it away. Meanwhile, designers like
Charlie Hodges, a product designer and ArtCenter alumnus, want to get rid of it altogether.

Charlie Hodges makes toy houses out of paperboard and eco-friendly inks.

Hodges created Archamelia, above, a toy house that is intended as a rethink of Barbie’s Dreamhouse.

"It's a 27 pound toy, 96% of which is plastic. By removing the plastic, I would have the most immediate impact to make the greatest change to the kind of toys we're providing to parents around the world."

Hodges did a lifecycle analysis of the plastics in the Dreamhouse and then created a fold-up toy house made of locally sourced board and nontoxic inks. 

Meanwhile, State Senator Ben Allen is pushing for producers to take responsibility for the products they make. He is working to pass
SB54, a bill which would mandate that all single-use plastic be biodegradable by 2032.

Odile Madden, materials scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, says the problem is not the plastic, but our culture of disposability.

“Plastic is not evil. It's just stuff and it's stuff we invented, and stuff we choose how to use

The problem, in her view, is that plastic is in the wrong place. “It shouldn't be in the ocean, it shouldn't be in our storm drains, it shouldn't be littering our sidewalks or our beaches. And that's an administrative question, a political question, a cultural question."

Madden says that if plastic were more desirable and more durable people wouldn't want to throw it away. 

I can attest to that. In my home I have some durable, heirloom plastics like the modern classic Fantastic Plastic Elastic chair designed by Ron Arad for Kartell.

The problem is the throwaway plastic bags. There is no such place as "away."

Get all the Wasted stories here, airing weekly on KCRW's Greater LA through early March. Wasted is
produced and hosted by Frances Anderton, in collaboration with co-host Caleigh Wells, story editor Sonya Geis and sound engineer Charles Previtire. Wasted is supported by the California Arts Council.

Photo credit for Ron Arad chair and foam flush toilet: Frances Anderton; Archamelia image courtesy of Charlie Hodges.

DnA Newsletters

What's so Special about Vienna? What is Hip Hop Architecture? Are you a Maximalist or Minimalist? Get answers to these questions and mor...