Waste-Led Design

by Slow Factory

Waste is a distinctly human invention. In Nature, everything is used, everything is accounted for, and everything serves a greater purpose. It seems that the larger, more industrialized and disconnected a society is from Nature, from itself, the bigger a problem waste becomes. With capitalist industrialization comes disconnection.

In fact, “waste” as we know it, is rooted in a culture of conquest and colonialism. Why preserve what we have when we can discard it and simply acquire more? Why find a new use for something (something people from the Global Majority practice) when we can hoard more or simply abandon it all together?

Waste-led design is a new circular approach that prioritizes waste as a core part of the design process.

Rather than output meant to be handled and discarded at the end of the process, this new approach keeps “waste” as integral to the entire process.

The practice challenges us to see a product’s end of life as a consideration equal to functionality, material, print and pattern. By doing this waste becomes a part of the production system rather than an afterthought, which minimizes the amount of debris that winds up in a landfill.

Where do things go when we throw them “away”? And how bad is our waste issue as a society? Our current systems are linear, meaning that companies do not incorporate waste as part of their processes and resources. Products are created without any consideration for a product’s end of life. Linear production systems rely on the extraction of raw materials, which uses up the earth’s resources, expels more carbon and contributes to climate change.

Currently, nearly 140 TONNES of waste ends up in landfills each year, most of which is food and plastic, followed by paper, cardboard and textiles. But what happens when we can transform food and compost to biochar to create a leather alternative? What happens when we use product packaging to create new products? What happens when discarded tents in the UK (250,000 landfill bound tents each year) are used to create raincoats?

So what do we do? Under capitalism, we will always consume, so until the abolition of that system, solutions that utilize and prioritize “waste” are the only solutions that can shield us from our (read: corporations) own decadence. Creating possible futures requires the reimagining and dismantling of current presents. We simply must learn to honor the integrity of what is ours by safeguarding it for what we hope is to come.

Slow Factory has been exploring waste-led design as a model that’s not an alternative to the process we use now — but the only solution we can afford to consider. These solutions were all tested and presented by young designers as part of our waste-led design challenge — a challenge that granted ten designers money to explore waste-led design solutions as a possible future. Slowhide, Slow Factory Labs own leather alternative, is a living model of waste-led design which transforms tea waste to create a completely plant-based, non plastic alternative to one of the fashion industry’s most adverse and environmentally harmful outputs: leather. This is just one example. Our partners Bolt Thread provide others, and many of our collaborators in this “Applied Utopia” project could speak to many more. Waste-led design it’s just a far-fetched goal, it’s here and it’s happening. Now is the time to scale up these projects, the time for a mass turn towards circular, sustainable systems. We can implement them collectively at the systems level right now, and soon both people and the planet will be grateful that we did so.