Waste in the Design Industry

Watching the movie Wasteland, several months ago inspired me to set up a contemporary issues course module on waste in the design industry.

Over the years, sustainability has become a major focus of interior design, but often it seems that this focus is on using low toxicity materials, indoor air quality, and renewable resources. In the world of reduce, reuse, recycle. It seems that Interior design is happily jumping on board the recycle boat. We have always had folks who are all about reuse – who doesn’t love good vintage furnishings and decor. But when it comes to reduce, the industry overall (in addition to the rest of the world) is failing pretty miserably.

Wasteland follows artist Vik Muniz, as he journeys from Brooklyn to Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill in the world, which is on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In this shocking documentary we meet the catadores, and begin to get glimpses into their lives as “collectors”, the men and women who sift through vast amounts of trash in order to sell huge burlap sacks of recyclable materials (which take two to three men to lift onto a truck) to manufacturers and reselllers.
Muniz talks with several of the catadores, photographs them in poses representative of the great works of the masters. And if these images themselves are not moving enough, Muniz along with the help of some of the catadores creates larger-than life ‘paintings’ of the photos all from materials found at Jardim Gramacho.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (2009), the average American produces about 4.4 pounds (2 kg) of garbage a day, a total of 29 pounds (13 kg) per week. That means that in a month, the average American has thrown away enough trash to match my body weight. Coming to somewhere around 1,600 pounds (726 kg) a year. This only counts the average household member and doesn’t include industrial waste or commercial trash. When we throw together all the waste US homes, businesses and industry create it added up to 243 million tons in 2009. (In case you’re having a hard time imaging just how big that really is – a city bus weighs anywhere between 5 – 15 tons. Can you imagine having to dig enough holes to bury 24 million city buses?)

So how much is the field of interior design contributing to the size of our landfills? It seems that this is a great research project waiting to happen. There are estimates about waste in construction, especially gyp and framing materials, but little is written on how much waste furniture, fixtures, and finishes are contributing, not to mention samples and binders and all those products that don’t sell. The students found some really interesting stats out there on waste in different arenas related to interior design – but I won’t give away all the details, I’ll let them tell you about it themselves.

-Dr. C

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16 Responses to Waste in the Design Industry

  1. LeslieHo says:

    Upon compiling the statistical data for the waste alert poster, I noticed that within the 243 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), office type papers account for 2.3% (5.8 million tons of paper -equivalent to the weight of some 11,959 Boeing 747.) Furthermore, paper is the most frequently encounter material in MSW landfills, accounting for more than 40% of a landfill’s content. While sinking in those shocking data, I started to wonder how much does the building design profession contribute to the 5.8 million tons of waste paper.

    In the current digital age, information should be easily accessible through web sources, therefore there is a need for all the paper work (e.g. submission drawings, office copies, memos, presentations, faxes, etc) to be computerized. Digital copies of drawings could be stored on File Transfer Protocol (FTP), a network protocol used to transfer files from one host to another through internet. By using such method, office storage space and paper usage could be eliminated; hence, the readability of the drawings would not be reduced through decomposition of paper. Additionally, designers could further minimize the usage of paper by utilizing presentation software such as Microsoft PowerPoint, Prezi, and Adobe Flash instead of presentation boards. Finally, submission documents and drawings could be sent to necessary parties through CD-ROM to reduce the cost of delivery and use of paper.

    In order to enhance awareness and the act of being sustainable, I believe the practice of sustainability should be rooted into the working environment.

    Brody Shores Reply:

    Leslie, your last comment sums this movie up for me! It was astonishing to learn the facts behind the amount of waste we send to landfills every year, but what moved me was the idea that the people working hours upon hours every day knew the importance of what they were accomplishing. Yes, many of them were out there as a last resort to make a living, but they understood that they were helping world, and making an effort to help the environment. It is ridiculous that everyday people cannot latch onto the importance of recycling, but the individuals working in the landfills, smelling of garbage as they leave work every afternoon, have a greater appreciation of our world.

    Tariq Reply:

    Brody, this is an essential point because these days you might see an educated person who doesn’t care about recycling considering that if he even knows about it. On the other hand those workers have a greater concern about our world as you mentioned.

  2. Frankie says:

    Leslie makes a valid point about our industry. Unfortunately, even in school, we make copies of things and waste precious paper. How many trees can be saved? According to my research, 17 trees/1 ton of recycled paper. That’s 98.6 million trees saved.

  3. Camilla Waston says:

    I agree Frankie, since we’ve learned that millennial learners are more interested in technology anyway, it makes sense that we should be conserving resources by leaning towards more digital submissions and exchange of information rather than printing so many things in design school.

    Frankie Ware Reply:

    I wonder if “smart boards” could be used effectively in design school? Where you could move images and finishes until you get the perfect design and/or board to show the client. Think “Minority Report” for designers.

    Chris Reply:

    I think that’s a very interesting idea about the smart boards. I like the idea of having a digital medium platform that allows for flexibility! I think that is one of the largest problems I see in Design school, is the student percieving their work as permanent and as a work of art. In the real world you will be forced to compromise on some if not many of your design decisions due to budget, availability, and client tastes. In short I like digital + Flexible!!!

    Bonnie Casamassima Reply:

    This is a really fascinating question, Frankie. I can easily see the smart board concept being implemented in all schools especially design. Just think, not only could you have your materials and drawings on one interchangeable format, but you could also link the specification properties of a material or the research for a design decision into that presentation. Those areas of extra information could be noted in the presentation similar to colored-word-links on a webpage within the article. This information would be extremely helpful in both academic critiques and professional presentations to clients. You could even have links that would access process and other useful information in one clean, interactive and sustainable presentation format.

  4. Brody Shores says:

    The video did make a valid point that recycling is not the greatest option. Recycling does not drastically reduce the amount of resources we use because it takes resources to reprocess or recycle those products. Reduction of the amount of resources we use is the most important. And it’s the simplest things that use the most resources. The numbers of plastic water bottles, driving a block to work, plastic shopping bags, etc. are completely unhealthy for our planet, and we are continuously killing our planet.

    Frankie Ware Reply:

    Think of all the SCAD Grads who live next to the school and drive in the mornings! When they could so clearly walk. It’s amazing.

    Bonnie Casamassima Reply:

    I agree with Frankie! Just think of how much energy we could save if we just walked a few blocks a day instead of driving. The results would be incredible!

  5. Chris says:

    After looking at the data I collected on Gypsum Wall Board waste, I was astonished! Wallboard yields an estimated 14 million tons of waste annually–almost as much as is produced each year!–and is the third largest component of the total U.S. construction and demolition debris (C&D) waste stream. Furthermore is just how much waste is generated from building a small single family home, up to 2,000 pounds of gyp. board waste. It leads me to wonder if instead of trying to reduce gypsum wall board if there isn’t another answer, like a more sustainable material or even changing our traditional ideas on employing so many interior partitions, esp. in residential design?


    Griffith, J. (N.D.). NEWMOA-Gypsum Wallboard Waste Project. NEWMOA-The Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association. Retrieved July 13, 2011, from http://www.newmoa.org/solidwaste/projects/gypsum.cfm
    NERC-Northeast Recycling Council. (N.D.). NERC-Northeast Recycling Council. Retrieved July 13, 2011, from http://www.nerc.org/documents/gypsum_wallboard_waste_management_fact_sheet_2006.html

  6. AliWest says:

    This documentary has definitely made me more aware about the amount of waste I produce on a day to day basis. I don’t want to throw anything away!

    I will definitely think twice before tossing any electronic items. Electronic waste (e-waste) produces the most dangerous toxins into our environment. Toxins seep into groundwater from landfills and pollute the air from incinerators. Due to the widespread use and rampart upgrading, cell phone waste is becoming the fastest growing type of manufactured garbage in the nation. I’m sure most everyone reading this blog has at least one old cell phone tucked deep into a kitchen drawer… make sure you recycle it! If we recycled just a million cell phones, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to taking 1,368 cars of the road for 1 year!

  7. Tariq says:

    Watching this video made me realize how much waste each person produces everyday!! When I was a kid they taught us at school about how much harmful waste and emissions factories produce, but when we think about it, we, as individuals, are producing a big amount of waste everyday. So it’s important to educate our kids about their role and responsibility toward our planet.

    From another perspective as interior designers, we use carpets samples to show our clients which model or which color they prefer. After research I found that 1 billion dollars are spent on carpet samples every year, and the problem is these samples become out of date or the factories stop manufacturing them sometimes in less than six months, which make all of these samples just waste, and they end up in landfills. For a solution, I think using samples in digital format is the best way to avoid this amount of recyclable waste, but as Brody mentioned before “it takes resources to reprocess or recycle products”.

  8. Deidra Shores says:

    The term “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” has been around for a very long time. Though this term was used for garage sales or curb side dumping, it’s obvious that it has taken on a whole new level. People are not just sifting through items that a person pulls from their home, but actual waste that is contaminated. Cheers to those people who are trying to find their treasure in the waste of the world, but in reality are helping the future of our being. It will be interesting to see how designers will incorporate waste to make the world beautiful.

  9. Christina Spake says:

    I agree that conducting a research project that would estimate the amount of waste contributed by the interior design industry is a project waiting to happen. Of the 243 million tons of waste mentioned, the Environmental Protection Agency (2009) also estimates that 136 million tons of the 243 million tons previously mentioned was generated by building related construction and demolition debris in the United States in one year alone. I think it would be very interesting to further investigate how much of the approximated 136 million tons of waste was contributed by interior design related materials and finishes separately. It seems that the answer would raise additional awareness for the industry.

    Although in the past I have been conscious of recycling plastics and other common household waste items after watching this alarming documentary I have become more thoughtful about the amount of waste I even produce to begin with. Coming from an era where consumerism seems to be at an all time high, using my waste to create something new has never been a high priority. With sustainability in mind and a little extra thought and preparation I have found ways to save money and waste. I buy less when grocery shopping to reduce food waste, I shop smarter and reuse leftovers and even try to purchase products with less packaging. I remember growing up my mother would use the waste of one meal to complete another. For example after a baked chicken was cooked and left overs would end up sitting in the refrigerator she would use the left over meat for chicken soup. Nothing was to go to waste. This seems to be the case for many early baby boomers or those who come from other countries, as my mother did. I think we all may have something to learn from these past ideals and it seems that the interior design industry has picked up on some of these ideals already.

    The principle of eliminating or minimizing waste before it is created and re-using items that could become waste is definitely being considered more frequently. Considering the use of materials and finishes that will last longer and have a longer lasting aesthetic appeal and choosing items that can be recycled easier is definitely a prominent trend and design approach for many in the industry.

    In addition, Ali I agree with you 100 percent. With visions of this documentary lingering at times I don’t want to throw anything away either especially when thinking about electronic items. It blows my mind how fast we all go through electronics items. If the electronics we all carry around are so toxic to the environment I don’t think any of them should just get tossed into a landfill. In our class reading A centennial Sermon: Design, Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things by William McDonough, it was suggested that to eliminate the concept of waste, products of service such as televisions or cellphones would not be sold, but licensed to the end-user. Customers could use them as long as they would want but when the user becomes finished with it or desired the next best upgrade in technology that the object would be returned to the manufacturer. Essentially a wasted cellphone would get reused or disassembled and spark life for a new version and toxic waste from the device would be eliminated. I couldn’t agree with this suggestion anymore. I wish more companies would adopt the idea of leasing items or when selling products would provide more of an incentive to get these items back later.