Insights - Design & Product

The Trash We Live With: Why Circular Design is the Future

With examples like Dharavi, Desi Trust and Daily Dump, Ayush Chauhan, Co-founder, Quicksand Design, makes the case for moving away from the take-make-waste consumerist models

hand scraping leftover food from plate into bin

We find a hole in our t-shirt? We buy a new one. We buy food? It’s covered in plastic packaging. You get the gist.

It is no wonder that 45% of all global emissions today come from the production of everyday goods and services. Changing this — and building a circular society that restores resources rather than depletes them — is one of the greatest challenges facing our generation. 

For our societies to become fully circular, we need to change the way we design: from quick fixes to long-term solutions, from exploiting nature to co-existing with it, from creating new materials to using what we already have. Circular design includes creating products that are designed to last, work with nature and use what exists. 

Trashing the Take-Make-Waste Model 

An iconic case in circularity is the Dharavi model.

Thousands of small businesses along Dharavi’s alleyways (one of the largest informal settlements in Asia) manage over 80% of Mumbai’s waste. The Dharavi model has become a case study, so much so that many define it as “a plastic recycling goldmine.”

man in dharavi slum sorting plastic for recycling
Sorting out plastic garbage for recycling in Dharavi

We need to move away from the glitz of design and inch closer towards addressing complex problems. The take-make-waste model of design has thus far been the root cause of our problems. 

Historically, India has valued circularity and the country is, in fact, known for its frugal innovations. Traditional practices come closer to circularity as compared to contemporary practices. Indian homes didn’t have a dustbin for the longest time — some still don’t. Households would utilize everything; we would repair our shoes at the cobbler, mend our clothes, use the last morsel of food and home compost — waste was minimal, in turn promoting a culture of care and the right-to-repair. However, we have moved away from this mindset in the current consumerist culture. The current landscape is fragmented — with limited policy interventions, the rise of fast fashion, inaccessibility of ethical fashion due to high prices and we continue to hit roadblocks when it comes to redefining fashion. 

cobbler gluing a torn slipper
Indian traditions promote frugality and circularity, unlike the take-make-waste models of today

Today, one-third of India’s 1.2 billion people live in urban areas, generating approximately 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually. As per NITI Aayog, this number is expected to grow rapidly to 125 million tonnes per year by 2031. India stands at an inflection point in its journey towards economic growth. To balance the adverse effects of rapid urbanization, industrialisation and a growing population, there is a need to strengthen circularity in meaningful ways. 

Where Design is Needed 

Before we pose the question of how design can contribute to the circular economy, we need to understand how design has contributed to the waste economy and then come back to how design can become more circular. Whether it is our electronic goods or fashion, design has contributed heavily to the waste economy. This has led to a phenomenal problem of waste

Today, the circular economy poses a new challenge to design. Can designers ask themselves how they are compounding the problem of waste? Good design responds to constraints in an elegant way. We now need to incorporate circular design into how we eliminate waste, recirculate products at their highest value and regenerate nature (instead of depleting the natural system). If design can achieve this then that’s how it can positively contribute to the circular economy. 

Sustainability and Circularity in Textiles 

If we look at the textile industry in India, textile waste is the third largest source of municipal solid waste in India, implying that most of this waste ends up at landfills rather than with recyclers. Apart from producing a large volume of pre-consumer waste during the production of exports, as more global brands enter India, it is also becoming a global consumption hub leading to an increase in post-consumer waste generation. 

But there is so much to learn from traditional textile techniques, such as Kantha from West Bengal, and Sujani embroidery from Bihar, which recycle and reuse old sarees, pants and other household cloth to create quilts and garments. There are various opportunities for design to make a meaningful difference; for example;

  • How might design mechanize sustainable ways of clothes production?
  • How might design ensure that textile waste ends up with recyclers?
  • How might design alter existing aspirations around fashion and its novelty?

An example of sustainable textile is Desi Trust, an initiative to connect conscious urban consumers to eco-friendly choices and products made by rural artisan communities, and create awareness towards a sustainable lifestyle. Apart from creating a market for eco-friendly, handmade products, Desi Trust is involved in other activities in rural areas like providing design interventions to rural artisan groups by linking them with industry experts, improving the quality of their products by upgrading their technical skills, helping them set up exhibitions, extending financial support for training and developmental projects.

Circular Patterns of Consumption

We need to think about how we can inspire more mindful and circular patterns of consumption. Like Poonam Bir Kasturi — Founder of Daily Dump says in a video by What Design Can Do for the Make it Circular Challenge, “Why should we all be thinking circular? This is a no-brainer. We want people to re-look waste and reimagine it as a resource, and not something that needs to be sent to landfills.”

Daily Dump is a design-led company where they use design to help imagine alternative scenarios that can help change behaviour. The objective is to reduce waste, improve material recovery, enable better livelihoods and to do this through the voluntary collective action of urban citizens.

Daily Dump has helped households across the country to process up to 50 tonnes of organic waste per day. The design solution they crafted is called a khamba: a stack of hand-crafted terracotta pots which make composting easy, effective and attractive. 

It is time that designers weigh in on the state of the world and take responsibility for making our processes and products more circular.

What Design Can Do brings to designers and creators the Make it Circular Challenge – an opportunity to drive meaningful change by submitting their radical climate solutions using actionable circular design principles. The challenge is being released and executed in India by UnBox Cultural Futures Society and research partners, Quicksand Design Studio.

3 Comments

  1. I am from Bihar and live in kerala now. I am a textile designer. I have worked with big textile mills and design houses. I feel not just designers but also the owners of the factories should responsibly understand the importance of sustainability, waste management, fair trade practices. Government do enforce policies but how many actually follow it ?
    In kerala I have seen at least in every household they have a small handmade system for wet waste recycle and hats off to that. They even have local bodies coming to households to carry plastic dump , for which they have given a separate scan codes to every house .
    Also one more point is sustainability and ecosystem rebuilding etc, should be an absolute important point to be shown through pop culture medium too. In a country like India where people follow stars like God and get inspired by movies I feel this is a need.

  2. Have the greatest respect for Quicksand and Ayush, but we can’t all be daily Dump or Desi Trust. It would have much more impact if senior design leaders like Ayush write about how a small studio or business, can contribute meaningfully to circular design, while focused on its commercial goals.

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