Note: This post was written by SEI staff member, Amy Cade.
William Bullock is the Director of the Design for Energy and Environment Laboratory (DEE Lab,) an Affiliated Faculty Member for the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC,) and he has been my professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for the past two years. I sat down with him recently to get an experienced designer’s perspective on e-waste. After all, designers are a vital part of the creation of e-waste; they can have a lot to do with the perpetuation or prevention of waste just by the decisions they make early on in the manufacturing stage.
Recently, I have noticed that most designers came to an unspoken consensus about design, it can not be about simply making more things; resources are limited, waste is ever increasing and our environment is suffering. Sustainability is no longer just a good idea, it is a necessity. This change came in the middle of William’s career and instead of reluctantly complying like some of his colleagues did, he embraced the idea of socially conscious design wholeheartedly.
William acknowledges that industrial design can be part of the problem. Industrial designers create attractive newer looking products in an effort to stimulate sales. This can encourage consumers to unnecessarily throw away products in favor of buying newer looking, often more “aesthetically pleasing” ones. William also believes that we have the capability, as designers, to change that. William said, “We need to not only to deal with waste but also figure out how to reuse, recycle, design things so that they can be easily upgraded instead of thrown away all together.” He wondered if it is possible to find a universal aesthetic so that objects do not get dated as easily.
The positive side to designing superfluous products is that it sustains our economy. I asked William if he thinks it has to be one or the other; environmental concerns over economical ones. He admitted that is a challenge. “We are gluttonous” William explained, “so we might not only have the problem of having people buy new, but how do we make it so that when the old things are thrown out they do not harm the environment?”
William McDonough, a designer that recently spoke at the University of Illinois, has a lot of ideas that address this problem. For instance, he proposed a pen that you can stomp into the ground when you are finished with it and it would have the right nutrients and seed impeded in the pen to make it grow into a flower. Ideas like these that do not discourage consumption but are also great for the environment is a trend that needs to be further exploited.
Another solution that William Bullock is focused on is providing information to the public because he believes that people are more apt to the right thing once they have the right information. That is why he is working hard to set up initiatives that teach all there is to know about sustainability in product design.
For more information on William’s educational efforts, see the description of the sustainability and e-waste issues course he taught on the SEI Current Projects page. The course had a Sustainable E-Waste Design Competition associated with it. I spoke about both in an earlier post.