Earth Day 2024: How can design help reduce plastics?

This year, Earth Day tackles the critical issue of plastic pollution, demanding a 60% reduction in plastic production by 2040. Their theme, Planet vs. Plastics, calls for widespread awareness, a phase-out of single-use plastic, a strong UN treaty, and an end to fast fashion. This article explores four ways design can help win the war on plastic waste and no, it's not just about swapping plastic for paper.

Miguel Sabel

1. Talking trash: why knowledge is half the battle against plastics

Let's talk about plastics. You know as well as we do that plastics are not great for the planet, but the trouble is often that we don't know the sheer vastness of how dependable we are on them. That's where good, clear communication comes in. Well-designed and effective communication that breaks down the facts into something that can be understood and, more importantly, something you can act on.

A powerful example of design-driven communication is Klimabrølet, which translates to 'climate roar' in Norwegian. Launched in 2019, this awareness campaign aimed to influence the Norwegian parliament to take action against the climate crisis. Klimabrølet sought to inspire citizens to take action themselves, ultimately pushing the Norwegian government to prioritise climate change and become a leader for other countries. To achieve this, they needed a visual identity that resonated with everyone – young and old, experts and everyday people. The result? Over 60,000 people from 15 cities attended Klimabrølet's demonstration, making it the largest-ever climate demonstration in Norway. The Language Council of Norway declared 'Klimabrølet' as the new word of the year, and the nonprofit received the 2019 Oslo Environment Prize.

2. Designing sustainable products you’ll love to use

Imagine a world where your morning coffee comes in a mug you love, and your veggies are snug in reusable bags. That's the future we want, and getting there means shaking things up. It's about getting creative and designing alternatives you want to use—ones that look good, feel good and do good for the planet. A whole new way of thinking, a community effort to reinvent your daily habits. Humanity-centred design is at the heart of this—thinking about what works for people so that making the switch feels less like a chore and more like a choice you're proud to make—even if it comes at a cost.

"The design industry needs to accept some level of responsibility for the type of unconscious consumerism e-commerce has enabled. Our focus on customer desirability and creating frictionless experiences has been great for sales, but it has equally masked the environmental impact of our purchasing decisions and the realities of modern supply chains."
Andrew Barrie, Design Director, Designit

3. Investing in innovative technologies and materials

A plastic-free world will result from technological progress, but that shouldn't mean you become enchanted by every new hype. The mission is to find materials and methods that stick around and do the job better than plastic ever did. This means prototyping and experimenting—think of it as trial and error with a purpose. This cycle of thinking, doing, and refining will get us to the plastic-free goal. Design it, make it, test it, and learn our way there.

"The paradox of emergent technologies is that we need them to help us develop more sustainable products and materials. However, the use of these technologies also comes at a great environmental cost."
Andrew Barrie, Design Director, Designit

4. Crafting policies with a purpose

Tackling the fast fashion dilemma is no small feat, especially given its heavy reliance on plastics. Participatory processes can pressure corporations and policymakers, while innovation offers positive incentives with new business models. However, systemic change is crucial. All actors—policymakers, businesses, and consumers—need to be invested in a system where sustainable choices are the most rewarding. There needs to be a focus on fostering an environment where alternative business models aren't just theoretical but lead the way in practice. By designing incentives that reward long-term value over short-term gains, it's easier to pivot towards management paradigms that respect the planet and its people.

"As designers and consumers, our sleeves are already rolled up, and regulation does set ambition and push us in the right direction. However, our addiction to plastic does not only require simple product redesigns; it requires us to kill out complete systems (gently) and let them regenerate in less convenient yet more innovative new ways."
Siri Yran, Lead Product Designer, Designit

Our survey from last year revealed a significant gap in corporate sustainability. While 42% of sustainability leaders integrate practices across their entire business, only 8% at the lower end do. This highlights the critical role of effective policy and incentives in changing management mechanisms and driving successful sustainability transformation.

Addressing the complex issue of plastic reduction calls for a multifaceted approach, one to which design has a lot to contribute. It's about operating on both the macro and micro levels—shaping big-picture strategies and delving into the minutiae of material innovation. Forward-thinking business models and persuasive incentives that align with sustainable policy efforts. Developing new materials, the kind that pave the way for fresh products and more innovative, greener consumer habits. This dual perspective will drive the fundamental shift away from our dependency on plastics.

Curious how you can take the next step in your sustainability journey? Let’s work together.