Designing for humanity: new possibilities for plastics

Haley Lowry

Posted 1 hour ago. About 5 minutes of reading.

Picture: Matrix 4 artist in residence Eric Heubsch turns “waste” into art | Matrix 4 / Instagram

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Ensuring recyclability starts with putting people at the forefront of developing new systems and materials to create a continuous lifecycle for plastics. We have to design systems for humanity. By harnessing design thinking, it is possible to make human-centered recycling systems a reality.


This weekend we recognize World Environment Day (June 5) to raise awareness and take action around the protection of our ecosystems against waste, pollution and more. Still, materials like plastic could be unlikely allies in creating a more sustainable world for people and the planet. Here, Dow’s global sustainability director, Haley Lowry, explains how design thinking can shift people from seeing plastic as a problem to seeing it as a dynamic and recyclable material with endless possibilities.

Recycling is complicated. A complex network of value chains, local governments and actors in the informal and formal economy often make recycling a confusing system for many people.

Yet people are the lifeblood of how the recycling system works. Consumers are the catalysts for increased demand for recycled products, as well as ensuring that there is enough recyclable material in the supply chain by properly sorting and disposing of their waste at home.

Ensuring recyclability starts with putting people at the forefront of developing new systems and materials to create a continuous lifecycle for plastics. We have to design systems for humanity. That’s why I love design thinking, which is about solving problems through a human lens. By harnessing design thinking, it is possible to make human-centered recycling systems a reality. To start, I recommend that you think about these three main principles:

Cross-collaboration: connecting different industries, cultures and experiences

Cross-collaboration is essential to unlock new ideas through inclusive problem solving. Dow focuses on partnerships between supply chains and communities to create solutions that address plastic waste. Collaboration is also essential in behavior change programs that aim to educate and encourage recycling actions in local communities. AT SXSW, panelist
Ryan hollinrake, founder of the Great Sea Project, shared the great work his organization is doing to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans through community education. They are currently focusing on Caribbean, where recycling programs are scarce.

Thanks to Ryan, we met a creative innovator in the field of sustainability, Brionie Douglas – an artist working on the creation of a shoe from recycled plastic caps. In fact, Dow – with the help of our client, Bericap – provided that these plugs are
Recycle for change

program. The beginnings of Briony’s impressive work can be found
here.

Empathy: Putting people first to understand different points of view

Leading and learning with empathy is essential to building solutions that meet diverse people and needs. A designer has the power to create an emotional response from a consumer; influence behavior; and, ultimately, changing the narrative about how we work, live and play, which is essential to modern life.

Designers need to be able to test solutions and learn from them quickly – they need to have the courage to fail quickly, and often, to really reap the rewards of further success. Another SXSW panelist, Patricia miller, CEO of Matrix 4, understands the importance of empathy from design to market. Led by her creative eye for design, her organization reinvents ‘waste’ and converts it into art, paving the way for design making while create an emotional connection between people and everyday materials. Matrix 4 is also focusing on maximizing the value of plastics by exploring traditional resins to bioplastics and recycling opportunities.

Action: Bring new and innovative solutions to life through investments in human-centric systems

Ideas that put people first are needed not only to redesign the products consumers demand, but also to reinvent our infrastructure in local communities and at scale.

Did you know that the United States alone has over 10,000 recycling programs? America’s recycling system is incredibly fragmented, which is confusing for consumers in terms of recycling, as well as NGOs and businesses looking to design large-scale solutions. And this is where the government could play a key role by investing in national frameworks that create streamlined, human-centered recycling systems, while updating local infrastructure and manufacturing.

Europe‘s Green accord, for example, sets progressive goals. Thanks to specific Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems, the Green Deal encourages recyclability, which comes back to investments in infrastructure. Companies such as Fuenix ecological group

in the Netherlands and Dow’s latest partnership with
Mura

in the UK leverage these manufacturing investments to drive material innovation in the reuse of plastic waste. Advanced recycling technology can process a wider range of types of plastics, including the flexible, multi-layered plastics used in packaging, which are currently more difficult to recycle and often incinerated or sent to landfills. Ultimately, advanced manufacturing and recycling technology reduce the complexity of the overall system, making it easier for consumers to participate.

If we rethink recycling in these human-centered ways, it is possible to catalyze new systems and materials to create a continuous lifecycle for plastics. Through this lens, plastic is transformed from something problematic into an opportunity that redefines what is possible for consumers, products and our planet.

To learn more about design for humanity, check out Dow’s Studios Pack, where packaging is redesigned with people and recycling in mind.

About Shelly Evans

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