Can Design Help Prevent Electronic Waste From Ending Up in a Landfill?

The research-driven approach of design duo Studio Formafantasma might typically result in beautiful, poetic objects ranging from lighting and vessels to furniture, but the studio has been recently applying its efforts towards tackling a very contemporary problem: the recycling of electronic waste.

“In this moment, electronic waste is the fastest stream of waste growing globally. Only 30% is being correctly recycled while the remaining 70% is being exported to developing countries or simply ends up in the landfill,” said studio co-founder Simone Farresin on Wednesday at the Fortune and Wallpaper* Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore. “The obvious question here is why.”

While it may seem like stating the obvious, the recycling of electronic products is actually highly complex. Not only is the issue worsening thanks to the increasing number of circuit boards present in electronic products, but the fact that most copper and metal elements are covered in black rubber for safety also means that they are harder to detect by recycling systems that use imaging to identify and isolate various components by color.

Studio Formafantasma has drilled down into the problem by collaborating with experts in Europe, India and Kenya to conduct extensive research through analysis of different levels of the recycling chain. Their design-led process included speaking with legislators, activists (who use GPS to track electronic waste), recyclers, non-governmental agencies (which support responsible recycling workshops), and manufacturers.

“Design can be used to mediate conversation,” Farresin said. “One of the problems we had while speaking to recyclers was the need to gain the information from them to actually design. What we did was dismantle electronic products which we placed, almost as a taxonomy, into different elements so that we could speak with them about the problematics in recycling very specifically.”

One of Studio Formafantasma’s solutions includes the implementation of a color-coding system that identifies recyclable metal elements and helps separate them from hazardous components. When an electronic device is opened, there is currently no universal design language to indicate which materials are harmful or not.

Another idea calls for the introduction of a labeling system that would be enforced by legislature. This system would require manufacturers to outline the shelf life of each product, rather than concealing its obsolescence, thus allowing consumers to make an informed decision of whether it is worth purchasing or not.

Yet another suggestion is the creation of a digital passport for different types of plastics in the form of a QR code that will enable recyclers to know the composition of the type of plastic they are recycling. “A lot of recyclers struggle to understand exactly what they are recycling because plastics are being engineered daily,” Farresin explained.

Studio Formafantasma’s measures may seem simplistic, but they offer tangible, conceivable solutions to a mounting problem of a mammoth scale. “We needed to be very pragmatic,” Farresin said about his firm’s strategies. “Rather than to completely rethink the system of recycling, we chose to operate within it.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.

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