Photo of landfill site at Waste Age exhibition

Review: ‘Waste Age: What can design do?’ at the Design Museum

Image credit: Felix Speller

Could one person’s rubbish be a designer’s treasure? The Design Museum’s latest exhibition showcases ways this can be possible.

Imagine a world where recycled packaging is transformed into high-end fashion, or discarded fishing nets become beautiful home furnishings. It sounds like a dream, right? In fact, designers have already shown that such creations are possible – these very objects can be seen for yourself at this exhibition.

‘Waste Age’ ingeniously encapsulates how design can help tackle the critical problem of waste. Visitors can expect to see a wide range of innovations from visionary designers all with a common goal, to help us rethink our relationship with everyday objects – from fashion to food, electronics to construction, and even packaging.

Its curators were also being environmentally conscious throughout the design process of the show. The exhibition itself was put together with a more circular approach to manufacturing in mind. Plinths have been reused from previous installations, and the internal architecture was constructed from biodegradable materials, which the museum aims to use in future shows.

The exhibition begins in the museum’s atrium, with a large-scale installation from Mamou-Mani Architects and the Dassault Systèmes Design Studio. The Aurora installation signals the end of the take-make-waste era, according to its designers. It is made of polylactic acid (PLA) plastics and wood pulp, and shows how new building materials might be conceived.

Moving into the main exhibition space, ‘Waste Age’ is split into three distinct sections. The first, ‘Peak Waste’, confronts visitors with the sheer scale of global waste, and subtly discusses the “wholly inappropriate way the world uses plastic,” according to the exhibition’s curator Gemma Curtin.

Objects seen here illustrate the benefits and disadvantages of plastic use. The exhibit shows that plastic is a great material for objects such as safety equipment, but not for lids and bottle caps. A display of bottle caps and lids collected from Cornish beaches over the course of one season by the Cornish Plastics Coalition cascades down a wall, strung together, to give a sense of scale.

Bottle caps and lids hanging from wall

The ‘Bottle-Top Chain’ display is made from over 6,600 bottle tops, collected from the beaches of Cornwall over a single winter, from December 2015 to February 2016.

Image credit: Felix Speller

The second section, 'Precious Waste', offers an insight into how certain materials can be fruitfully reused in everyday products and how these might become part of the circular economy. Here, visitors will come across 3D-printed chairs made out of old fridges and a collection of outfits by designer Stella McCartney, whose circular approach to fashion design includes the development of plant-based alternatives to animal-derived materials and using waste or dead stock from her previous collections.

The final section, 'Post Waste', showcases proposals for new circular methods of production. There is a focus on materials that can be created from the waste of our current food system, with exhibited projects showcasing new materials made from corn husk, algae, coconut, and rice. Among these is a green, couture gown covered in translucent sequins made entirely from algae.

3D printed chairs at Waste Age exhibtion

This chair has been 3D-printed using plastic recycled from discarded fridges and was designed by Dutch designer Dirk Van Der Kooij.

Image credit: Felix Speller

The innovative designs seen throughout the exhibition are not only clever but appealingly beautiful. Indeed, most of the designs are aesthetically pleasing, yet are simultaneously thoughtful responses to the current climate crisis. It just goes to show that there are endless possibilities in utilising the materials we already have, and will hopefully match the same enthusiasm we have for purchasing something spanking brand new.

Stella McCartney outfits

Stella McCartney’s Econyl Jacket and Trousers (left) were made using regenerated nylon from fishing nets and factory waste. Her No Waste Dress (middle) was made from repurposed excessive printed stock from nine different previous Stella McCartney collections. The Fur-Free Fur coat (right) is made from a novel soft-fibre called Sorona, developed by Du Pont, and is created from 37 per cent plant-based materials with recycled polyester.

Image credit: Siobhan Doyle

Of course, there are some designs scattered around the exhibition that aren’t as appealing. Visitors will come across ropes made from human hair and may turn their noses up at a large 'domestic algae garden', conceived as an alternative to houseplants, bubbling away in the 'Post Waste' section. Honestly, just stick to a houseplant.

There are also opportunities for visitors to interact with the content. In the 'Peak Waste' section, visitors can engage in a large-scale waste tracker and find out where their rubbish ends up by tracking pieces across the world. Meanwhile, in 'Post Waste', visitors can explore food waste through the Bin Burger Project, which allows them to flick through different meats, from beef to mealworm, and find out about their impact on the world.

Dress made of algae

Fashion designer Phillip Lim teamed up with industrial designer Charlotte McCurdy to create a petroleum-free dress covered in algae bio-plastic sequins.

Image credit: Felix Speller

Closing the exhibition is an interactive installation by the Sony Design Centre Europe, which is aimed at showing how visitors can influence the environment. It depicts a dark woodland complete with wild deer, mushrooms and trees, and the installation animation moves and changes as visitors do.

While this is an incredibly beautiful installation, E&T found it quite out of place in a pool full of inanimate objects. That being said, it was likely installed right at the end of the exhibition to create a more calming atmosphere for the visitor after taking in such a heavy subject.

Overall, ‘Waste Age’ offers a fascinating glimpse into the brave new world of design, and how it can help tackle the global problem of waste. The exhibition will certainly encourage visitors to think of a wide range of objects having many lives instead of things that have an end life and help them re-think their own relationship with dealing with waste.

‘Waste Age’ is open at the Design Museum in London from 23 October 2021 until 20 February 2022. More information, including details about tickets, can be found on the Design Museum website.

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