The cover of National Geographic Magazine last month, and the multiple alarms that have been ringing over the past two decades, is testament to the fact that we have a huge plastic problem that needs to be fixed. Lucky for us, designers can actually help solve problems. Sustainable Design, design for impact, green design—whatever you call it—is an area of focus that has never been more relevant. Designers are the influencers, inventors, dreamers and hackers of everything that has been and can be. As a multidisciplinary designer and strategist, I've worked across three continents in multiple design sectors—from publishing to UI/UX, community engagement to corporate events—and I've realized that design for sustainability is not always pretty or immediate, two things our culture is addicted to. This is part of what makes it a challenging, yet vital, cog in the wheel towards a better future.
My journey within design for sustainability started in Fall 2011 with a class called 'Plastic Bags and NYC' as part of Pratt Institute's Graduate Communication Design program, taught by Gala Narezo. The goal was to examine the lack of legislation on plastic bag waste in New York State and to come up with a proposal to address the issue. Working with Ms. Narezo and Chantal Fischzang, we launched the 'Plastic Bag Mandala' project as an alarm against single-use plastic bags. This long-running project speaks to the many nuances of designing for sustainability and social impact.
To Solve Big Problems, Collaboration is Key
Sustainability is never a one-person-show. It is a complex system that requires input and support from multiple stakeholders and supporters. For example, the 'Plastic Bags and NYC' class began with one partner - The Interdependence Project, a non-profit that addresses art, activism via Buddhist philosophy (IDProject) started to work around the subject of sustainability As our work progressed, the collaboration grew to include Bags For The People, GrowNYC, The Union Square Greenmarket and PS41. Additional partners joined as the project continued including 'what moves you?', Green School Alliance, The Surfrider Foundation, Open Seas Coalition, BagITNYC, and Jennie Romer, founder of Plastic Bag Laws. That's a bag full! But it wasn't a situation of too many chefs in the kitchen. It was more like a village of like-minded supporters who joined forces with us through educational outreach, school programs, public fairs and more.
Understanding a Complex Problem Begins with Informed Dialogues
Everyone has a reason for doing what they do, even if it's using a single-use plastic bag. To make a change, you have to be aware there is a problem and understand the reasons behind them. Realizing the importance of creating an informed and open dialogue with the New York community, we directed our efforts towards making information available to different community groups and listening to what they had to say. This would help prepare them for the transition away from plastic and create support around the initiative to eventually ban single-use plastic bags in New York. I strongly believe that when you lay out the facts, the impacts and the alternatives; people can find reasons to change their habits more easily than they can find excuses not to.
Finding Your Angle to Address the Problem and Running with It
With our mission set, the 'Plastic Bags and NYC' class created several strong proposals. What took hold was an interactive installation called 'Plastic Bag Mandala' and an educational activity book titled 'Plastic Bags: A 'Scrap It' Book'.
The 'Plastic Bag Mandala' is an interactive community art installation and awareness campaign with a pledge to ditch single-use plastic bags. A mandala is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the universe. We chose this as a symbolic reminder that we are all connected, and have a stake in each others well-being.
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On its first appearance at the Union Square Farmers Market (Spring 2012), market goers were invited to bring their used plastic bags in exchange for a new reusable bag and make a vow to reduce single use. We made educational information about plastics and recycling available to help visitors better understand the issues. We invited visitors to weave their old plastic bags into the 8x8 foot burlap canvas with the mandala on it while pledging to use reusable bags instead of single-use plastic bags. The act of weaving their used plastic bag into the mandala required two people to complete and became an engaging physical expression of a binding promise.
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Along with the 'Plastic Bag Mandala' installation, I designed an activity book for primary school children about understanding the system of single-use plastic bags titled 'The Plastic Bag: A ?Scrap-It' Book'. The illustrated activity book aims to educate and empower young children to make their own informed decisions about single-use plastic bags in a fun and approachable manner. Other workshops based off the activities in the book were also conducted in private schools in New Jersey and in Muscat, Oman.
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At Ideas City in 2013, we set up a much fuller 'Plastic Bag Mandala' installation along with our sign up sheets and information. Here we added an activity and created 'TO-GO Bags,' inviting children to design their own reusable totes, to promote a reusable and environmentally conscious 'to-go' culture in NYC. This gave the public space to think about 'single-use' alternatives to other throw-away items like plastic bottles, straws, cutlery and cups.
It Can Be Functional and Poetic, and Yet not Aesthetically 'Designed'
The activity book educates and engages students in a way that can actually be implemented in a classroom. The 'TO-GO Bags' is a creative activity for kids to remind them to bring their reusable items. The 'Plastic Bag Mandala' continues to visit schools and events, growing in size as it travels with a mission to (re)start a dialogue and raise awareness on the subject. But it is also poetic. From the first bag tied into it in 2012 to the ones tied into it a year ago—they are all still there. As an artifact, it has become indicative of our society's persistent struggle with single-use plastic bags—both are a culmination of our combined actions, both are getting bigger and both are so much harder to store 'away'.
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It Takes a Few Brave Designers and a Lot of Time
We need to remember that it has always been the few unique, creative visionaries that have changed our world. Those people also had grit, persistence and direction, because change takes time—so much time. Designing for sustainability and social impact is not a sprint or even a marathon—it's a Triple Deca Ultra-triathlon (yes that's a real thing!). Today single-use plastic bags are still a part of NYC. But we might be seeing the light at the end of this dark plastic tunnel very soon, and in the meantime we can wear a cheeky smile knowing that in the process, something was designed right.