green is far from black and white…

plastic-bag

…so we need to get more comfortable in the grey.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” or so they say, and even the most educated, informed amongst us often struggle to make the “right” decisions. Paper or plastic? Recycle or compost? Keep the old fridge or buy a new one? (buy a new one if it’s 10 years or older, is the “correct” answer here)

Earlier this month Dmitri Siegel wrote a nice piece on Design Observer about environmental and social implications of the canvas bag. While pointing out that from a social point of view it’s great that designers and consumers are embracing new ideas about individual responsibility, canvas (or any reuseable) bags are often worse for the environment than their plastic and paper counterparts. Unless they’re reused 400 times or more, he says, we’re better off sticking to plastic.

Siegel goes on to discuss other method’s of limiting the environmental impact of shopping bags, such as Ireland’s government charging 15 cents for every bag used in the store, or San Francisco banning plastic bags altogether. And as much as I love the variety and beauty of the reuseable shopping bags that have been all the rage recently, and am encouraged by the altruistic intention of those buying and using them (assuming there’s no eco-vanity involved), systematic redesigns like those in Ireland and here in San Francisco are far more appropriate and impactful than a product design. Ireland’s plan, for example, has cut consumption of bags by 90%, and I think a modified approach could potentially reduce it further.

Now if only the plastic bag manufacturer could talk to the stores, and the stores could talk to the consumers, and the consumers could talk to the recyclers, and the recyclers could talk to the government, than we’d be fine. In the mean time, it’s up all of us to challenge our assumptions, and often assignments, that designing a product will solve a problem. The best solutions, more often than not, involve designing the product out of the equation. As long as we keep challenging ourselves to find the best possible solutions, we’ll get where we need to be…

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