Earlier this autumn, Sophie Thomas from the design firm thomas.matthews, Sarah Johnson from [re]design, and Anne Chick from the Sustainable Design Research Centre at Kingston University launched Greengaged, London Design Festival's inaugural sustainability event series. Held at the UK Design Council, Greengaged set out to examine the ecological crisis, explore the role of design and debate the consequential responsibility of designers.

For one of the events, 25 designers, writers and academics from an array of disciplines took residence on the Beauchamp 'Electric Barge', to begin a trip to Powerday waste recycling plant in west London. Docked at Little Venice in Paddington, the electrically powered barge is a silently running and environmentally sound answer to canal travel.

"Waste is a design flaw." Kate Krebs, National Recycling Coalition, 2008.

After skipper Ian ironically removed the plastic bags tied up around the boat's rudder, Anne Chick, from Kingston University's Sustainable Design Research Centre, led the day's events and introduced the day's speaker, Rob Holdway, Founder of Giraffe Innovation and Presenter of Channel 4's "Dumped" series. Rob took the opportunity to introduce his work, knowledge of the environmental crisis and the important role that designers have to influence change in our overly wasteful society. Rob described his 'Dumped' experiment which, earlier this year, took 11 unsuspecting eco-volunteers to an East Croydon landfill and challenged them to survive off other people's waste. It is clear, he said, that "a trip to the Amazon isn't necessary to see the real effects of climate change."

The need to design out waste was paramount to Rob's discussion. As designers we are very good at producing waste, but we are all very bad at using it, he explained. Rob expressed his thoughts on the role of education to teach designers to contextualize their work, and further highlighted the individual responsibility that we, as designers, have to be more aware of what our clients and their briefs are asking of us. In a consumer culture, the ephemerality of design needs to be transformed and celebrated, by only designing consumer products from biodegradable materials.

Explaining that 80 percent of UK waste derives from business, Rob pointed out that an emphasis on merely household waste is not nearly enough. The United Kingdom is the third worst country in Europe at recycling and he questioned why we have 55 different collection methods in our country.

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In the second part of the trip, the group arrived at Powerday waste recycling center. The 10-acre site, which opened in May 2007, has taken 12 years of planning and £12m investment. Located at Old Oak Sidings in London, the facility sits in the center of a transport hub of road, rail and canal links, making it the only site in London with such extensive access into and out of the plant. As well as a state-of-the-art recycling facility, the site also includes a waste transfer station, an aggregate and sand handling facility, a plant hire depot and a training center.

Capable of recycling 1.6 million tonnes of construction waste a year, Powerday is currently recycling 95 percent of all of the waste it receives. They recover and recycle 70 percent of the waste into new uses; 25 percent is used in landfills for restoration and only five percent goes straight to landfill. John explained that the five percent currently going to landfill is recyclable, however Powerday has yet to find a suitable market for resale. John further explained that Powerday aims ultimately to recover 100 percent of the waste it receives.

The role of designers is crucial to the reduction and disposal of waste materials, they explained. The Powerday plant therefore welcomes students and professionals to book a tour, and Greengaged encourage all designers to take at least one trip to such a place. It was such an insightful trip for all who attended. Did you know, that we only have a mere three years left of landfill space in London?

On the barge trip back to Paddington, Greengaged organiser Sophie Thomas, co-founder of UK sustainable communication design agency thomas.matthews and non-profit enterprise Three Trees Don't Make A Forest, took the opportunity to speak to some of the attendees. "It was interesting to see the other side to recycling, which you just don't get to see very often", said one Royal College of Art student. "This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, to take a barge trip to a recycling plant, and to be a part of a collective that is very determined to go green", said another. An Irish graduate designer added: "With traditional design festivals there tends to just be a lot of design 'on show', which is interesting, however, it is important to have a different view on what is really meant by sustainable design."

Environmental design writer Petz Scholtus, from Barcelona, was with us on the trip and has published her thoughts on Treehugger. There are also plenty of photographs for you to see of the canal boat trip and the visit to Powerday on this Flickr page.

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Posted November 05, 2008