English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TED2013

Leyla Acaroglu: Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore

Filmed
Views 1,235,323

Most of us want to do the right thing when it comes to the environment. But things aren’t as simple as opting for the paper bag, says sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu. A bold call for us to let go of tightly-held green myths and think bigger in order to create systems and products that ease strain on the planet.

- Sustainability strategist
Leyla Acaroglu uses innovative design and systems thinking to create positive change. Full bio

So imagine, you're in the supermarket,
00:12
you're buying some groceries,
00:15
and you get given the option
00:16
for a plastic or a paper shopping bag.
00:18
Which one do you choose if you want to do
00:22
the right thing by the environment?
00:24
Most people do pick the paper.
00:26
Okay, let's think of why.
00:28
It's brown to start with.
00:29
Therefore, it must be good for the environment.
00:31
It's biodegradable. It's reusable.
00:33
In some cases, it's recyclable.
00:35
So when people are looking at the plastic bag,
00:37
it's likely they're thinking of something like this,
00:40
which we all know is absolutely terrible,
00:43
and we should be avoiding at all expenses
00:45
these kinds of environmental damages.
00:47
But people are often not thinking
00:50
of something like this,
00:52
which is the other end of the spectrum.
00:54
When we produce materials,
00:57
we need to extract them from the environment,
00:59
and we need a whole bunch
of environmental impacts.
01:01
You see, what happens is, when we need
01:05
to make complex choices,
01:07
us humans like really simple solutions,
01:09
and so we often ask for simple solutions.
01:11
And I work in design.
01:14
I advise designers
01:15
and innovators around sustainability,
01:17
and everyone always says to me, "Oh Leyla,
01:19
I just want the eco-materials."
01:21
And I say, "Well, that's very complex,
01:23
and we'll have to spend four hours talking about
01:25
what exactly an eco-material means,
01:27
because everything at some point
01:29
comes from nature,
01:31
and it's how you use the material
01:33
that dictates the environmental impact.
01:35
So what happens is, we have to rely
01:38
on some sort of intuitive framework
01:40
when we make decisions.
01:42
So I like to call that intuitive framework
01:43
our environmental folklore.
01:46
It's either the little voice
at the back of your head,
01:48
or it's that gut feeling you get
01:51
when you've done the right thing,
01:53
so when you've picked the paper bag
01:55
or when you've bought a fuel-efficient car.
01:56
And environmental folklore is a really important thing
01:59
because we're trying to do the right thing.
02:02
But how do we know if we're actually
02:05
reducing the net environmental impacts
02:07
that our actions as individuals and as professionals
02:09
and as a society are actually having
02:13
on the natural environment?
02:15
So the thing about environmental folklore is
02:18
it tends to be based on our experiences,
02:20
the things we've heard from other people.
02:22
It doesn't tend to be based
on any scientific framework.
02:23
And this is really hard, because we live
02:26
in incredibly complex systems.
02:28
We have the human systems
02:30
of how we communicate and interrelate
02:31
and have our whole constructed society,
02:33
We have the industrial systems,
which is essentially the entire economy,
02:36
and then all of that has to operate
02:40
within the biggest system,
02:41
and, I would argue, the most important,
02:43
the ecosystem.
02:45
And you see, the choices that we make
02:47
as an individual,
02:49
but the choices that we make
02:50
in every single job that we have,
02:51
no matter how high or low
you are in the pecking order,
02:53
has an impact on all of these systems.
02:56
And the thing is that we have to find ways
02:59
if we're actually going to address sustainability
03:01
of interlocking those complex systems
03:03
and making better choices that result
03:07
in net environmental gains.
03:09
What we need to do is we need to learn
03:12
to do more with less.
03:14
We have an increasing population,
03:16
and everybody likes their mobile phones,
03:18
especially in this situation here.
03:19
So we need to find innovative ways of solving
some of these problems that we face.
03:22
And that's where this process called
life cycle thinking comes in.
03:26
So essentially, everything that is created
03:29
goes through a series of life cycle stages,
03:32
and we use this scientific process
03:34
called life cycle assessment,
03:36
or in America, you guys say life cycle analysis,
03:38
in order to have a clearer picture of how
03:40
everything that we do in the
technical part of those systems
03:44
affects the natural environment.
03:48
So we go all the way back
03:50
to the extraction of raw materials,
03:51
and then we look at manufacturing,
03:54
we look at packaging and transportation,
03:56
use, and end of life,
03:57
and at every single one of these stages,
03:59
the things that we do
04:02
have an interaction with the natural environment,
04:03
and we can monitor how that interaction
04:05
is actually affecting the systems and services
04:08
that make life on Earth possible.
04:12
And through doing this,
04:13
we've learned some absolutely fascinating things.
04:15
And we've busted a bunch of myths.
04:19
So to start with, there's a word that's used a lot.
04:21
It's used a lot in marketing,
04:26
and it's used a lot, I think, in our conversation
04:28
when we're talking about sustainability,
04:30
and that's the word biodegradability.
04:32
Now biodegradability is a material property;
04:34
it is not a definition of environmental benefits.
04:39
Allow me to explain.
04:42
When something natural,
04:44
something that's made from a cellulose fiber
04:46
like a piece of bread, even, or any food waste,
04:48
or even a piece of paper,
04:51
when something natural ends up
04:54
in the natural environment, it degrades normally.
04:56
Its little carbon molecules that it stored up
04:58
as it was growing are naturally released
05:00
back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide,
05:02
but this is a net situation.
05:05
Most natural things
05:07
don't actually end up in nature.
05:08
Most of the things, the waste that
we produce, end up in landfill.
05:10
Landfill is a different environment.
05:13
In landfill, those same carbon molecules
05:16
degrade in a different way,
05:18
because a landfill is anaerobic.
05:19
It's got no oxygen. It's tightly compacted and hot.
05:21
Those same molecules, they become methane,
05:25
and methane is a 25 times more potent
05:27
greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
05:30
So our old lettuces and products
05:33
that we have thrown out that are made
05:36
out of biodegradable materials,
05:37
if they end up in landfill,
05:39
contribute to climate change.
05:41
You see, there are facilities now
05:43
that can actually capture that methane
05:44
and generate power,
05:46
displacing the need for fossil fuel power,
05:47
but we need to be smart about this.
05:50
We need to identify how we can start to leverage
05:51
these types of things that are already happening
05:55
and start to design systems and services
05:57
that alleviate these problems.
05:59
Because right now, what people do
is they turn around and they say,
06:01
"Let's ban plastic bags. We'll give people paper
06:04
because that is better for the environment."
06:06
But if you're throwing it in the bin,
06:08
and your local landfill facility
06:10
is just a normal one,
06:11
then we're having what's called a double negative.
06:14
I'm a product designer by trade.
06:19
I then did social science.
06:22
And so I'm absolutely fascinated
06:23
by consumer goods and how the consumer goods
06:24
that we have kind of become immune to
06:26
that fill our lives
06:28
have an impact on the natural environment.
06:30
And these guys are, like, serial offenders,
06:31
and I'm pretty sure everyone in this room
06:34
has a refrigerator.
06:36
Now America has this amazing ability
06:38
to keep growing refrigerators.
06:39
In the last few years, they've grown one cubic foot
06:41
on average, the standard size
06:43
of a refrigerator.
06:45
And the problem is, they're so big now,
06:47
it's easier for us to buy more food
06:49
that we can't eat or find.
06:51
I mean, I have things at the back of my refrigerator
06:53
that have been there for years, all right?
06:55
And so what happens is, we waste more food.
06:57
And as I was just explaining,
food waste is a problem.
07:00
In fact, here in the U.S., 40 percent
07:03
of food purchased for the home is wasted.
07:06
Half of the world's produced food is wasted.
07:09
That's the latest U.N. stats. Up to half of the food.
07:13
It's insane. It's 1.3 billion tons of food per annum.
07:16
And I blame it on the refrigerator,
07:21
well, especially in Western cultures,
07:23
because it makes it easier.
07:24
I mean, there's a lot of complex
systems going on here.
07:26
I don't want to make it so simplistic.
07:28
But the refrigerator is a serious contributor to this,
07:30
and one of the features of it
07:33
is the crisper drawer.
07:35
You all got crisper drawers?
07:37
The drawer that you put your lettuces in?
07:39
Lettuces have a habit of going soggy
07:41
in the crisper drawers, don't they?
07:42
Yeah? Soggy lettuces?
07:44
In the U.K., this is such a problem
07:46
that there was a government report a few years ago
07:48
that actually said the second biggest offender
07:49
of wasted food in the U.K. is the soggy lettuce.
07:52
It was called the Soggy Lettuce Report.
07:55
Okay? So this is a problem, people.
07:57
These poor little lettuces are getting thrown out
07:59
left, right and center because the crisper drawers
08:02
are not designed to actually keep things crisp.
08:03
Okay. You need a tight environment.
08:06
You need, like, an airless environment
08:08
to prevent the degrading that
would happen naturally.
08:10
But the crisper drawers, they're just a drawer
08:13
with a slightly better seal.
08:15
Anyway, I'm clearly obsessed.
08:17
Don't ever invite me over because I'll just
start going through your refrigerator
08:19
and looking at all sorts of things like that.
08:22
But essentially, this is a big problem.
08:23
Because when we lose something
like the lettuce from the system,
08:25
not only do we have that impact
I just explained at the end of life,
08:28
but we actually have had to grow that lettuce.
08:32
The life cycle impact of that lettuce is astronomical.
08:34
We've had to clear land.
08:38
We've had to plant seeds, phosphorus,
08:39
fertilizers, nutrients, water, sunlight.
08:41
All of the embodied impacts in that lettuce
08:43
get lost from the system,
08:45
which makes it a far bigger environmental impact
08:47
than the loss of the energy from the fridge.
08:50
So we need to design things like this far better
08:53
if we're going to start addressing
serious environmental problems.
08:57
We could start with the crisper drawer and the size.
09:00
For those of you in the room who do design fridges,
09:01
that would be great.
09:03
The problem is, imagine if we
09:05
actually started to reconsider
how we designed things.
09:08
So I look at the refrigerator as a sign of modernity,
09:10
but we actually haven't really changed the design
09:14
of them that much since the 1950s.
09:16
A little bit, but essentially they're still big boxes,
09:19
cold boxes that we store stuff in.
09:22
So imagine if we actually really started
09:24
to identify these problems and use that
09:26
as the foundation for finding innovative and elegant
09:29
design solutions that will solve those problems.
09:32
This is design-led system change,
09:36
design dictating the way in which the system
09:38
can be far more sustainable.
09:42
Forty percent food waste is a major problem.
09:45
Imagine if we designed fridges that halved that.
09:47
Another item that I find fascinating
09:51
is the electric tea kettle,
09:53
which I found out that
09:54
you don't do tea kettles in
this country, really, do you?
09:56
But that's really big in the U.K.
09:59
Ninety-seven percent of households
10:01
in the United Kingdom own an electric tea kettle.
10:03
So they're very popular.
10:06
And, I mean, if I were to work with a design firm
10:08
or a designer, and they were designing one of these,
10:11
and they wanted to do it eco,
10:13
they'd usually ask me two things.
10:14
They'd say, "Leyla, how do I
make it technically efficient?"
10:16
Because obviously energy's
a problem with this product.
10:19
Or, "How do I make it green materials?
10:22
How do I make the materials green
10:25
in the manufacturing?"
10:28
Would you ask me those questions?
10:30
They seem logical, right? Yeah.
10:32
Well I'd say, "You're looking at the wrong problems."
10:35
Because the problem is with use.
10:37
It's with how people use the product.
10:39
Sixty-five percent of Brits
10:42
admit to over-filling their kettle
10:44
when they only need one cup of tea.
10:46
All of this extra water that's being boiled
10:49
requires energy, and it's been calculated
10:52
that in one day of extra energy use
10:56
from boiling kettles
10:59
is enough to light all of the streetlights
11:00
in England for a night.
11:03
But this is the thing.
11:05
This is what I call a product-person failure.
11:08
But we've got a product-system failure
going on with these little guys,
11:09
and they're so ubiquitous, you
don't even notice they're there.
11:12
And this guy over here, though, he does.
He's named Simon.
11:15
Simon works for the national
electricity company in the U.K.
11:18
He has a very important job of monitoring
11:22
all of the electricity coming into the system
11:24
to make sure there is enough
11:26
so it powers everybody's homes.
11:28
He's also watching television.
11:30
The reason is because there's a unique
11:32
phenomenon that happens in the U.K.
11:34
the moment that very popular TV shows end.
11:35
The minute the ad break comes on,
11:39
this man has to rush
11:42
to buy nuclear power from France,
11:44
because everybody turns their kettles on
11:47
at the same time.
11:50
(Laughter)
11:52
1.5 million kettles, seriously problematic.
11:54
So imagine if you designed kettles,
12:00
you actually found a way to
solve these system failures,
12:03
because this is a huge amount of pressure
12:06
on the system,
12:09
just because the product hasn't
thought about the problem
12:10
that it's going to have when it exists in the world.
12:14
Now, I looked at a number of
kettles available on the market,
12:15
and found the minimum fill lines,
12:18
so the little piece of information that tells you
12:20
how much you need to put in there,
12:22
was between two and a five-and-a-half cups of water
12:23
just to make one cup of tea.
12:26
So this kettle here is an example of one where
12:30
it actually has two reservoirs.
12:32
One's a boiling chamber, and one's the water holder.
12:35
The user actually has to push that button
12:37
to get their hot water boiled,
12:39
which means, because we're all lazy,
12:41
you only fill exactly what you need.
12:42
And this is what I call behavior-changing products:
12:44
products, systems or services
12:47
that intervene and solve these problems up front.
12:49
Now, this is a technology arena,
12:53
so obviously these things are quite popular,
12:55
but I think if we're going to keep
12:57
designing, buying and using and throwing out
12:59
these kinds of products at the rate we currently do,
13:02
which is astronomically high,
13:04
there are seven billion people
13:06
who live in the world right now.
13:08
There are six billion mobile phone subscriptions
13:09
as of last year.
13:11
Every single year, 1.5 billion mobile phones
13:15
roll off production lines,
13:19
and some companies report their production rate
13:20
as being greater than the human birth rate.
13:22
One hundred fifty-two million phones
were thrown out in the U.S. last year;
13:24
only 11 percent were recycled.
13:27
I'm from Australia. We have a
population of 22 million -- don't laugh --
13:29
and it's been reported that 22 million phones
13:33
are in people's drawers.
13:36
We need to find ways of solving
the problems around this,
13:38
because these things are so complicated.
13:42
They have so much locked up inside them.
13:45
Gold! Did you know that it's actually cheaper now
13:48
to get gold out of a ton of old mobile phones
13:52
than it is out of a ton of gold ore?
13:56
There's a number of highly complex and valuable
13:59
materials embodied inside these things,
14:01
so we need to find ways of encouraging disassembly,
14:03
because this is otherwise what happens.
14:05
This is a community in Ghana,
14:08
and e-waste is reported, or electronic waste
14:09
is reported by the U.N.
14:11
as being up to 50 million tons trafficked.
14:13
This is how they get the gold
14:16
and the other valuable materials out.
14:18
They burn the electronic waste
14:19
in open spaces.
14:21
These are communities, and this
is happening all over the world.
14:23
And because we don't see the ramifications
14:26
of the choices that we make as designers,
14:29
as businesspeople, as consumers,
14:31
then these kinds of externalities happen,
14:33
and these are people's lives.
14:35
So we need to find smarter, more systems-based,
14:37
innovative solutions to these problems,
14:42
if we're going to start to live
sustainably within this world.
14:45
So imagine if, when you bought your mobile phone,
14:48
your new one because you replaced your old one --
14:52
after 15 to 18 months is the average time
14:54
that people replace their phones, by the way —
14:56
so if we're going to keep this kind of expedient
14:58
mobile phone replacing, then we should
15:01
be looking at closing the loop on these systems.
15:04
The people who produce these phones,
15:06
and some of which I'm sure
are in the room right now,
15:08
could potentially look at doing what
we call closed-loop systems,
15:09
or product system services,
15:12
so identifying that there is a market demand
15:14
and that market demand's not going to go anywhere,
15:16
so you design the product to solve the problem.
15:18
Design for disassembly, design for light-weighting.
15:21
We heard some of those kinds of strategies
15:23
being used in the Tesla Motors car today.
15:26
These kinds of approaches are not hard,
15:28
but understanding the system
15:31
and then looking for viable, market-driven
15:32
consumer demand alternatives
15:36
is how we can start radically altering
15:38
the sustainability agenda,
15:40
because I hate to break it to you all:
15:42
Consumption is the biggest problem.
15:44
But design is one of the best solutions.
15:47
These kinds of products are everywhere.
15:52
By identifying alternative ways of doing things,
15:54
we can actually start to innovate,
15:57
and I say actually start to innovate.
15:59
I'm sure everyone in this room is very innovative.
16:00
But in the regards to using sustainability
16:03
as a parameter, as a criteria
16:05
for fueling systems-based solutions,
16:08
because as I've just demonstrated
with these simple products,
16:12
they're participating in these major problems.
16:15
So we need to look across the entire life
16:18
of the things that we do.
16:20
If you just had paper or plastic --
16:22
obviously reusable is far more beneficial --
16:24
then the paper is worse,
16:26
and the paper is worse because it weighs
16:30
four to 10 times more than the plastic,
16:32
and when we actually compare,
from a life cycle perspective,
16:34
a kilo of plastic and a kilo of paper,
16:36
the paper is far better,
16:39
but the functionality of a plastic or a paper bag
16:41
to carry your groceries home is not
done with a kilo of each material.
16:43
It's done with a very small amount of plastic
16:47
and quite a lot more paper.
16:49
Because functionality defines environmental impact,
16:50
and I said earlier that the designers
always ask me for the eco-materials.
16:53
I say, there's only a few materials
that you should completely avoid.
16:56
The rest of them, it's all about application,
16:59
and at the end of the day, everything
we design and produce in the economy
17:01
or buy as consumers is done so for function.
17:04
We want something, therefore we buy it.
17:07
So breaking things back down and delivering
17:09
smartly, elegantly, sophisticated solutions
17:12
that take into consideration the entire system
17:16
and the entire life of the thing, everything,
17:19
all the way back to the extraction
through to the end of life,
17:22
we can start to actually find
really innovative solutions.
17:25
And I'll just leave you with one very quick thing
17:27
that a designer said to me recently
who I work with, a senior designer.
17:29
I said, "How come you're not doing
sustainability? I know you know this."
17:33
And he said, "Well, recently I pitched
a sustainability project to a client,
17:36
and turned and he said to me,
17:40
'I know it's going to cost less,
17:42
I know it's going to sell more,
17:44
but we're not pioneers, because
pioneers have arrows in their backs.'"
17:46
I think we've got a roomful of pioneers,
17:50
and I hope there are far more pioneers out there,
because we need to solve these problems.
17:52
Thank you.
17:56
(Applause)
17:57

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Leyla Acaroglu - Sustainability strategist
Leyla Acaroglu uses innovative design and systems thinking to create positive change.

Why you should listen

Leyla Acaroglu breaks through our deeply entrenched environmental folklore in order to reveal the true impact of the products and materials we use every day. A designer and consultant, Acaroglu encourages both companies and individuals to look at the full life cycle of the things they create and use in order to understand their net effect on the environment. At Eco Innovators, an ecologically-minded Australian design studio, Acaroglu’s team makes award-winning designs and projects that tap into a sense of play in order to educate. From animations explaining the lifecycle of a cell phone to bookshelves made from construction scrap wood to workshops that help rebuild and repurpose broken everyday items, the goal is building savvy, science-based sustainability practices.

More profile about the speaker
Leyla Acaroglu | Speaker | TED.com