Stop Talking About Sustainability and Do Something!

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

By Tyler Walseth

Design Director at Addis Creson
MBA, Design Strategy – (Class of 2012) at California College of The Arts

Acknowledging A Persona: The Trash Maker

I’ve worked as a designer for some time, developing brands within print, digital and environments. In every facet of every process of every project I’ve worked on there was tremendous waste—and the actual things produced and manufactured—packages, papers and products are even more staggering quantities of waste. I have created incredible amounts of waste. I’m not alone. The design practice—from architecture to print to product—is a messy one. I acknowledge I am a trash maker.

Acknowledging A Problem: Talk is unsustainable.

When I really looked introspectively—as a trash maker—I tried to make a change. I went to conferences. I read articles. I joined blogs. Started tweeting. Started facebooking. I felt impelled to be an “activist,” but became a digital trash maker. I was missing something. I was “learning” and “doing” by listening. “Acting” by talking. And while talking is an action, it isn’t so much as physically doing something. I took sustainability to a personal place, but did little more that listen to talking, talked about talking, and worst of all: talked about doing. This was “unsustainability” at its worst. My talk[ing] was unsustainable. I accomplished nothing. Then things changed again. All that apolocalyptic talk about sustainability and environmentalism sunk in, and though no one knows how close the end is, there’s something to it: action will make a difference.

Here are five things you can do:

1. Be a psychotic, obsessive, aggressive recycler.

Before having children, my wife and I recycled some, but not much. After having children—the most trash-producing experience there is—I realized the only way to justify not using cloth diapers (Imagine fifteen diapers per day for a week piling up in your house…) is to recycle more. And while we haven’t pioneered the biodegradable diaper, we have realized tremendously more than we think can be recycled. We now produce three times more recycling than trash. Here are a few things we never thought to recycle, that should be recycled:

– steel can packaging
– most plastic toys, and dishes
– broken plastic storage bins, and food storage
– to-go food containers and paper plates, rinsed off
– styrofoam, cardboard, and electronics packaging

2. Purchase Perfectly Recyclable Products

Examine the food packaging you buy. Try harder to buy stuff made from a single, recyclable material. Buy simple packaging. Check for the recycle symbol before you buy. If we train ourselves to look for better, more recyclable packaging, we can easily imprint our brains. Smart choices will become automatic. We can include levels of recyclability as part of our shopping criteria. And if you’re part of any purchasing decisions, as trash makers, choose recycled and recyclable substrates for your company. There are often cost-effective, and increasingly 100% post-consumer-waste-based materials available: computer paper, plastic containers, and even aluminum chairs. Make the effort to buy recycled/recyclable stuff for a little while, and it will become your protocol forever.

3. Buy products beyond landfill and contribute to an “heirloom culture.”

“The consumer is the pipe between retail and landfill,” says Brenda Laurel, PhD Designer and pioneering creative strategist. As consumers, we have tremendous power as to how we impact our world. Specifically, we control how much goes through “the pipe.” Building on a positive impact notion, serial entrepreneur and sustainability thought leader, Saul Griffith (Low Cost Eyeglasses, Squid Labs, Potenco,, HowToons and Makani Power) admonishes: “We must revive ‘the heirloom culture.'” We must spend more money once up front on products with greater quality and longevity. Here’s an example of two choices: buy a solid rubberwood play table for $120 that will last 25 years and one day sell for $200, or buy a cheap $19 play table that will wind up in a landfill within months, whose cheap, toxic materials won’t break down for 200 years. Though a Mont Blanc pen will set you back $100 bucks, you’ll spend ten times that on disposable pens over a lifetime, which also end up in landfills. Buy products that last, save money, and create a more sustainable—heirloom—culture for yourself. Make small commitments, and create big impact.

4. Design Better Stuff, Harness Your Innovative Power

Whether you’re a parent or preschool teacher, a teenager or mature in your years, a creative designer or a corporate administrative assistant, you can do something. You can design products to serve a second use—and promote that—and then select recyclable production materials. You can flip a notebook over w

hen you’re done and use the other side of the pages. You can convert plastic drums into self-watering planters. Take waste and create compost, rather than trash. Embrace your own culture wherever you are, and design ideas relevant to it.

There are a number of clever resources online to help you get your start:,,, and If you’re a designer/trash-maker, choose responsible substrates. If you’re a consumer/trash-buyer, do something with those plastic to-go containers, be creative. And you’re much more creative than you think, and whatever you do to express it… do something more. Designers and consumers alike have a moral responsibility to design and use everything smarter, whether it’s your world or the products that are flowing into it.

5. Spread The Word, Start a Movement.

If one thing in this rant challenges or changes one behavior, then we all benefit. The time is now to start a movement. Everyone has a cell phone, text a picture to your whole address book about a funny thing you did to recycle. Really. Do it! It sounds cheesy, but think about it. Use twitter wisely and start a movement in your peer group around creative, responsible living. Make a game of recycling with your kids—a competition to see who can recycle the most, that’s newsworthy in your world. Entice teenagers to recycle for pay at local recycle centers. Share conservation stories on your personal blog or Facebook page. And convert your friends. Volunteer for a cause, bring your friends. Request bigger recycling bins for your curb on trash day. Make it a goal to produce more recycling than trash. Shock others by how powerful your actions are, and how infectious a good example is. Contribute to preservation funds, share your actions. Do something. Fight complacency.

These are just 5 things you can do—whether you’re designing, manufacturing, or buying the trash. We can each activate our individuality, and use design innovation in our personal ethnospheres. Our planet is dying, and this is part of a call to arms to reverse, or slow that cycle. From today forward, we can create our own loving cultures of object and material longevity—and dedicate our actions to less trash and more long-term enjoyment of a cleaner world. Mumbai or Laguna Beach, Amazonia or Tokyo, the Serengeti or climbing Everest… everywhere you go, your behavior can save money, fuel business, and create sustainability in your world.

Now, “recycle” this blog post and pass it on.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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