Peter Taylor-Whiffen talks to Sophie Thomas, Useful Projects’ director of circular design and founding director of Thomas.Matthews, about end-of-life product design.
How do we get designers to think more about a product’s recyclability right from the start, so it can be easily dismantled and its valuable resources used again? For Sophie Thomas, it’s all down to communication.
Flashes of inspiration can come from anywhere. Sophie Thomas got her big idea as she stood behind a man looking at refrigerators.
“This waste facility in the Netherlands recovered fridges from all over Europe, and the guy was taking compressors out before the units were crushed,” she recalls. “But when the shipping container opened, it was full of every brand, from every year you could imagine – and he had to work out which screwdriver he needed on each one to open it up.
“What’s the point of that? I get that branding means every fridge looks different on the front, but they don’t need to on the back. I thought, ‘I need to line up all the fridge designers behind this guy and show them how unnecessarily difficult they are making everything’. Then I realised it wasn’t just fridges; it’s every product. It underlined to me that the system of how we dismantle and reuse everything needs to be planned into the design, right from the beginning.”
Thomas is a passionate pioneer and champion of “end-of-life design” – the concept that, to reduce waste simply and effectively, products should be created with an understanding of how we will ultimately dispose of them.
“From early days I was interested in material recovery,” she says. “For me, any product is like a blip in the life of a material. The laws of physics say we cannot destroy elements so, therefore, they always become something else. If, as a designer, you’re responsible for the creation of something, I think you should also be responsible for its uncreation – the unbaking of the cake.”
To do that effectively, Thomas says, designers need a vital tool in their armoury – an understanding of the waste industry. Sustainable and ethical design is at the heart of her Westminster-based agency Thomas.Matthews, but she’s also – uniquely for a designer – a CIWM Fellow and chartered waste manager, who regularly liaises with people in our industry to understand how she can give products a more sustainable end of life.
“I’ve been able to do a refuse collection shift in Chelsea and talk with the team about why things don’t get put in the recycling side, and what constitutes contamination and why that happens,” Thomas says.
“That’s absolute goldmine information for a designer – just because you put on a packet that something is recyclable, that does not mean it will be recycled or recovered. There are so many obstacles in the way.
The more connection there is between the two industries of waste and design, the better.
“You sell a recyclable item in a supermarket, but who buys it? Who uses it? Who chucks it away in the house? Where does it end up? Which bin? Which local authority collects it? Having first-hand, visual understanding of that is fundamental, so the more connection there is between the two industries of waste and design, the better.”
Thomas says she has been fascinated with products and how they are made since childhood – and remembers her family’s horror when she was delighted to find a century-old toothbrush in a Victorian dump in Oxford.
“In the mud, among the bottles and broken crockery, I pulled out a strange stick, made of bone, with faint blue lines and a grid of dots at the top. My family were appalled, but I was fascinated, and though the bristles had long gone, I knew it was a toothbrush. The shape was basically the same as mine. It hadn’t changed for 100 years.”
She did notice, however, that it was made of a very different material from her toothbrush at home. “Nowadays, toothbrushes are generally co-moulded from a number of different plastics, including nylon, high-density polyethene, and a rubber substitute called Kraton. I would learn that all those plastics are impossible to separate and can’t be recycled together.”
That episode helped prompt a lifelong interest in materials and recycling – and sustainability and ethical design have been at the heart of Thomas.Matthews since its launch in 1997. Thomas is also director of circular design at sustainability consultancy Useful Projects and works with social enterprise Common Seas to tackle plastic pollution, while her fridge eureka moment inspired her to launch The Great Recovery project.
This was a four-year programme with Innovate UK and the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce looking at the challenges of waste and circular economy opportunities through the lens of design. In September 2022, she joined fellow entrepreneurs in launching etsaW Ventures, a venture studio that advises, supports and invests in circular environment start-ups focused on sustainable material development.
Often when designers get a brief, it will be about high efficiency of a product.
Consumer design on its own, however, isn’t enough, Thomas concedes. “We need more support for innovation,” she says. “Often when designers get a brief, it will be about high efficiency of a product – if it was a toothbrush, it would be about price point, colour, handling, or effectiveness in getting plaque off the back of your molars. There is nothing about designing for the third or fourth life of the material in the product.
“The idea is that your design process includes thinking about getting the material back. But this is a commercial industry. It’s not like we designers create on a whim; we try to work to a client’s brief – so the problem is, where does the responsibility lie to ensure that end-of-life innovation is a priority?
“We need innovation in resource management and that’s where the communication is really falling short. You need designers who say to resource managers, ‘if I make this material, how will it go into your machines; what will happen to it; what bin does the customer have to put it in; where do they have to send it?’ But you probably need a bit of carrot and stick, and that level of collaborative dialogue has to be convened at a higher level – convened and supported by government. I hope the tipping point is coming and we’re nearly there, but it depends on appetite and budgets.
“The ideal is more collaboration and coming together of sectors. There’s a triangular relationship between material development, resource managers and designers, and if you have all three talking about how the material is made, how it is used in a product, how that product then gets captured and taken back into material stream, and keep that loop going, you have the foundations of something incredibly strong.”
The responsibility also falls to design schools, believes Thomas. “They need to incorporate more ‘end of life’ design tools into their curriculum.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, she describes herself as “always very environmental” throughout her own design education in the 1990s – which included a BA in communication design at London’s University of the Arts and then a Master’s at the Royal College of Art – but she believes current educators could do more.
“There are some very good courses that focus on circular design – that build in designing for the future and incorporate resource efficiency and circular and regenerative design – but I would suggest it’s not as fully incorporated into all UK education modules as we would hope. It’s still a bit on the outside, but circular economy skills should be in every designer’s toolkit.”
Through her role in etsaW Ventures, Thomas is expanding from design into material research and development. “We seek founders and material concepts very early in their development – pre-seed – that are brilliant and should be accelerated. Many are working with end-of-life waste streams and innovative circular design materials that are the constant in changing products – that is, those materials can be used over and over and over again.
We like a challenge. We want to get into nasty, complicated waste streams.
“One of the companies, MarinaTex, creates plastic-alternative film from fish-processing waste, so, for us, that is about looking at how we can work in the fish-processing industry to create something that is a high-quality raw material for the product. Uplift 360 is looking at the fibre-to-fibre recovery of Kevlar, which is one of those incredibly complicated composites.
“We like a challenge. We want to get into nasty, complicated waste streams, that are in need of an end-of-life solution, to see what’s being thrown out.”
Getting stuck in, literally, is clearly what makes Thomas happy. She holds a Thames foreshore permit –“‘I enjoy a bit of mudlarking” – and describes herself on LinkedIn as a garbologist. “I’m just fascinated by the history of where things came from and why they end up how and where they do. I’m a bit of a magpie and I spend a lot of my time knee-deep in other people’s rubbish. I love poking around in an MRF.” She laughs. “I realise that makes me a bit… unusual.”
It’s often a sobering experience, too. Her childhood discovery of that toothbrush was brought full circle when she learned of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a slow-moving spiral of currants off Hawaii. Because of its gentle breezes and lack of large fish, it is largely unexplored by humans and, as a result, collects much of the eight million plus tonnes of plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans every year, earning the area the nickname The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Thomas visited the nearest beach, Kamilo Point – known locally as Trash Beach – and found that “the plastic-to-sand ratio is shocking, even to me. In a half-hour walk there, I picked up 18 toothbrushes alone.
“90% of the world’s ocean rubbish is plastic and only 5% of the world’s plastic is recycled. We can’t just cut it out from our lives, but we need to reduce it, find ways to recover it and invent alternatives.”
Thomas is having a significant impact, however, bringing her knowledge and ideas to influencers at every level. “I’ve taken companies to Purfleet to look at all the plastics in the Thames; I did a lot of work for a big design conference at COP 26; I’ve been on the board of WRAP for nearly eight years. It’s fantastic to have opportunities to speak to people at that level.”
Even so, she does sometimes feel as if she’s pushing uphill. “It amazes me that I still meet designers who don’t consider that end-of-life concept. We are the custodians of the next generation of materials and need to put forward our frustrations at trying to get materials apart, clean and purify them, and then pass them back down to the design team. That’s the key information, and there are so many blockages and breakages along those lines of communication preventing that from happening.
I suffer fundamental frustration and I occasionally have moments of eco-anxiety.
“I suffer fundamental frustration and I occasionally have moments of eco-anxiety – ‘the world is doomed; we’re all buggered’, and so on. But I’m also very good at challenging that, channelling those thoughts into doing something about it and pushing a positive message forward that we are getting there. etsaW Ventures is a big part of that – I want to build a bigger understanding, to work out what kinds of innovation spaces are needed to facilitate this work in the UK – the big SkunkWorks where we can put resource managers with designers for a week, to bash through these really wicked challenges.
“I call it the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] for circular materials. It needs to be embedded in UK resource management and design excellence. I want to build that in the UK. That’s what’s needed to tackle waste as we’ve never done before. If I can make that happen, I’ll be a very happy person.”