Early on a sunlit mid-September morning, on the banks of The Grand Union Canal in London, 25 designers, writers and academics from London Design Festival’s Greengaged hub, took residence on the Beauchamp ‘Electric Barge’ to take a trip to Powerday waste recycling plant in west London. Docked at Little Venice in Paddington, the Beauchamp is a silently-running and environmentally-sound answer to canal travel. Inhabitat writer Kate Andrews was on the trip and shares her insights from the experience.

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After skipper Ian ironically removed the plastic bags tied up around the boat’s rudder, Anne Chick, Director if Kingston University’s Sustainable Design Research Centre, Sophie Thomas, co-founder of communication design agency thomas.matthews and Sarah Johnson founder of [re]design, led the day’s events and introduced the day’s speaker, Rob Holdway, Founder of Giraffe Innovation and Presenter of Channel 4’s “Dumped” television series.

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Designers And Waste

Rob took the opportunity to introduce his work, share his knowledge of the environmental crisis and emphasize 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. However, it is clear “a trip to the Amazon isn’t necessary to see the real effects of Climate Change,” Rob expressed.

The need to design with waste in mind was paramount to Rob’s discussion. Designers can be very good at producing waste, but bad at using it, he explained. Rob expressed his thoughts on the role that education has to teach designers to put their work in the context of our contemporary society. He emphasized the responsibility of individual designers to be more aware of what clients and their briefs are asking of us. In a consumer culture, the ephemeral quality of design needs to be transformed and celebrated, by designing consumer products from biodegradable materials, he expressed.

Explaining that 80% of UK waste derives from businesses, Rob noted that focusing on merely household waste is not nearly enough. The UK is the 3rd worst country in Europe at recycling and he questioned why there are 55 different collection methods in the country.

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In the second part of the trip, our group arrived at Powerday waste recycling center. The 10-acre site, which opened in May 2007, took 12 years of planning and £12m of investment. Located at Old Oak Sidings in London, the facility sits near a transport hub of road, rail and canal links, making it the only site in London with such extensive access in 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 tons of construction waste a year, Powerday is currently recycling 95% of all of the waste it receives. They recover and recycle 70% of the waste into new uses; 25% is used in landfills for restoration and only 5% goes straight to a landfill. John explained that the 5% currently going to landfills is recyclable, however Powerday has yet to find a suitable market for resale- and that Powerday ultimately aims to recover 100% of the waste it receives.

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An Interesting Point of View

What is the role of designers in this, you wonder? Designers are crucial to the reduction and disposal of waste materials, they explained. The Powerday plant therefore welcomes students and professionals to book a tour, and event organizers, such as 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 there is only a mere 3 years left of landfill space in London!?

On the barge trip back to Paddington, Greengaged organizer 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 a second. “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,” said an Irish graduate designer.

Environmental design writer Petz Scholtus, from Barcelona, was on the trip and has published her thoughts on Treehugger.com. There are also photographs of the canal boat trip and the visit to Powerday on Flickr.

+ Greengaged

+ Powerday Recycling Plant

+ Beauchamp Electric Barge

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Copyright images courtesy of Greengaged 2008.