Week 18: Introducing our UNEP collaboration: The Anatomy of Action

By Leyla Acaroglu

Over the last year, the UnSchool team and I have been working on an exciting project in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to activate sustainable living and lifestyles.

The outcome is the Anatomy of Action, and this week, we are launching it into the world!

Here are the how’s and why’s of this exciting new initiative. 

 
 

When I talk about sustainability, a topic I have spoken about a lot over the last 15 years of my career, people often react in one of three ways: 1. they are really into the idea but don’t know what to do about it; 2. they are openly hostile about it, usually because they have had a bad experience with some form of environmentally-motivated actions/product etc; or, 3. they are confused by what it actually means and whether it is achievable, which makes them feel overwhelmed by it.

I try to remind people that sustainability is about the social, economic, and environmental considerations of what we do in our personal lives, the way we do business, and the government decisions that our elected representatives make on our behalf so that we can sustain the systems (such as food, air, and water) that every single living thing on Earth needs to survive and thrive. What it is not is a hippy-dippy, tree-hugging, wishy washy, anti-business concept that means you have to give up a lot and go back to the ‘dark ages,’ which is literally what some people who fall into the openly-hostile category have said to me. By being human, you need the planet, and as a result of our collective actions, the planet now needs us to alter damaging practices and replace them with more sustainable and regenerative ones. 

I will be the first to admit that we have a whole bunch of historical legacy issues to overcome when it comes to sustainability, as, in the past, actions by environmental movements and organizations have accidentally pigeon-holed the ways in which people view and care about the planet. Whilst often very good intentioned, the use of fear and shaming have been two well-executed tools in a space that often ends up being polarized between people who ‘care’ about the planet and those who ‘don’t’ — which is very strange when all people need the planet to live and thus don’t really have the option to not care about it. 

There are also many issues with the boom in greenwashing that we are still trying to shake off from industries who spend more money on marketing green credentials rather than doing them, and thus the resulting consumer cynicism from people who feel they were duped into buying crappy, often more expensive, so-called ‘green’ products. 

Now, though, we are in a more sophisticated era of understanding the ways in which we can design products and services that meet human needs but don’t destroy the systems that sustain us all. That's really what the core of sustainability as a practice is — a better understanding of systems and how we participate in them, which then leads to more informed and creative decision-making around how we all live well on this shared planet. And by shared, I mean not just with all the 7.5 billion other humans, but also the biological miracle that is the diversity of all the different species that make Earth the only known life-sustaining plant in the universe.

The current trend toward circularizing the economy is, in part, a reaction to the phenomenal waste crisis that we have designed ourselves into. The sad reality is that yes, recycling is broken, and we have global supply chains churning out stuff designed for the dump every second of every day. With many people profiting off this linear system, it does seem hard to turn the tides on such a well-oiled production-to-waste machine.

 
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But now, many of us humans are seeing the feedback loops from this by way of mounds of ocean plastic waste and air pollution, which is one of the world’s biggest killers. In fact, cities around the world regularly peak above the WHO safe living index, and recent studies have shown the link between air pollution and all sorts of cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s disease. And then there is the climate crisis, a massive, scary, overwhelming concept that is freaking many people out. So, what in all of this mess and chaos is one individual to do about this, when we are presented with so many issues in need of solutions like the 17 in the Sustainable Development Goals? How do we overcome the inertia felt by the magnitude of the issues at hand, when we see there are just so many things that need to be addressed and we are just individuals trying to live a good life? How on Earth do we do anything that has any impact at all? 

Every issue holds its own solution, and that’s the case here. We each make up the world by the actions we take; the planet is in the state it's in not because we exist, but because we do the things we do each day. Sure, many choices are taken out of our hands and all industries and governments have a lot to answer for when it comes to obtaining a sustainable and positive future. But for each of us, we hold in our own two hands the opportunities to change the economy, as it is made up of all our individual actions accumulated as an economic outcome.


If you have ever worked for a company that sells goods or services, you will know that the trends in consumer behavior are the things that dictate the next steps for the company. So, let’s say you work for a large supermarket chain, and suddenly, people start avoiding overly-packaged products. When you look into why, you discover it's because of the concerns about ocean plastic waste and that there is a trend toward package-free products. So then, you make a case to your boss to have package-free options that meets the rising trend in consumer preferences. That is how the market works — actions breed reactions in the market — so if we want to be a part of designing a future that works better than today, then we need to redesign our lives to mimic the kind of future we want to live in. 

 
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The complexity of sustainability is in the fact that we don’t really have all the answers yet. There is much work to do on the technical solutions to meeting our needs in more regenerative and planet-positive ways, like how do we mass-produce carbon-free energy and provide power for transport devices as large as airplanes? But, the very fact that we discovered how to fly was a miracle not too long ago, so the future will result is these issues being addressed, once we have a more widespread acceptance of the base reality that all humans need the planet and that our actions have negative impacts on it that, in turn, negatively impact us all. There is absolutely no escaping this, no matter how much power or wealth you may have. 

But, there are many things we can do, and I want to make it really clear that we each have agency and some kind of control over the future we create, even if it doesn’t seem like it at times. We make up the economy through our actions, and in turn, the economic system dictates what we value and how we live our lives. So, we are in a dynamic relationship that often feels as though the way things are is the way things have and will always be. But 10 years ago, smartphones were a brand new thing, and 20 years ago, we all had to plug our desktop computers into a phone line to access this new thing called the Internet. As such, in 10 or 20 years, the future will be very different from today, and I, for one, will be working to ensure that the kind of future we end up in is more equitable, sustainable, and regenerative than today. 

This is my very long introduction to a project we have been working on with the United Nations Environment Program’s economic division. For the last year, we have been exploring what types of actions individuals can take that will actually have an impact, if replicated and normalized, as part of people's everyday lifestyle actions. The outcome is the Anatomy of Action, an initiative we will launch this week at UNESCO in Paris. We wanted to not only design something that supports lifestyle changes for sustainable living, but also base it on a deeper understanding of what is working, along with why and how to amplify it so that we get new types of behavioral normals that encourage positive shifts within the economy. 

In 2016, I was awarded Champion of the Earth by the UNEP for my work with the UnSchool and my creative products that bring a science-based, innovative approach to sustainability. So it was fitting that we would find a way to collaborate on the complex and fascinating topic of sustainable lifestyles and how to activate more of them. 

For this collaboration, my team and I started by shining a light on all the bright spots of organically-growing cultural movements that exist outside of the traditional sustainability or environmental movements — things like zero waste, minimalism, guerilla gardening, ride sharing, etc. We identified over 80 movements, categorized them into which everyday lifestyle areas they were addressing, and then dissected the actions that these movements were identifying and taking. Next, we searched for the last five years of peer-reviewed academic papers and studies to see which of these hundreds of identified actions have positive impacts if amplified out among more people.

This helped us refine the list of actions down into a more detailed action heat map, and from that, we developed the five themes that make up the Anatomy of Action: food, stuff, movement, money, and fun. Experts within the UN system then reviewed the long lists of validated actions and confirmed the high-level ones that we could share as significant actions that anyone can take to have a positive impact in their daily lives.

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The resulting 15 sub-actions are all positively framed; for example, we are not asking everyone to go vegan (which is shown will have significantly positive impacts) but instead to ‘protein swap’, which everyone can do a few meals a week. We chose this intentional language because we know that globally, food options are very different, and health conceptions as well as cultural conventions are also very diverse. For me, a protein swap is achievable, and if we get more people doing this, it will encourage meat producers to move away from intensive factory farming and instead, produce high quality, ethical, grass-fed meat, which will result in a better place with many environmental impacts. 

The action set presented in the Anatomy of Action shows everyday lifestyle swaps that fit easily into daily lifestyle choices. I drew heavily on behavioral and cognitive sciences to gain an insight into how to frame these actions as opportunities rather than losses, as the reality with sustainability is that it is a massive opportunity! For example, the benefits in swapping your car drive for human-powered transport are massive. Not only do you get exercise, but also the less cars we have in urban environments, the better air quality we get. Additionally, there is a lot of research as to when people disrupt their daily habits and rituals — usually when there are already in an altered life state, such as going on vacation, having a baby, or moving houses. This struck me as fascinating, as we often fall into rutted ways of doing things, and as the old adage goes, “A change is as good as a holiday,” because change often brings positive results for us. 

Part of the Anatomy of Action asset set, Illustrations by Emma Segal. See all assets here


In designing and making the Anatomy of Action, I wanted to create a memorable, but simple memetic tool that reminds us all of the choices we make everyday. Nearly everyone has hands and we see them in front of us everyday, doing the things that make up our lives, so this reference is easy to remember when taking actions. But the critical thing is taking action! So to launch the initiative, we are challenging everyone to pick one of the actions, swap to it, and then share your habit disruptions on social media, tagging three friends to challenge them to get started too. Then repeat! For example, I personally moved banks for the UnSchool and started to move over other banks for my personal life because part of the research showed that divestment from banks and energy providers that are relying on the old carbon-producing industries could be done pretty easily. It takes time, for sure, but the outcome is investing in the kind of companies I want to see more of and divesting from the ones that need to change. 

Keep in mind that, due to the need to reach a diverse range of humans around the globe who live among different circumstances, the final action set is simply a chunk of things you can start doing now, but there are MANY things you can do and that need to be done. The next stage in our progress toward a sustainable future is discovering the things that we have impact on, both in negative and positive ways, and then designing these so that they are more effective and efficient. That's exactly what we're doing with sustainability — we are researching and working to figure out where the impacts are and what we can each do to address these, in our lives, in our businesses, and through the actions we take everyday that have an impact on the economy. 

We need many approaches to communicating, engaging, and activating a sustainable, circular, regenerative future. The Anatomy of Action is just one, but I hope it inspires you to reconsider some of the daily lifestyle choices you make, as well as how we each impact the economy and how, in turn, it impacts us, because the future is made up of our actions today. In doing so, we can all, over time, work to change the narrative of sustainability and design a future that works better than today.

Week 16: The Three Pillars of UnSchool’s Philosophy: Systems, Sustainability and Design

 
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If you’ve been keeping up with our work at The UnSchool, then you already know that we are all about activating systems change for a sustainable future by design. We work with people of all professional and personal backgrounds to support the rapid transition to being an activated creative changemaker. 

Our approach is deeply rooted in a philosophy of systems, sustainability, and design, forming three knowledge pillars that hold up all that we do. All of our programs, projects, and practices have systems thinking, sustainability sciences, and creative design solutions at the heart. These three pillars wraps up into the Disruptive Design Method, which is a scaffolding that enables people to think and do differently when it comes to understanding and working to help solve complex problems. In fact, we LOVE problems and embrace chaos and complexity at the UnSchool, helping others do the same!

In this week’s journal, we are exploring in more detail our three pillars of Systems, Sustainability, and Design. 

SYSTEMS 

The world is made up of complex, interconnected, and interdependent systems, starting with the most important life-sustaining systems of all, the ecological system, Planet Earth, which is made up of the billions of individual yet interconnected parts that form the magical whole that we are all a part of. Earth's natural systems provide every single living thing with the resources needed to exist, and thus, it is in our fundamental needs to create things that meet our needs within the opportunities and limitations of Earth. 

 
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We live within a set of complex social systems that subtly govern human society, from education to government and everything in between. Social systems are emergent outcomes of our collective desires for success as a species. Social systems breed the human-created industrial systems that work tirelessly to manufacture the needs of our desires, and yet so many of us are oblivious to how they work and what impacts they have. It's often at the point of these systems intersecting with nature, where we mine resources to obtain the raw materials required to make all the products we use, that we see many of our environmental and social problems evolve. The industrial system brings all the wonderful tools of modernity at the expense of the natural systems that we all need.  

 
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Understanding and working within the multi-level perspectives that systems thinking enables is fundamental not only for making change, but also for being an active participant in the world and the design of a future we all want to live in.  We use systems mapping and life cycle mapping to explore these connections, and one of the key tools we use for this is the three systems at play map (see above). This particular map helps people identify the types of systems that we humans have designed, as well as how they connect to the industrial systems we have created to meet our social needs. Mapping connections here demonstrates the reliance and destruction of the ecological systems that sustain the rest of the systems. 

Within the Disruptive Design Methodology knowledge set, there are several systems-based classes: Systems Thinking; Language, Influence, and Effect; and Systems Interventions.  

SUSTAINABILITY 

The ability to sustain life on Earth requires us to work within both the systems that nature evolved as well as the human-formed systems of society and industry. We all rely on natural systems for survival, which means that the imperative to enact sustainability is within all of us. No one can opt out of breathing, consuming nutrient-dense food, or drinking H20, so we are all implicated in figuring out how humanity can be a regenerative force on this shared planet, rather than continuing to extract and exploit the natural systems that sustain us. 

 
 

The fundamental quest of our time is to figure out how to transform our global economy and society from a linear one based on value loss and waste creation to a circular economy built on regeneration, sustainability, and value-gaining systems. The knowledge and power we have acquired through the industrial and technical revolutions have formed the tension between nature and our human needs, but now we can transition to meeting our needs within the boundaries and systems of nature, if of course, we have the tools to understand, participate, and contribute back more than we take. That is the essence of the sustainability concept, doing more with less, and understanding how the planet works so that we can participate within its means and evolve from an extraction-based society to a regenerative one. 

At the UnSchool, we embed sustainability into everything that we do, from  post-disposable considerations in all our programs and our food philosophy through to our new farm-based rural regeneration campus. We don’t get everything right, but we are on a constant journey of figuring out how to do things in a more sustainable way; for example, we are currently exploring our digital footprint and developing a zero waste digital communication strategy as we recently discovered just how much of an impact each video watched and email sent has on our carbon emissions. 

Learn more about sustainable practices in our Sustainability and Sustainable Design & Production courses. 

DESIGN 

Design is a powerful silent social scripture that surrounds us at all times; it influences our lives from the moment we are born until the day we die. Everything, absolutely everything that we encounter in our day-to-day interactions with the world is by design, and thus can be re-designed to meet our needs in more elegant, sustainable, and sophisticated ways. That’s why we have the Disruptive Design Method as a tool to support anyone being able to contribute to designing a future that works better than today!

To form usable goods and provide services, design takes all the materials and resources it needs from nature. Therefore, every action we take has an impact on the natural world, so designing better products, services, and systems is one of the critical tools for bringing about a circular, sustainable, and regenerative future. 

 
 

Our current global condition of designing for disposability, overexploiting and undervaluing the raw materials and formed goods created in this industrial system perpetuates the unsustainability of our species, but through circular systems design, we can turn the tides on this trend. From this foundational perspective of design, we can approach the needs and reconfigure value to work within the natural systems that are required to sustain life on Earth, designing goods and services that not only meet human needs and desires in beautiful ways, but also add value back to the system that gives us all life, and support environmental regeneration. 

The Three Pillars, Combined

The combination of these three pillars make up the foundational tools for thinking and doing differently, for understanding complexity, and for developing the propositions for a better future by design. With systems, sustainability, and design at our core, we design systems of learning and positive impact that maximize social, economic, and environmental sustainability through the understanding of the complex interconnected systems at play in the world around us. This enables us to design experiences that maximize positive change. 

 
 

We translate these into all sorts of different things, reconfiguring our content and unique tools into learning systems like the Circular Classroom, our Fellowship Programs, and even our Living Learning Lab in Portugal. The beauty of having integrity-based models like this is that they hold regardless of the difficulties that you face, and for us at the UnSchool, our goal is to activate and equip people with the tools they need to agentize themselves to make more positive change in the world. 

Agency is the outcome of learning applicable tools that you can activate in your world, and the one thing we need more of is people willing to take action to solve the complex problems we all face. If you are keen to make change, you don’t need to come to the UnSchool to do so, all you need to do is get started! But if you want to get the tools to make change, understand how to design positive interventions an be a force for good, then we have you covered at the UnSchool!

Week 11: Yes, Recycling is Broken

By Leyla Acaroglu 

This pains me to write, but we all have to come to terms with the harsh reality that recycling validates waste and is a placebo to the complex waste crisis we have designed ourselves into. The things you are separating and putting in your recycling bins are probably not being recycled — and there’s a good chance that they are ending up somewhere you never imagined. 

The current recycling crisis, where much of the diligently separated waste is not getting recycled, started in January 2018, when China announced that they would stop taking the world’s recycling through enacting their “National Sword” policy, which after more than 25 years of accepting two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste, suddenly banned the import of most plastics and other recyclable materials.  This move not only stunned the world, but it also suddenly ripped the band-aid off that was holding together recycling as a viable solution to the single-use product proliferation around the world.  

A year(ish) has passed since the new Chinese legislation came into effect, and their plastic imports have dropped by 99%, forcing the bulk of the global recyclables to be landfilled, incinerated, stockpiled on docks, cast out into the environment, or sent to other countries in the region. The latter is an equally unpopular move where many countries are now openly rejecting foreign trash.  Experts now estimate that as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030. 

Recycling is a lovely idea when it works; in fact it's a fundamental part of the circular economy, after, of course, sharing services, remanufacturing and repair. But like any system that displaces the responsibility somewhere out of sight, the externalities come back around to bite us all in the ass eventually. Ocean plastic waste is just one of the massive unintended consequences of relying on a quick fix, which then, in turn, reinforces the problem you are trying to solve. Systems thinking 101: the easy way out often leads back in, and there are often no quick fixes to complex problems. Recycling as a solution has reinforced the problem, and now we are dealing with a ‘frankenproblem’. 

There has been an unfair reliance on consumers to be the responsible parties in dealing with the rise of disposable items. This is after producers and retailers have decided, without consultation, to wrap everything in plastic or replace reusables with disposables, normalizing the use of single use items by claiming them to be more hygienic and convenient than their reusable counterparts. 

There are many coinciding aspects with how this further exacerbates the issue. For example, take the issue of contamination (one of the motivators for China to stop accepting the world’s trash): many everyday items that can’t be recycled are mixed in with recyclables. Or soiled materials, like a coffee cups or food packaging, get in with clean items and then make a mess of the rest. Then there is “wishcycling,” when people who are so conditioned to “do the right thing” that they toss whatever they wish could be recycled into the recycling bin, hoping that the trash fairy will ensure that it gets recaptured and magically turned into something useful again (another spoiler: they don’t).  Furthermore, there is no universal recycling system, nor are there practices to teach an ever increasingly globalized world how to manage the complexity of this diverse practice. Nearly every state and country has different rules about how to recycle. In some places it's rinse and separate, in others it's pop it all together (no need to rinse), and in others there are very detailed separation techniques for all the different types of plastics (identified by the small number at the base of the plastic item). So we have well-intentioned citizens getting lumped with the responsibility of deciphering what they should and should not do, whilst producers make add more complex materials to the system. Of course there are just the lazy people too, who throw whatever wherever, further increasing the contamination rates, and this just makes the cost of recycling higher and results in more recyclables ending up being dumped in landfill. 

Good intentioned and well-trained recyclers the world over are up in arms over the news reports that their hard work to get things into the right waste streams is amounting to nothing. And countries around the world are sending contaminated loads of recycling back to their parent countries — often wealthy, consuming nations like England, Canada, Australia, United States, Germany, and the rest of Europe. What we have actually created is a system of dumping a waste legacy on developing economies, as few rich countries have localized recycling facilities to coup with the amount of trash generated. 

Consumer waste and recycling is a broken system that can’t be solved by just better recycling alone. Don't get me wrong — recycling, remanufacturing, and repair all have their place in the transition to a circular and regenerative economy, but the reliance on a cure-all magic system that takes your old clamshell salad box and turns it into something just as valuable and useful is very far away from the reality of the current status quo. The undeniable issue is that we have created a disposable culture, and no amount of recycling will fix it. We need to remedy this illness at the root cause: producer-enforced disposability and the rapid increase of a throwaway culture being normal

The systems failure: enforced disposability & a normalized throwaway culture

Single-use throwaway stuff permeates our day-to-day lives; it's hard to avoid a coffee cup here, a plastic bag there, some wooden chopsticks at lunch, or that boxed take-out Thai food for dinner. While it’s most prevalent in the food industry — bottles, cups, lids, straws, grocery bags, produce bags, cutlery, produce wrap, and even those single-serve little sauce sachets — recently, design for disposability has moved into the medical, transport, and government sectors just as much. Over the last 60 years since the invention of cheap plastics, and even more so in the last 15 years, since the rise in the cult of busy, we have literally designed ourselves into a disposable society. 

I have written about this before in this article on Systems Failures: Planned Obsolescence and Enforced Disposability:  “Many of the goods and services we all rely on are created with the specific intent to lose value over time so that the consumer is stuck in an enforced consumption cycle, which increases value for the producer, but not for the customer nor the planet. And the cost of dealing with all of this reduced value stuff is placed back on the customer and local governments in the form of funding local waste management services.”

That’s right, the decision by a producer or even your local cafe to swap to disposables is then costing you money in either general waste (ie landfill fees) or recycling — both of which are costly aspects for local government to manage, so much so that many are ditching recycling all together! The cost of running these cumbersome recycling systems is also one of the reasons so much plastic waste is escaping into nature via the rivers and oceans of Southeast Asia, as the rapid transition to disposable plastics has not been met by an increase in municipal waste management services. 

Recently I illustrated the extent of how we don’t see the costs of invisible things in a TEDx talk in Lisbon. 


Around the world, daily options for obtaining basic needs such as food and water have dramatically changed over the last two decades, from a reusable user experiences to a crappy plastic or paper single-use disposable option. For many, it feels cheap because it is, and it feeds into the speedy convenience-fueled lifestyles that currently dominates societies. But the long-term costs are much greater than the immediate cost cutting and time-saving perceived benefits. I know there are many hygiene benefits and that the bendy plastic straw help many people in hospitals or who are disabled, I get that a disposable diaper is so much easier than washing them, but the extent of disposable single-use products is fundamentally unsustainable. And the really insidious issue here is that we are all paying for this! We pay for the cost of a disposable lifestyle embedded in the cost of these services and products, pay for it again through local taxes, and then we pay for it collectively in the loss of natural environments like beaches and waterways. We pay for it when 90% of table salt ends up filled with microplastics, and we will continue to pay for it as long as we continue to believe that there are no consequences to our disposable addictions. 

As  awareness about environmental issues associated with waste has risen, so too has the quick fix of “make it recyclable” as a solution to disposability. This has validated the production of single-use product streams. It has given way to the myth of ‘good’ (paper) and ‘bad’ (plastic) materials, which is so problematic as all materials have impacts, but it also has distracted us from the real issue all whilst more and more products and services have shifted to disposable from reusable. 

What frustrates me to no end is that so many agents in the system just deflect responsibility to other parts. The plastic manufacturers say that the brand owners don’t want to change, and the brand owners blame the customers who then blame their governments who then blame the retails or the companies, and the cycle of blame continues. The reality is that plastic is a fantastic material for durable products, like reusable packaging systems that can be easily sterilized and reused. For example, I was on a flight recently where the food was provided in a thick plastic reusable bento box that had a salad and a snack in it, no plastic packaging, simple box wrap (although they did have disposable utensils…) but it was designed to be washed and reused over and over again. Of course washing has its own impacts too, but there is always a break-even point that can be factored into the systems design. The design solutions are actually really simple and the infrastructure interventions often financially viable, but the will to make change by societies’ institutions is significantly lacking. Where are all the pioneers who will help flip the script on our disposable world?

In the meantime, the burden of change comes down to you and me and our communities to refuse unless it's reusable — to reject the system that has been thrust upon us by ditching disposables and demanding better products and services. Of course, this is difficult for many people, but each and every action you can take does send price signals through the economy. I recently heard of a large supermarket retailer trialing package-free dispensers because they saw a shift in the market, which is dictated by economic actions of people everyday. Simply put — we need a reusable revolution to get us out of the recycling mess.

The story of Recycling is the Story of Intentional Misdirection

Magicians use misdirection to direct their audience to see what they want them to see so that they can trick you into believing what they have done is really magic. This is very similar to the tactic used to get our society to a place where recycling symbolizes the height of environmentalism. Our living grandparents will laugh at the idea of waste; they will tell us that they most likely never even had a trash bin. What was life like before disposable plastic? It was a lot more washing up, by the ‘save and reuse’ practices that, just a few generations ago, were the norm quickly got designed out of the modern world with the advent of cheap disposable materials.  

The big shift towards normalized disposability was initiated in 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated in the US, with this famous Keep America Beautiful ad: it features an Italian-American actor poised as a Native American who sheds a single tear as an oblivious passerby chucks a bag of trash out of his car window, into the street. Playing on people’s emotions, the ad then drills a message that we still have internalized today: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” It took two sentences to shift the blame and guilt on disposable items away from the producers of the new disposable economy and onto the citizens they had thrust it upon. 

This ad and many others to come were funded by Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a front for a lobby group made up of representatives from the major beverage companies. The very strategic goal was to turn the attention away from the rising concern for the environment in a post-Vietnam era, as soda and milk bottles were swapped out from reusable ones (which cost the companies money in collecting and washing) to the disposable alternatives. The slight of hand trick was to make out as though the problem was not the calculated shift to normalizing disposability, but the acts of the individuals, who prior to this, were not used to non-biodegradable materials filling their daily lives. 

It’s valuable to interject here a comparison of a recycling system that holds manufacturers accountable, rather than consumers. Such a system can be found in Germany, who is considered to have one of the best recycling systems in the world, in which it recycles nearly 70% of its waste. Many trace this success back to a package ordinance that was passed in 1991, in which it “required manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging after a consumer was finished using it. This included transportation packaging, secondary packaging (i.e., the box around soda cans) and the primary packaging (i.e., the soda can).” Then, in 1996, the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act was established, and it “applies to anyone that produces, markets or consumes goods and dictates that they are responsible for the materials’ reuse, recycling or environmentally sound disposal. This act particularly targeted producers and encouraged them to focus on one of three waste management strategies: waste avoidance, waste recovery and environmentally compatible disposal.” 

The contrast in policy and in recycling success rates here further solidifies that manufacturers should be held accountable for packaging and that the solution is sustainable, circular design

Redesigning systems: what happens now?

Now that China is no longer accepting the world’s recycling waste, we need to have more efficient localized recycling systems in places that help to close the loop and bring about the transition to the circular economy. The challenge is how can you help make that happen?  Additionally, closed loop service provision systems like the recently launched Loop, will help dramatically eliminate single use packaging at least. 

We are always finding ways to help people make positive change at the UnSchool and overcoming the inertia that often seeps in when problems of this magnitude are presented. So, here are some really good first steps you can start with. Individual lifestyle swaps: get some small wins under your belt to motivate you and influence others around you, by refusing single-use, taking your own, asking for reusables, or refusing to buy something. This has positive ripple effects, as the more people who see a new practice, the more normal it becomes in society at large. It might seem futile, but bigger systemic impacts come through the regular consumption choices we make everyday. Look also at what you can do it your professional life by letting your workplace know you want to help them swap from disposables to reusables.  Enough people doing this in the world at large will redesign the normalization habits of hyper-disposability so that it goes out with the trash. 

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If you want to get started on designing for a circular future, you can download our FREE Post Disposable Activation Kit, a set of free tools that we designed to help you activate your leadership and make lifestyle shifts for a post disposable future, read my book on circular systems design, listen to this great podcast from the 99% Invisible, or come to an in-person program at the UnSchool to activate your agency and learn the skills of creative changemaking.

Week 8: Why Care About Deforestation?

 
deforestation unschool
 

By Leyla Acaroglu

There is this painful, old-school mental image of a ‘treehugger’ — an almost derogatory term used to describe someone who cares about the environment so much that they just hug trees. I usually make jokes when I do talks about how I love the planet but I don’t hug trees, as they have spiders and could ruin my clothes. But silly jokes of my spider fears aside, my perspective on trees has changed a lot over the last couple of years, as I took on an abandoned olive farm, which is now the CO Project and started to regenerate it. The farm has some 150 established trees (and a couple hundred new babies we have planted), all of which I am now a custodian of. As a result, my appreciation of and fascination with trees has grown immensely. I still have not hugged a tree per se, but I certainly do talk to them!

The CO Project Farm olive and citrus trees

The CO Project Farm olive and citrus trees

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The magic of trees

Firstly let me tell you how trees really are magical. Some of my several hundred year old olive trees have no insides, just a bark shell, and yet they burst into life every spring and drop a bounty of olives every year, despite looking as though they have no heart. Each autumn, when the weather cools, they become homes to all sorts of moss and animals and morph into these grandparent-like figures for all the life that needs shelter. The same goes with the fruit trees — they drop their leaves every year at the end of summer and appear to go to sleep. But, I have noticed that they are actually using all their energy to make tiny baby apples, apricots, or plums, and then, come summer, they burst with delicious delights that nourish and sustain our bodies. 

Trees and humans have a very intrinsic relationship. We obviously eat their fruits, use their wood, and rely on them to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and purify our air. To top it all off, they regulate the climate, keep soils from eroding, provide habitat to other animals, and if all that is not enough, they also apparently ‘talk’ to each other via secret underground networks!  

So, when we decided to host out 10th Emerging Leaders UnSchool Fellowship program this upcoming November in Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia — a very rainforested area of the world — I wanted to discover more about how deforestation is affecting systems. You may have already heard of the issues with palm oil and the clear-felling that occurs to feed the world’s insatiable appetite for cheap oils (that end up in cookies, soaps, and many industrial processes), so in this week’s journal article, I wanted to explore the impact that deforestation has on all of us and find out more in preparation for our Fellowship.  

the magic of tress

What Causes Deforestation? 

Globally, we have cut down 3 trillion trees since industrialization, and it is assumed there are 3 trillion still standing.  Since humans started using forest products, over 46% of trees have been cut down, adding to the climate crisis since, as we pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we also cut down the things that absorb and convert it

Farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling combined account for more than half of the world’s deforestation. The main drivers, however, for the destruction of the hyper-diverse Malaysain rainforest (home to the delightful orangutans) is paper pulp logging and palm oil, the latter being a cash crop that creates one of the cheapest forms of lubricants on the global market. There is also a significant amount of illegal logging for hardwoods that then end up making their way into furniture and outdoor decking. There are some international policies to attempt to curb this trend, but poverty  and economic needs often drive people to find ways of still exploiting the forests. 

The immediate impacts of this, such as biodiversity loss and wildfires which often affect monocultures rather than natural ecosystems, are increasing in intensity and further increase the loss of trees. Around the world we have seen many intense and deadly forest fires such as in California where over 100 million trees were lost in the 2018 fires.  These kinds of extreme fires will only increase with the threat of climate change. Sadly, there are claims that fires are lit intentionally and even articles about firefighters starting fires so that they could get paid to put them out!

Overgrazing of native animals can also cause tree loss, but nature seems to have some smart resistance, such as the case of Acacias in Africa that developed a toxin in their leaves to kill off the over populated Antelope. Incidentally, the reduction in shepherds’ animals munching through the undergrowth has been attributed to the severity of the fires. However, the grazing of farm animals, such as goats (who I can confirm will eat anything, as we have 4 on the farm and if they had it their way, they would eat every leaf they could get their teeth on!) is part of some fire prevention strategies.

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The Systems Impacts of Deforestation

Trees are a keystone species in our shared planetary ecosystem, so cutting them down and destroying their systems is a detrimental blow to any ecosystem — specifically, us.  From climate impacts to desertification, soil erosion, fewer crops, flooding, increased greenhouse gases, and loss of home lands for indigenous people, there is a whole slew of systemic impacts related to deforestation.

Not only is deforestation directly impacting us humans, but the destruction of natural habitats for plants and animals is another systemic effect that must be addressed. 80 percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and right now scientists say we are going through the sixth great extinction on Earth, mainly due to the activities of humans (like deforestation) and overconsumption. Consider what happens to the soil when the trees are cut down. Tree canopies are a little bit like the hair on your head, which protects your skin from the sun and helps to keep you cool. Without dense tree coverage, the soil is exposed to the more sun which changes the types of things that can grow. If you have ever been in a forest, you would know that the temperature is completely different; we seek shade under trees when having picnics because they do a brilliant job of protecting what's underneath them. The loss of these tree canopies has been detrimental, with, in the last 40 years, roughly 40-50% of species going extinct and the greatest losses being in Asia and Australia (where I’m from). Biodiversity is what makes Earth, Earth. Without diversity, we have weak systems that are susceptible to disease — which then breeds a new onslaught of system impacts.

Something else happens with the loss of these tree canopies, too — all of the carbon dioxide that the trees were storing as they grew is released back into the atmosphere when the trees are burned. And this is no minor source of climate problems — the current deforestation rate is outpacing the sum of all the world’s cars and trucks on the road to add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than automobiles do. Additionally, it’s striking to  consider how beneficial trees are to carbon mitigation. One estimate states that tropical tree cover can provide 23% of the climate mitigation needed to reach the Paris Climate Goals by 2030. But with the current profitability connected to the consumption habits of us 7.6 billion humans here on Earth, it’s going to take a true systemic effort to preserve our forests as long-term investments into sustainability versus the current short-term profits connected to extracting forest-related resources for goods. 


How We Can Change our Destructive Habits? 


Yes, it is complicated. The drivers of clear felling, forest fires, and land clearing are many, from paper production, through to grain production for the livestock industry (many drivers for the clearing of Brazilian rainforest), wood products, the need for cash crops, or even the increase in the world’s desire for coffee and chocolate. These are all directly linked to consumption, which offers some scope for individual choice preferencing, so needless to say, the issues are multilayered.

Forests cover 30% of the world's surface (in contrast oceans cover 71%), so there is much scope for reversing the destructive nature of deforestation. India and China, two of the world's most populated countries, have made huge efforts to reforest, a solution that can have many benefits, like purifying drinking water, reducing carbon in the atmosphere, cleaning the air from pollutants, and providing economic opportunities for current and future generations. 

On a personal level, you can protect the trees you have some sort of custodianship over. Buy land and allow it to rewild — take inspiration from the famed children’s book author Beatrix Potter, who purchased 14 farms and more than 4,000 acres of land in England. This kind of foresight can help to protect vulnerable land from development and support your own kind of carbon sink. If you can’t buy land (it's surprising how cheap abandoned farmland can be!), you can certainly help by planting trees in your community or supporting organizations like this one that are replanting forests impacted by deforestation.

Of course, making informed choices when it comes to consumption is an important everyday micro-action that you can begin taking immediately. Opt for plant-based proteins instead of meat (meat production is a big driver of deforestation), go paperless as much as possible, skip products that contain palm oil (unless you have concrete proof it’s been sustainably sourced), advocate for the rights of indigenous people, burn firewood responsibly, and continue staying connected to a community of like-minded changemakers who give a shit about protecting the world’s resources so that we have a future that works better for us all! If you really want to level up, learn more about this issue and get connected to people making change, then join me this November in Malaysia at our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program.

 
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Applications are now open for our 10th Emerging Leaders Fellowship program. Get yours in today to learn more about this issue and to discover the tools for making a positive impact by design. Applications due by July 12. Apply here >

Week 6: The rise of sustainable living

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By Leyla Acaroglu

Earlier this year, I was invited to attend the Fourth UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. Politicians, innovators, and activists gathered to discuss the future of global sustainable production and consumption, looking at what the next stages are for creating systems of sustainability and circularity and how to unlock the consumption paradox.  

Despite the meeting not obtaining the desired resolutions to help bring about the significant global restructuring needed for a healthy and sustainable planet, the uplifting thing was that finally, after many years, the discussions centered on the roles of design and consumption for how to achieve global social and environmental sustainability. I, like everyone else, have my moments of disillusion, where the hope gets drained out of you by the fatigue of complaints, problems, and inaction. So allow me to focus on the flip side to that: the changes I see rising from the slightly nerdy world of sustainable production and consumption.

Not too long ago, terms like “zero waste” were boring policy directives thrown around by government departments with long-term strategies like “zero waste by 2020”. But in the last few years, ‘going zero waste’ and sustainable living in general have taken on an entirely cooler persona as a lifestyle trend of young, hip Instagrammers and savvy YouTubers are all helping to make this a movement and trend that now anyone can get involved in.

Yes, there are like any movements critiques of the gender politics and the validity of the claims of those who are promoting this lifestyle trend. Years ago, there was a claim that there was a growing trend called LOHAS: Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, and that people would actually start to make economic decisions based on the issues that matter to them. So for me, the Zero Wasters are the living incarnation of this marketing prophecy. And even more so, it demonstrates that the actions of a small group of people can have big impacts on the economy.

A ZERO WASTE LIFESTYLE

A zero waste lifestyler is someone who actively reduces their waste consumption by designing their life to combat acquiring things that are wasteful or will end up as trash, especially avoiding all disposable and non-recyclable products and packaging. Someone embracing a zero waste life usually plans meals in advance to avoid convenience packaging, and ensures they always have a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, straw, and bags on hand to actively refuse disposable items. This names just a few and varied everyday actions these lifestylers take to avoid contributing to the global waste pandemic.

These types of actions aren’t really new; they were well-practiced as normal before the lifestyle of hyper-convenience encouraged runaway disposability, beginning in the 1960s. So, the challenge hasn’t been finding alternatives as much as it has been rebelling against the current status quo.

Many of the heroes of the zero waste lifestyle movement share incredible stories of only making one small jar of actual ‘trash’ a year, often shared on social media through active lifestyle design and adopting simple everyday changes. Composting organic waste from their homes, proactively purchasing reusable products, or even making essentials like toothpaste at home are all part of their day-to-day practices.

While there are aspirational leaders in the movement who are very much tied to the brand of zero waste, the key takeaway is that a person who actively seeks to reduce consumption impacts through conscious micro-actions across several different areas of their lives is a positive thing that should be encouraged. Not just because it helps bring about a new normal around reusability in society, but because it helps change the economy. When many micro-actions are being replicated, it has impacts on the goods and services that end up being made available to all of us.

This can all be seen in the rise of products and services to meet the needs of the zero waste community. Putting aside the questionable environmental credentials from a life cycle perspective of many of the products, and just looking at the shifts in the economy, we can see change — positive change toward a new type of normal, whereby people are activating their agency to help solve the global waste crises.

There are now dedicated zero waste stores in many major cities around the globe (not just in obvious hipster strongholds like New York!). Modern plant-based restaurants, and even entire shopping centers that have sprung up to accommodate this growing trend of plastic-free, package-free, and zero waste consumers who are interested in sustainable consumption options.

As a result of many different interventions, companies have also started to embrace the global trend toward sustainability. We are seeing leaders emerge in the circular economy in some sectors, such as apparel, consumer goods, and furniture. The Loop circular delivery service was just launched this year, and the biggest IPO in two decades was Beyond Meat. Ikea recently announced that they would be 100% circular by 2030, and Lego is working on a plastic-free brick. These examples show a growing demand and substantial shift towards the normalization of products and services that go beyond recycling and start to move us into position where further positive disruptions can occur.

I know, there is still a shit ton of work to do to solve the complex social and environmental problems that occur as a result of the global supply chain marketed to quickly meet every immediate desire of the human needs. Walk down the aisles in any supermarket around the world, and it's obvious that the vast majority of product providers are yet to catch on to this massive cultural shift underway, where consumers are conscious of their impacts and want to avoid investing in wasteful plastic-laden unsustainable products and services. But, the shifts we are seeing are encouraging and should be highlighted.

THE REAL ISSUE IS DISPOSABILITY: THE ROOT OF ALL WASTE

Waste is the dark side of consumption, and despite two solid decades of zero waste policies, and many different approaches from cleaner production to eco-design and sustainable consumption, and now the circular economy, we are still seeing a global increase in waste generation. And not just in plastics clogging the oceans, but in high-tech trash, textile, and food waste.

The issues with waste is that no matter how much recycling or waste management is put in place, more waste is generated than can be dealt with. Many emerging economies have limited or minimal waste management systems, and many big Western countries have absconded their responsibility to manage their own waste efficiently, just exporting it to an emerging economy. Like the case of the Canadian trash that the Philippians refused to take on, or as evidenced by the collapse of the recycling industry after China refused to take the world’s plastic trash any longer.

There continues to be a significant trend in converting reusable products to disposable ones, combined with the painful reality of planned obsolescence in high-value goods, so many aspects of our daily lives are now marked by single or low-value use products. Thus, going zero waste is one defiant act that anyone can do to take a stand against this. The reality is that what we spend our money on impacts the economy. Just like investing in renewable energy increases the value of that industry, the same is said for every product or service. We get more of what we invest in.

And let’s not forget that all of this comes down to design. The World Bank estimates that at the current rate of increase, we will see 70% increase in waste generation by 2050. This is all by design. Waste, whether it be in trash or recycling, is a design flaw, so even with the rise of waste rejection, we have a significant trend to contend with. Products are designed to break, and systems are designed to increase disposability as they cut costs and respond to customer concerns of health and safety. A significant part of the entire waste/pollution/unsustainability problem is that we have designed a system that incentivizes waste, and that is why we need to design for a post disposable future.

Design is also an incredibly powerful part of the solution. We can design for a future that meets our needs in sustainable and regenerative ways, and it's no wonder that the waste backlash is coming at a time when people are more able to design their own lives and share these behavioral and cultural shifts online to audiences of others willing to buck the status quo. This new generation of active consumers, be it zero wasters or minimalists, they are exerting their personal interests on the economy. This is helping to challenge the dominant culture of hyper-consumption and instead showing ways of living a more intentional and purposeful life.

MAKE CHANGES EVEN THOUGH IT TAKES TIME AND EVEN IF YOU FAIL

I have spent years researching ways of effecting change, and the one thing I know to be true is that change is constant, but it also takes time. Many people are not willing to even try something new because they think that it won’t serve them well, but when they do actually enact a habit disruption and discover that there was not a negative outcome, they often then adopt the new change and share it with others. Change is socially contagious, in both directions on the positive/negative scale.

Change is often hard to see whilst you are in the middle of it, and it is even harder when it’s a resistance to the status quo. The global changes toward a sustainable, regenerative, and circular economy require multiple different actors shifting their behaviors and patterns in diverse ways. In the case of zero waste living, it's all about agency and having ownership of your own impact. More so, it is contagious, as the power of social influence kicks in and people see the positive outcomes that making these types of changes can have.

When enough people validate the new actions, it’s a free pathway to the new outcome! To be sure, there are many challenges ahead of us when it comes to sustainability, and major corporations are still far behind in the trend of adopting the significance of the changes needed to adapt to a circular economy. But the progress is real and transformative. The question is not if, but when will we see the tipping point of change where we, as a collective species, start to design goods and services to be a positive influence on the planet?

It's never too late to start swapping unsustainable daily decisions to more considered ones, and in fact, there are five simple actions we can all can start anytime.

Five everyday actions to start RIGHT now

  1. Swap out some meat for plant-based proteins

  2. Ditch everyday disposables such as cups, plates, bags, and take-out containers

  3. Invest in the things you want to see in the world by buying repairable and long-lasting stuff (and make sure to repair it when it needs to be fixed!)

  4. Opt for low-carbon mobility options like biking, mass transit, or ride-sharing

  5. Move money from high-impact industries to renewables through swapping energy providers, banks, and investment portfolios

Week 4: Will Global Plastic Bans Work?

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By Leyla Acaroglu

The lightweight and easy-to-produce nature of plastic has made it globally ubiquitous in a bazillion forms. As we are all becoming too aware, these cheap conveniences have negative impacts on the natural world and there is a growing trend in public policy actions to ban certain plastic products. Whilst there are complexities in implementing bans, there is an interesting conversation to be had on how different countries around the world are taking legislative action to discourage the use of some types of disposable plastics (like bags, cutlery, and styrofoam containers), and how impactful this is for activating change and moving toward a circular economy.

The Issue

Today, the average North American or European person consumes 100 KGs of plastic each year, and half of the world’s plastic has been produced in the last 12-15 years. The statistics on just how many disposable plastics are used and end up polluting the environment are staggering. With four trillion single-use plastic bags being used around the world each year, we are drowning in plastic waste. With a collapsing recycling industry, there is clearly a strong need for a systems change to support the functional delivery that plastic products bring us, but without all the disposable consequences.

As you can imagine, things aren't always as simple as they seem on face value. Banning bags and straws can help in some ways to curb the tsunami of plastic waste, but bans alone will not address the real underlying issue: the global normalization of disposability and expectation of convenience that has become a central aspect of our fast-paced, hyper-consumption-fueled lives. Furthermore there is the important question, of what replaces the plastic products, and what impact these alternatives have?

Just some of the bans include: European Union, Mexico City, New York, Kenya, United Kingdom, and Costa Rica to name just a few. The World Economic Forum counts 127 countries with active bag regulations in place.

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15 single-use plastic issues

  1. 91% of plastic waste isn’t recycled (source)

  2. Only 1% of plastic bags are returned for recycling (source)

  3. It costs retailers in the US alone $4 billion to give away “free” bags (source)

  4. 12 million barrels of oil are required each year to make plastic bags for the U.S (source)

  5. There is more micro-plastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way (source)

  6. 8 million tons of plastic flow into the ocean each year (source)

  7. As many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world's beaches (source)

  8. Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 1 million marine birds

  9. Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 100,000 marine animals each year (source)

  10. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic in each square mile of ocean on average (source)

  11. 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world — and that number will top half a trillion by 2021 (source)

  12. The average person eats 70,000 micro-plastics each year (source)

  13. The top three contributors of micro plastic waste in the oceans are car tires, fibres from wash cloths, and small plastic beads from body care products (source)

  14. If plastic consumption increases at its current rate, by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills (source)

  15. Scientists have found plastic in human poop (source)

The thing that makes plastic so incredible as an ‘everything-material’ is the same reason it's a nightmare for the natural environment —  it's lightweight and indestructible. The lightweightness means that bags and bottles blow out of trash cans, and float on the ocean surface until they land on beaches. The indestructible part means that the stuff stays around for a very long time. The actual number of years it takes for plastic to break down is unknown, as all plastic in the world has only been around since the 1960’s when we started to mass produce it for everything.

The Changes

We are in the middle of not just a backlash to disposable plastics, but a significant cultural shift and transition to a circular economy that even has the Queen of England on board with the need to detox from disposable plastic.  She recently announced that Buckingham Palace will go plastic free after watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series! 18 months ago, China introduced a ban on all imported plastic waste, which has sent the global plastic recycling market into a tailspin. To get a full rundown on this, listen to this fantastic podcast on 99% invisible that explains the history of plastic straws and the public health concerns that fuelled their mass appeal in the U.S.

The mounting issues are encouraging countries and companies around the world to respond to consumer outcry about not just waste washing up on beaches, but on enforced disposable culture that we are now entrenched in. There are many reasons why we need systems change for a post disposable future and a circular economy.  

The Bans

The European Union just banned a list of 10 everyday disposable plastic products (interesting they avoided bags!?), and there are hundreds of various types of bans in place around the world, ranging from microbeads to expanded polystyrene (EPS) to single-use plastic bags, straws, cups, and utensils.

There are many different ways countries are legislating disposable plastics. Some have a total ban, which basically says if you are caught with these items you are in deep doo doo. Kenya, for example, has the highest with a $38,000 fine if you are caught with a plastic bag (which incidentally has created a fascinating black market for bags).

Taxation is also used to disincentivize product use; often referred to as a “bag tax”, countries like Australia, Sweden, the UK, and many more are using this approach. This is a bit of an easy way out - in a user-pays system, many people with the means will continue to pay the small inconvenience tax (often around 5 or 10 cents), whilst people who are less economically mobile will be burdened with the cost. Then there are also partial bans where certain regions within a country have imposed bans.For example, in the US there is not a total ban of plastic bags, but there are cities that have total bans (like San Francisco). This also applies, in some countries, to plastic bans in religious, historic, or natural sites, as in the states of Goa and Gujarat in India.

Do Bans Work?

Banning plastic cuts off the problem at the source, so at face value, and according to statistics, these bans present an effective and sustainable solution. For example, some widely shared figures tout that Ireland’s bag tax that was imposed in 2002 has led to a 85% reduction in plastic bag litter there. And, according to reports from San Jose, California, their 2011 ban has led to plastic litter reduction of “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods.”

While these numbers seem promising, things start to get a little more complex when you examine them through a systems mindset. Bans can misdirect the perception of what the problem is; in the case of bags, it vilifies plastic, but many of the alternatives put in place do not fit into a circular economy and are equally as problematic from a whole systems perspective. Paper bags are not as strong, so they are often double bagged. When you look at all the processes that go into making them (such as growing trees, cutting them, bleaching and processing them, and then manufacturing the bag), you start to see that there are ecological impacts at other parts of the system.

Additionally, we’re beginning to see plastic sales increase in other areas as an unintended consequence of bag bans; in California, for example, plastic garbage bag sales increased 120%! This is due to consumers needing bags for things they previously reused their plastic grocery bags for, like collecting household waste and picking up pet waste.

The issue with all of these products being banned is the disposability of them. Paper straws or wooden chopsticks may conjure up more eco-friendly sentiments, but they still cause significant issues when they are designed for single-use outcomes. Banning one product breeds a market for a new one, and then the question is in whether the new one will end up being better than the last disposable item. That is the sustainability question that needs to be answered from the start as we move toward circular design solutions that fit into a circular economy.

Even with items that are designed to be reused, like cotton tote bags, we have to be mindful of the life cycle impacts here too. The Danish Government recently published a LCA of grocery bags, in which they found that you’d have to use an organic cotton tote bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag in order for it to be better for the environment due to cotton manufacturing impacts like water use, damage to ecosystems, air pollution, and more.

Bans are also interesting to consider from a behavioral perspective. On one hand, they create a new type of normal for people and allow society to shift perspectives on certain things — like the fact that hyper-disposable products are not good for any of us. Bans also force innovation, as people will have to find new ways of meeting their needs. But on the other hand, when something becomes harder to get, it makes it more valuable, which leads to a rise in workarounds to getting the thing that is no longer readily available. What is even more interesting is the physiology of bans — people get really irate when they have something taken away from them. In both Singapore and Australia, for instance, there was a big controversy when the supermarkets tried to ban bags, and a small percentage of very vocal people claimed this was a violation of their rights.

Dissecting the issues with plastic bans here at a high level reinforces the need to examine problems and proposed interventions through a systems lens and a life-cycle perspective in order to avoid creating more problems. While the destruction imposed by plastic makes us all want to jump to a quick-fix-solution, we need to suspend the need to solve and reframe the conversation by emphasizing the real issue of disposability.  

Only time will tell if bans help ensure the disruptive shifts we need to get to a better future, but in the meantime, we can all examine how we contribute to disposability in our lives and implement micro-actions to support a sustainable future. As for bags, the best answer for now is simply to reuse the bags you have, no matter what type, over and over and over again. For some ideas on getting started with a post disposable lifestyle that fits into the future circular economy, download our free Post Disposable Activation Kit at UnSchool Online. or take our class on sustainability that covers life cycle thinking.

 

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Week 3: Can We Eat our Way to a More Sustainable Planet?

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By The UnSchool Team

We can all agree that there are fundamental failures in the global food system, with over a third of all food produced being wasted and millions of people being affected by food deserts. What systems changes could be introduced to create solutions in different ways?

From extreme hunger, under-nourishment, and food waste through to how we grow, process, transport, and consume food, there are plenty of opportunities for improvement throughout the many sub-systems of the global food system. In this UnSchool Journal article, we’ll take a detailed look at the EAT-Lancet's recent report that explored whether we could feed a healthy diet for a future population of 10 billion people, while remaining within planetary boundaries. We’ll also take a high-level look into the burning question about how you can swap up your food choices to contribute more equitable, sustainable food systems change around the world.

What is the EAT-Lancet Commission — and why does this report matter?

The EAT-Lancet report is the first time, we have had scientific targets for both healthy human diets and sustainable food production, based on a rigorous, comprehensive review of the most recent scientific literature. The team behind this report is the EAT-Lancet Commission, which is a part of EAT, “a non-profit startup dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption, and novel partnerships.”

The EAT-Lancet Commission is a team of 37 multi-disciplinary scientists from 16 countries who set out to tackle the systems issues of hunger, obesity, and environmental degradation by discovering how people should eat to solve all of these issues — keeping in mind that we are projected to rise to 9.8 billion humans on Earth by 2050. The result of their efforts shares an important micro-action that we can adopt as individuals to work toward a better collective whole via systems change: the “planetary health diet.”

 
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How does the “planetary health diet” work?

Visualize a plate that is halfway filled with fruits and vegetables. Now, on the other half, imagine whole grains, plant proteins like lentils and beans, and unsaturated plant oils. Note that while being plant-based, it’s also a flexible plan, and it does allow for modest amounts of meat and dairy (as well as a little added sugar) — although being vegan and vegetarian are both options for healthy individuals and a healthy planet.

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The most important focus for planetary health lies in the reduction of red meat consumption, due to the major environmental impacts associated with livestock farming. As reported by WEF: “According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, emissions from global livestock account for 14.5% of anthropogenic (from human activity) greenhouse gases, while the World Bank chart above shows that, in 2014, 70% of freshwater withdrawal was used for agriculture - projected to rise by a further 15% by 2050.” Of course, minimizing red meat consumption is also optimal for human health, given that eating high amounts of red meat is associated with higher risk for type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

While loads of research was conducted in order to arrive at these new guidelines, the gist of the planetary health diet as a means to create food systems change remains pretty simplistic: increase consumption of nutritious plant-based foods (fruits, veg, nuts, legumes, and whole grains), and decrease consumption of red meat, sugar, and refined grains.

This doesn’t seem too radical to us, as we have already adopted a vegetable centric food philosophy at all UnSchool events! Our recent collaboration with the UNEP shows the five areas of everyday action you can take to reduce your footprint and contribute to a more sustainable life.

10 everyday actions you can take to reduce your food footprint

 
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  1. Diversify your diet to include more plant-based products, and cook more at home

  2. Increase your intake of plant-based foods and explore the joys of non animal protein rich options like beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas (they are delicious!)

  3. Embrace a flexitarian, reducetarian, vegetarian, or vegan diet

  4. Shop for local seasonal food that is produced sustainably, such as your local farmers’ market or package-free store

  5. Buy sustainably produced foods. They may cost a bit more, but if you invest in quality over quantity, you are offering a better impact to your health and the planet

  6. Buy only what you can finish, save, or cook in bulk to freeze, in order to avoid food waste and avoid adding methane into the atmosphere

  7. Avoid excessive packaging by buying fresh and taking your own reusable packaging and bags to stores. Re-use any packaging as long as possible if you are not able to avoid it in certain cases

  8. Ask for healthy and and sustainable food options from your the people you buy food and other products from

  9. Grow some food yourself by starting or joining an urban garden, community garden, school garden, or kitchen garden

  10. Support organizations, policies, and programs that promote sustainable food systems - speak up about them, ask questions, and get involved

To read the full report Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems (Walter Willett et al.), visit here. To discover how to reframe sustainability and think critically about everyday impacts, check out this course at UnSchool Online.

Week 2: What is Greenwashing, and How to Spot It

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By Leyla Acaroglu

In our hyper-consumption based societies, it’s always smart to raise a skeptical eyebrow when you hear organizations make claims of how they’re “doing their part” in the quest to “save the Earth”, (although at the UnSchool we truly believe that no one can “save” the Earth, but we can all change it!). But when companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable — this is called greenwashing.

Cambridge Dictionary says  greenwashing is designed “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”

As an analogy, greenwashing is to corporations as tree hugging is to individuals who say they care about the environment, it's a symbolic reference that has little actual outcomes.  And more so just confuses the issue attempting to be resolved.

Whilst some greenwashing is unintentional and results from a lack of knowledge about what sustainability truly is, it is often intentionally carried out through a wide range of marketing and PR efforts. But the common denominator among all greenwashing is that it is not only misleading, but it’s also really not helping to further sustainable design or circular economy initiatives. Thus, environmental problems stay the same or more likely, get even worse, as greenwashing often sucks up airtime and misdirects well-intentioned consumers down the wrong path.

One such classic greenwashing case is that of the car giant Volkswagen, who has admitted to cheating emissions tests by fitting various vehicles with a “defeat” device — a proprietary software that could detect when it was undergoing an emissions testing, altering the performance to reduce the emissions level, all while touting the low-emissions features of its vehicles through marketing campaigns. In truth, however, these engines were emitting up to 40x the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.

There are countless other case studies across all industries that show how NOT to do sustainability by discovering more examples of greenwashing — like the meat mega-giant Tyson, who got busted for false claims about antibiotic-free chickens. Or the fossil fuel giant BP (who changed their name to Beyond Petroleum and put solar panels on their gas stations) and then  got called out for their green misdirection,  and of course Coke, who has been accused of greenwashing through ‘natural’ sugar claims that it started marketing as a way to attract more health-conscious consumers.

Years ago the design agency Futerra made a really cool resource called the Sins of Greenwashing, which classifies the many ways that companies participate in greenwashing, from outright lying through to making claims with no scientific proof. This is one of the reasons that life cycle thinking is such an important tool to know how to access and use when making sustainable design choices, because many people who get caught greenwashing are often not intentionally doing it, but more so are ill-informed of the impacts of different materials. They thus end up accidentally making unsubstantiated claims about environmental preferences, or worse still making assumptions about what is green or not based on environmental folklore or simple google searching!  

Greenwashing AND single-use plastics

One of the most pervasive examples of greenwashing is in the world of single-use plastic. Did you know that half of the worlds disposable plastic has been produced in the last 15 years! And 91% of plastic produced globally is NOT recycled. You have probably already heard of the global plastic-in-the-ocean-disaster we are seeing, with stats that say there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 and the horrific images of once pristine beaches being overwhelmed by plastic debris. It's no wonder the world is up in arms about this tragic by-product of our disposable lifestyles.

This alarming issue drove us to create our free Post-Disposable Activation Kit, and it’s why we talk so much about the dangerous idea that recycling will solve all the problems, when in fact the main issue is that we have normalized disposability to the point where everything is valueless. And not only is recycling a bit of environmental folklore, but so are many of the bioplastics being marketed as sustainable design solutions.

Bioplastics are plastics made from bio based polymers that are engineered to perform like normal petrochemical plastics. In nearly every case, they need a certain set of conditions to break down in (oxygen and sunlight that aren’t present in a landfill or the ocean, for example). Further to the end of life management issues, they also require a certain amount of petrochemicals in their production phase so often have a similar amount of ‘plastic products’ embedded within them.  Additionally, since plastic bags take a lot of energy and other resources to manufacture in the first place, a “friendlier” plastic is not helpful at all when using life-cycle thinking. The FTC began cracking down on the misleading claims of bioplastic manufacturers in 2013 and handed out more warnings to marketers in 2014.

This was the case in Australia years ago when a plastic bag company swapped to ‘biodegradable’ plastic, which technically didn't fully degrade, but instead just breaks down into smaller parts unless it's processed in a digester specifically designed to create the conditions for biodegradation. What is actually needed is a compostable bag, which is a different thing entirely. The bag made big eco claims, and the consumer affairs watchdog fined them and required them to stop selling the product as it was completely false. In fact, Australia has this entire guide on how to avoid greenwashing!

As consumers, we have the power to see through the greenwashing and calling bullshit where it's due, rather then falling into the safe belief that there are simple solutions to complex problems. We can continue to pressure corporations to create truly viable, post-disposable, sustainable and circular design solutions by changing our own habits and behaviours to support the more sustainable options. We believe that all of these problems are solvable with good design, a systems mindset, and services that reconfigure how we meet our human needs without damaging Earth in the process. If you want to participate in the global post-disposable redesign challenge, check out this set of design briefs that we created.

Bust more Eco-Myths

Greenwashing is all about misdirection, showing one thing that distracts you from what is really going on. The main issue we see is that greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against significant environmental issues like climate change, plastic ocean pollutions, air pollution and global species extinctions. The saddest thing is that many companies do it by accident, as they don't have the expertise to know what is truly environmentally beneficial, and what is not.

We are approaching a critical time in which more organizations and individuals are adopting sustainable design and zero waste living practices, and entire communities are banning disposable plastics, It’s important to be able to quickly identify instances of greenwashing, and replace them with truly sustainable practices both as a consumer and as an employee (which the UnSchool sustainability course covers in more detail).

This is a time of abundant opportunities.

We all can be change agents in considering and designing sustainable outcomes in the world around us that affect systemic wellbeing — socially, economically, and environmentally. When we frame sustainability as a practice that helps us create a future that we’re excited about living in, we generate optimism about solving complex problems (which is what’s required to truly tackle these issues!).

Pair that with creative thinking, knowledge of systems and life cycle thinking, and a foundation built on what sustainable design in practice really looks like, and we’ll have tangible outcomes that are positively disrupting the status quo and affecting change.

To level up your capacity to make more effective change-making decisions for a sustainable and regenerative planet, consider starting our UnMasters track to get certified by the UnSchool as a professional creative change-maker.