Principle of the HfG Karlsruhe Jan Boelen on elements of sustainable design

About the existence of sustainable design and the pure illusion of upcycling

Jan Boelen
Copyright by Z33 / Veerle Frissen

Jan Boelen is the new principle of the state university Hochschule für Design Karlsruhe. As the artistic director of Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Belgium and Atelier LUMA in France, he connects experiments with innovation and design. Now, his vision for Karlsruhe is to create a greenhouse as well as a laboratory of the future. Just as in the Bauhaus era, change can start in Germany.

Jan Boelen defines the elements of sustainable design and explains why upcycling is an illusion.

Is there such a thing as sustainable design?

In Jan Boelen's opinion, sustainable design consists of three core elements:

  1. Material and resources
  2. Production and systems
  3. Consumption and use

Today, the time which resources need to thrive is in a strong imbalance with the time that we take to use the products which are the results of these resources.

It takes over 10.000 years for raw materials to develop. However, as they are processed into products, they are only used for a few years or even hours. After disposal, the very same products take around 400 years to disappear from our planet. In this process, the products are burned using fossil fuels, CO2 emissions are released and piles of rubbish are created.

“Sustainable design begins with the design of objects that are synchronized with the rhythm of nature”

According to Jan Boelen, products should be circular and flow into the recycling economy. Products and raw materials should be reused in a natural way.

In the matter of consumption, people should place increasing emphasis on a "healthy design" and carry out kind of a health check. That means to always reflect whether what we consume, is not only good for ourselves, but also good for our neighborhood, for our city or for the region.

Such a reflection would result in an increased awareness of the consequences of our consumption and to a change in our behavior. For example, switching to public transport or taking the bike. We would behave and move differently, says Jan Boelen.

Is recycled plastic bullshit?

Above all, materials should have an intelligent life cycle, says Jan Boelen, who studied product design in Limburg, Belgium.

Many high-quality plastic products can survive for generations, are even repaired and reused.

"I'm not against plastic, but against inferior plastic products”

Low-quality, mass-produced plastic products from large furnishing companies give the illusion that they will last a lifetime, but are unusable after a few years of use. What few consider: Society pays for that. The products are cheap to buy, but we pay immense costs for disposal, so-called environmental costs.

“Upcycling is an illusion because recycled plastic will inevitably be of lower quality than the original material”

The approach to recycling plastic is wrong, says the Artistic Director, since the original quality can never be re-achieved. The decomposition of molecules and the connection with emissions inevitably reduce the quality. The recycling process of plastic cannot be compared to metal or aluminum. The processes which would be required to compare them do currently not exist and probably never will.

According to Jan Boelen, we pay for recycled plastic at three points in time: after the cheap product is no longer usable, we pay for the environmental costs. Second, we pay for the recycling systems and third, we pay for the purchase of a new product.

If companies had to bear their own environmental costs, they would stop producing such inferior products. However, mass consumption always goes ahead and the illusion remains.

"The house is on fire! Institutions, politics and society must take action now"

Jan Boelen thinks that education and research as well as development play a major role. Above all, it is important to rethink and reinvent systems and processes. To him, design means rethinking and reflecting. New ways and solutions have to be introduced slowly.

In his opinion, the economy and society will face major changes in the future. The design of democracies will be the biggest challenge.

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