Decoding Design

Do kaleidoscope trashcans merely obfuscate the real problem?

Posting in Architecture

To encourage people to stop littering, two Indian designers created a mirror-lined trashcan. But these cans don't reflect an answer to a bigger waste problem.

There's litter, and then there's littering that is so pervasive that it becomes part of the landscape. There are parts of India (and plenty of other parts of the world) where this is true. To address the problem of litter and attempt to break the habits of litter-happy Mumbai residents, designers Nishant Jethi and Aalap Deasi created a trashcan lined with mirrors. When one places an item into the can, he or she sees the colorful design inside shift.

"Cleanliness Creates Beauty" says the sign above the trashcan. Indeed, its mirrors turn empty bottles and wrappers into some compelling patterns. But can this change the habits of people who'd otherwise get up from a bench and leave their lunch wrappings behind? According to the pilot test that Jethi and Deasi performed, it might. The "Cleanoscope" they installed near a playground collected 288 pounds in a week, while only 180 pounds is collected in average cans.

That still leaves a number of questions, such as how large are the other cans? How often are they emptied? One isn't going to put trash in a can that can't hold any more trash. The video above notes that lack of cleanliness contributes significantly to illness in India, but that likely has much more to do with lack of clean water and good hygiene than it does to litter in the streets. Plus, how scalable is the Cleanoscope solution?

But the bigger question this all leaves me asking is: why not address the waste generation and lifecycle rather than making garbage look pretty for a time?

From the Cleanoscope, garbage goes to a dump, where rag-pickers will sort it and remove all items of value. There's value in this process, to be certain, and as this 2009 Economist article notes, rag-pickers are likely better at recycling than a large municipal recycling system, such as the one in San Francisco. But at the same time, it's dangerous work. Rag-pickers also form an industry that would be more productive if waste was better handled at the point of generation. I'm not suggesting a major overall, with curbside recycling. But even just removing organic waste from the waste stream -- and deriving value from that it through composting -- could greatly improve the way waste is managed in India.

It's dated (from 2007) but this news story from an Indian news outlet claims that the city produced 6,000 tons of garbage each day, and that a bit more than half of that could be turned into compost. An NGO was busy training rag-pickers on how they could divert and compost organic waste from their trash, and it was working with a housing authority to develop a means of utilizing the compost. The goal was not only to teach the women a new skill, but to provide them with a secondary revenue stream.

While the Cleanoscope is a novel idea, and while it's hard to question any attempts to stem littering, a more systemic approach to addressing waste and its lifecycle could have a much larger impact.

Via: The Atlantic

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Image: Flickr / Matthew L Stevens

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure