Pity the Poor Technologists

After thousands of years of striving to develop the longest-lasting, hardest-wearing items for daily use, inventive-minded humans are now being urged to design things that deliberately fall to bits as quickly as possible, for the good of the environment.

Of course it’s only the throwaway parts of modern life that need to be shorter-lasting. (Everything else can simply be reused). Packaging, office supplies, newspapers – either we need to rethink our need for them, or stop making them so durable. There’s a difference between organic (in the sense of something that was once alive) and fully biodegradable, yet the two are often assumed to be interchangeable. But under exactly the wrong circumstances – such as the anaerobic depths of a landfill – seemingly short-lived substances like food and paper won’t break down at the speed we need them to, let alone metal and plastic. (For a primer, check out William L. Rathje’s Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage – 2001).

So let’s celebrate some creative uses of alternative materials. Firstly, the most recent Glastonbury rock festival in England encouraged a shift to biodegradable tent pegs made from starch, to prevent the annual nuisance of metal tent-pegs littering the fields for months afterwards. It’ll be fun seeing where this technology goes – why not biodegradable nails for temporary structures?

And what about the notorious Styrofoam cup, environmental scourge of the last century? Would you believe that someone’s made a biodegradable equivalent? There are now products, such as Earthshell, that can withstand heating – even microwaving – without melting, yet will quickly break into their constituent chemicals when the time is right.

Let’s hope short-term technology has a long life.

Image: michel clair

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.