Falling in love with plastic with Mitchell Joachim

Karim Benammar
Article by: Karim Benammar
Falling in love with plastic with Mitchell Joachim

How can we rethink the vast quantities of waste we produce every day, especially in large cities? How can we find a different way of looking at trash? Mitchell Joachim, co-founder of Terreform ONE and co-designer of Fab Tree Hab, an organically grown house, envisions New York as an entirely ecological and sustainable community. During a THNK forum, we discussed some exciting ideas on what it would take to turn trash into treasure.


Find out how building sustainable communities require us to rethink our usage of things, how we design them, and what we do with them. To help save our environment, we may need to fall in love with plastic.

Turning trash into treasure

The first question is what to do with all the waste we produce. As the inimitable Gertrude Stein put it: “There is no such thing as ‘away’; away has gone away.” We need to rethink waste. Joachim has designed a machine that would compact trash and turn it into building blocks. The amount of trash a modern city generates beggars belief: New York City generates enough in one hour to build the Statue of Liberty; with the 38,000 tonnes of trash produced in one day, you could build a 53-story skyscraper.

Another option is to recycle waste matter as food for mushrooms. Mycelium, produced by Ecovative, can be grown into Styrofoam, and used to transport our appliances and keep our hamburgers warm. Joachim’s team has been working on genetically modifying the Mycelium so that it stops growing after eight days; in other words, it switches itself off. Then it can be moulded into different shapes, such as a chair that is completely grown. In this way, our goods can become organic.

Watch Mitchell Joachim talk about our need to rethink waste at a THNK forum.

Falling in love with plastic

Rethinking waste is not just a question of innovative ecological design. It’s also a matter of our attitude towards “stuff.” We love diamonds and prize them above any other element, even though they hardly have any use-value. Plastic, on the other hand, is an amazing element. It can be moulded into any possible shape, it can be stretched and compacted, and it can keep liquids and food. It lasts for centuries.

Yet we have no love for plastic. Because it is so cheap, we throw it away, where it litters nature and disrupts animal food chains and endocrine systems. If we never let it out in the wild, we would have a much more effective society. We need to learn to treasure plastic. How can we think about falling in love with plastic? What images can we conjure up to represent this shift: Garbage men hugging plastic garbage bags? A woman excited by being proposed to with a – gasp – plastic ring?

Falling in love with plastic - Mitchell Joachim 2
To help save our environment, we may need to fall in love with plastic. Click To Tweet

The upcycle

There are three paradigms in ecological thinking. The first is efficiency, where you are aiming to do better than before, such as improving gas mileage. The second is zero-sum games, for example zero-emission engines or carbon-neutral travel. The third, and most exciting, is a positive contribution to the system, where you are giving back (e.g. a car that cleans the air because its exhaust is cleaner than the air it takes in).

In this third paradigm, we are no longer talking about recycling goods, but about upcycling. As Cradle-to-Cradle founders Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough put it in their new book, The Upcycle, there is no more ‘trash.’ Everything has to go somewhere. We should think of our kitchen garbage can as a ‘nutrient rest stop.’ We tend to use things for a specific time and purpose, but we will need to think of the whole lifecycle of the object that we are using. The use of a thing is just one part of the cycle, not only the middle point between it being made and being discarded. When there is no ‘away,’ we must think of the thing in its next iteration. From the design perspective, the question should be: “What will happen next?”

The key is to make the next iteration better by adding positive effects. Braungart and McDonough call this ‘additionality.’ When the object comes in for treatment, it can be improved by using the latest techniques or materials. Just like computer software, version 2.0 will be better than version 1.0. Every time a thing passes through the system, it can be improved. Recycling becomes upcycling. This is a strange notion for us to get our heads around: the second-hand version is better than the new one, because it will have been upcycled. We will love second-hand products more than new ones, just as we prefer the latest version of a gadget.

To save the environment, we might have to reuse trash to create better products. This process is called 'upcycling.' Click To Tweet

Stealth ecology

How will we bring about this paradigm shift? According to Joachim, your typical client is Homer Simpson. He has no interest in how something is designed or what it is made of. He just wants it to do what he wants to use it for, and to be as cheap as possible. We will need to design ecological products that do the same thing as the non-ecological version, have the same attraction, and cost slightly less. Let’s call this stealth ecology – making an ecological razor that beats the top razor in the field.

In a discussion with the famous French designer Philippe Starck about the role of design, Joachim came up with three types of designers. The first type round corners on objects and generally make things more pretty. The second type are maniacs making crazy objects (like Philippe Starck himself), who get celebrated around the world and whose work is exhibited in museums. The third type is the designer as inventor and entrepreneur. They ask naïve questions and rethink the system. There is a role for visionary designers, who are not only interested in improving things, but in radically changing the way we perceive them and use them. In this way, we can use the power of design to rethink the world.

Watch Mitchell’s TED talk, where he presents his vision for sustainable, organic architecture.

Do you have a sustainable business venture you’d like to pursue? Or are you just passionate about sustainability? Join the THNK Executive Leadership Program to help you scale your business and turn your passion into a reality. Visit the program page to find out if you qualify or contact us at admissions@thnk.org.