Thursday, November 27, 2008

Recycling and Reusability Continued

Earlier on in my blog I was talking about how youngsters are so active when it comes to recycling, but no one gives much thought to reusing products. Someone raised the question that certain products cannot be recycled or reused. My reply was that people should not be using materials that cannot be recycled or reused. However, I thought that if tampons and pads can be created to be reused, what product can’t?!

Among the list of products that cannot be recycled are used drink pouches. This is because they are made of polyethylene, which is a plastic polymer that is not recyclable, but is reusable. There are other products made from this kind of plastic, and even if it exists in a small amount in a product, the product is not recyclable.

I came across a company, TerraCycle, that take unrecyclable materials and products, and turns them into reusable items such as handbags, office supplies, school equipment, etc. The company found innovative ways to use products that otherwise would just end up in a landfill. They make everything from shower curtains to notebooks! They even hold workshops, especially for younger kids to teach them how to recycle and reuse, and the importance of them. By showing children the products they use daily, such a juice boxes, they are making it easier for the children to relate to the impact they have on the environment.

Some of their products are sold, but mostly they just want people to be aware of how to reuse products, and how they can create usable items from their waste. Here are some of the products they created -

Notebook made from microwavable food box

Handbag made from used Target plastic bags

Drink pouches pencil cases

Chip bag checkbook cover

Is the use of Animals in Products Necessary?

When I walked into a Body Shop store the other day, I realized that all their products said no animal testing on the packaging. Not only do they not test their products on animals, but they only buy their supplies and get their products made from manufacturers who are strictly against animal testing too. I thought this was very interesting because Body Shop is a company that is huge worldwide, and has so many popular products. So how did they get where they are, without ensuring all their products were safe before launching them? When I researched more into this area I found out that animal testing is generally only thirty percent affective in letting us know whether or not the product is safe. In many cases, products that have been proven to be safe on animals have been harmful on humans. Many people are pro-animal testing because they believe that it is better to test the products on animals, and let them be in pain, than to test them on humans. However, what they are unaware of is that the individuals who first use the products are being ‘tested’ and are known as ‘human guinea pigs’ since animal tests are a very poor indicator of what will occur in humans. This led me to thinking is it worth putting animals through all that torture, giving them a slow and painful death, when this method almost always gives results that are not a hundred percent accurate. When I looked at how many brands and companies there are that are pro-animal testing, I was glad to see that some corporations such as the Body Shop are strictly against it.

From people using animals to test their products, I went on to looking at people using animals in their products. For examples, many products, especially from the fashion industry and soft consumer products, use fur and leather. Usually to get animal fur and skin, animals are killed brutally (click here for a short video), or in some cases they are even skinned alive (click here for a short video). Is this really necessary? Faux fur and fake leather have the same properties and are cheaper than real fur and leather. They will keep you just as warm or comfortable, and they look just the same! Then why do most designers choose to kill animals when there are alternatives available? Perhaps because wearing animals is expensive, it is almost a status symbol. However, there are many designers such as Stella McCartney, who is at present one of the most famous designers, who refuse to use animals in any way in any of their works. A Stella McCartney outfit is very expensive, and owning it shows status symbol, without wearing real fur or leather. Many designers are now following her lead and making their products fur-free and leather-free.

Art vs. Design?

I think the phrase “art vs. design” is something I have heard too often, but have never quite understood. According to me art and design go almost hand-in-hand. There is such a raggedy line between the two terms that it is hard to distinguish the difference between them, let alone compare and contrast them. What defines art and what defines design? If a product is functional, does that take away its rights on being an art piece? If a product cannot be mass produced but is fully functional, does that mean it is not a design but a piece of art?

I got thinking about how to distinguish the difference between art and design more so after taking a ceramics class this semester. I realized that in ceramics everything you create is very unique, and that no two people will have the exact same style. People create ‘art’ out of clay, expressing their own individualism. However, with me, and many others like me who have an industrial or graphic design, architecture or interiors background, our work was much different from the works of people majoring in fine arts. The pieces I produced were much more structural and functional, but does that mean my pieces weren’t artistic? For example, the two teapots below are very different in aesthetics. The first one was created by a ceramics artist, while the second one was made by an industrial designer. I don’t think that the first teapot is an art piece while the second is a design, when they both carry out the exact same function.

In my work, in general, I tend to lean more towards the functional aspects rather than the aesthetic approach. A lot of other people I know prefer working the other way around. I do not think that this makes me more of a designer than an artist, and it makes them more artistic than design oriented. This is why I do not understand the phrase “art vs. design”, because in my mind it will always be “art and design” since neither can exist without the other.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reusability of Products

A lot of people from my generation are looking at ways to save the environment. While most people turn to recycling, they don’t realize that there is no way, or at least no efficient way, to recycle ninety-seven percent of the products we use. The majority of the products we use are not biodegradable, and the ones that are can take up to two to three hundred years to fully decompose. For some products such as water and paper, perhaps recycling is the best option. However, for other products, reusability would reduce wastage tremendously. For example, nine billion plastic bottles are produced annually in the United States alone. Four million plastic bottles are disposed every hour in America, and only one in about eighteen is recycled. This number could be vastly cut down if people started reusing there bottles, or invested in a flask, which might be expensive initially but would be much cheaper in the long run.

This idea of reusability got me looking at menstrual products, and how they are recycled. Turns out, they are not! The majority of tampons/pads end up in landfills or sewage treatment plants. Although the tampon/pad is biodegradable, the plastic applicator and packaging may not biodegrade for several hundred years. An average woman uses about fifteen thousand sanitary napkins or tampons in her lifetime, which is approximately two hundred fifty to three hundred pounds (Refer to Image One). There are alternatives to disposable napkins and tampons. Many companies have come up with reusable pads and other reusable menstrual products. Some women have resourced to making their own reusable sanitary napkins. Contrary to belief, these products can be much more comfortable and hygienic than disposable menstrual products. Women with vulvodynia (pain in the vulva) or allergies tend to use reusable menstrual products, but there is no reason why not all women can. Besides the fact that it would be much more environmentally friendly, the extra incentive to switch to reusable products could be cost efficiency. By using reusable menstrual products, one would be able to save over ninety percent of what they would spend on disposable products.

Another similar example is utilizing reusable contraception. Where most women spend twenty to thirty dollars a month on birth control pills and patches, they could invest in a cervical cap or a diaphragm (Refer to Image Two), which is more environmentally friendly, just as effective, and much lighter on the purse strings!

While these products are readily available, people are not aware how much they would be helping the environment by making these small changes in their lifestyle. Companies and society in general have made it too hard to reuse products, or rather they have made it too easy to use disposable products. Instead of trying to reduce the number of plastic bottles an average person uses, they are giving people extra incentive to but more bottles by selling them at cheaper prices if bought in bulk. And instead of promoting reusable menstrual products and contraception, it is being kept on a down low. In fact, it can be downright embarrassing buying reusable contraception because many a times you have to sit through a demonstration of how it is supposed to be inserted. If these products, and many other such products, were advertised and marketed like most regular products are, people would be helping the environment much more than do by just recycling.

Image One

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Designers can Contribute!

While looking into the different aspects of the topics addressed in the lecture by Dr. Bruce Becker, I came across a photograph that made me question myself, and my ignorance towards the 'other 90 percent'.

This photo was taken by Kevin Carter in 1994 during the Sudan Famine. Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for this photo, only months before he committed suicide due to depression because of all he had witnessed during his time in the northern part of Africa. This particular photograph depicts a stricken child trying to make her way towards a United Nation’s food camp that is located about a mile away. The vulture in the background is following the child, waiting for her to die so that it can eat her. Whatever happened to the child eventually is unknown, since Kevin Carter, the photographer, left the scene right after the photograph was taken.

After looking more into this, I found that this case was definitely not the only one where weakness by extreme hunger prevented people from reaching central food aid outlets. Distributing the food to where people live, instead of holding it at food camps that not many families have access to, is an idea proposed and put into action by several non-profit organizations. Food camps also threaten the population’s health by helping to spread disease because of poor sanitation and overcrowding. By providing people with food where they live, people will not have to travel miles out of their home and village for food. Smaller stations can be designed close to each village/town, or next to a couple of villages, so that the inhabitants won’t have to walk for hours for a meal. Also, if the gathering is smaller, it lessens the risk of diseases like cholera from being spread because of overcrowding.

This is where designers can best contribute by designing ways of getting food into these close knit villages and towns from the bigger cities. This could mean re-thinking transportation methods. This has already been done to an extent, for example Worldbike are redesigning bicycles so that larger amounts of food can be transported at a time, and more number of people can travel on a bicycle to a food camp, i.e. a father can take his children.

I think that the best way for people, designers specifically, to help contribute is to raise awareness. I know that many people such as myself were not, or are still not, aware of the severity of the issue. I strongly believe that as designers we have special tools to make this happen. Most people respond to visual aids, and designers can relate these issues through their work and talent. Help is needed in every phase of this process; more donations are needed, more volunteers are required, etc. I am sure that there are a lot and people who would want to help people if they were aware of the situation at present in third world countries. I know of people who are willing to help, but do not know how to or where to start. Designers can help by being their link.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Designing Life

The world’s first genetically modified babies were born in 2001 in a medical research carried out in a facility in New Jersey, USA. Thirty women who were unable to conceive naturally participated in this much controversial experiment, from which seventeen failed to become pregnant, one become pregnant but suffered a miscarriage, and twelve women gave birth, with three of the women having twins. This was done so through a technique called ooplasmic transfer, which involves injecting certain contents of a donor egg from a fertile woman into the egg of the infertile woman. Some ethical issues have been raised, such as who is the mother of the child since the baby can share genes with the woman who donated the egg (seen in two out of fifteen cases). However, this technique has now been accepted in many countries as a resort to allow infertile women to have babies.

Although the genetic modifications in this study, and other similar researches, were miniscule, their implications were profound. It is a stepping stone for further research in many different facets of genetic engineering. It led to gene therapy being used therapeutically on a more moderate level. There has been tremendous progress in the field of muscle repair and improvement using gene therapy. Recently, some scientists in Pennsylvania developed a gene that prevents the natural deterioration of muscle cells. This was further developed into a gene that allowed a very significant amount of muscle gain and endurance without any exercise. It is predicted that this therapy might be approved for human testing/use within the next two years. This brings up ethical issues such as what if the technology was to be used for non-medical ends, for example to improve athletic performance in competitions.

Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) allows prospective parents to screen and select specific traits they would like their children to possess. Scientists and facilities all over the world are hoping to legalize aspects of PGD since several applications of this technology have been especially effective in screening for severe medical conditions. Potential genetic predisposition for Huntington’s Disease and Down Syndrome can be detected even before the pregnancy begins by analyzing the embryo’s genetic information. This allows parents to ensure that’s their children will be ‘normal’ which will essentially eliminates the emotional and financial difficulties that many families are forced to cope with. However, designer babies, which basically means customizing our babies according to our will, is one of the predicted central uses of PGD. Parents may possibly want to enhance their children by modifying the genetic make-up of their fetuses before implantation. This could move much further than just trying to avoid their child having physical or mental disabilities. They could provide their children with special abilities, for example the talent to master how to play a musical instrument. Some scientists argue that this should be acceptable because it is “no different than giving your child advantages like piano lessons.” Technical issues arise here such as this could eliminate the theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest which is how the population is kept under control and the world has been surviving. Ethical issues are brought up too, such as do parents really have the rights to choose every little detail of their child’s life, and also would there be too much pressure on the child to perform better than most other people. A highly controversial case took place in Russia a couple of years ago where a deaf lesbian couple decided to have a deaf baby because it would be easier for them to communicate with their child. It was argued that the parents of the baby did not have the right to decide whether or not he or she should be deaf.

Genetic Engineering is starting to change the idea that life is god-given. People will be able to change minute details such as the color of their eyes or their ability to swim or play basketball. Through this technology people will soon be able to design life.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Gender Roles in Third World Countries

Through the first timeline on passed/past, where I was looking at Hindu funerals, I came across the concept of ‘Sati’. This is the act of immolating the widow of the deceased on her late husband’s pyre, often against her wish. The literal translation of the word is ‘true’, and it is derived from the traditional dialect of Sanskrit. The word is related to the act through the belief that a wife is always to be truthful and loyal to her husband, and she is expected to willingly sacrifice herself once he is dead so that she can continue to be with him and serve him in his life after death. People continued to practice the ritual of Sati even after it was banned by the British Government in 1829. The law was reinforced in 1956, after which Sati was carried out much more discreetly, mainly in the rural areas of India. Although the practice of Sati is almost obsolete now, there still have been some highly controversial cases in the recent past where it has been put into practice. One famous case took place in a village in Madhya Pradesh in 2002 where a man was taken into custody for abetting his sister’s death on her husband’s pyre.

On the other hand, in the Hindu culture a widower is expected to remarry in order fulfill his duty to God. Getting married and producing children is a part of the ‘Grihastha’ phase of life, which is one of the four main phases a man should follow in order to lead a complete life. This differentiation between the correct way of living life for a Hindu woman and a Hindu man led me to think about how society is designed, not only in India but in all under-developed and developing countries. For example, in China, women had to have their feet bound in order to be a part of the society. And in parts of Africa, women went through, and are still undergoing, major genital mutilation when they hit puberty.

Foot binding started circa tenth century and ended in the early twentieth century. It is a tradition that continued on for about a thousand years before it was banned in 1911 by the new Republic of China Government. Although the exact origin of foot binding is unknown, it is believed that the practice was enforced by a Chinese Emperor in 960 AD who thought that women with smaller ‘lotus-shaped’ feet were much more feminine and graceful. Initially foot binding was contained to the royal family alone, after which it was followed by the wealthy families in China, and it soon spread to everyone. The process of foot binding started when the girl was anywhere between the age of four and six. It was done at this age so that the feet did not have much time to develop, and the bones were still relatively malleable. The mother was usually the one to carry out the process, by first soaking her daughter’s feet in warm water or animal blood and herbs, depending on what they could afford, then by cutting her toenails as short as possible before breaking the four smallest toes on both feet. Bandages were then wrapped around the toes and pulled tightly towards the heel, essentially bending the feet in half (Image 1). The bandages were removed and rebound tighter every couple of days for about ten years to ensure that the feet stay small, about 5 inches long (Image 2). Usually diseases and infections followed foot binding, and depending on the severity, many a times this resulted in death. Other health problems arose such as low hip bone density, which led to fractures.

This painful tradition was carried on for centuries because men would refuse to marry women who did not have their feet bound. All the mothers would refuse to let their sons marry women with ‘clown feet’. This was partly because no man wanted a strong, independent woman. Foot binding was a way to divide men and women by crippling the women and making them weak, both physically and mentally. Men would dominate over their partners, and women would believe that they need to be taken care of. They were almost perceived as objects that were supposed to look beautiful at all times.

Foot binding was more than just a fashion statement, it was a way of living for over a billion women. It was identified as an art that was a significant part of the society, and was deeply enriched by the Chinese culture. It gave a woman and her family a higher social status, making her more desirable. It was a custom that started out to define beauty but ended up defining the society and its norms.

A similar concept was implemented in African societies and tribes, where women were physically weakened so that they could be dominated by men. Female genital mutilation (FGM) was, and still is in many parts of Africa, very popular. The World Health Organization has estimated that between a 100 and 130 million females have been subjected to FGM, and at present a further 2 million girls are at risk each year; approximately 6,000 per day. Female genital mutilation means the removal of part, or all, of the female genitalia. The most severe form of this is infibulation, which consists of clitoridectomy and excision, then stitching the rest of the vagina up. Clitoridectomy is when all or a part of the clitoris is removed, and excision when the inner labia is cut off. The outer labia is trimmed to create a rough surface that can be stitched together to cover the vagina. A small hole, usually the size of a head of a matchstick, is left open to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass. Less severe forms of FGM consist of only clitoridectomy and/or excision.

The effects of genital mutilation can undoubtedly lead to death due to susceptibility to several chronic infections and diseases. Along with the extreme pain and discomfort, infections such as intermittent bleeding, abscesses and small tumors, urinary tract infections, stones in the bladder and urethra, kidney damage, reproductive tract infections, pelvic infections and infertility can be a direct result of clitoridectomy and excision. HIV is commonly spread by these procedures too, because the same instruments are used on several females without being sterilized. The first sexual intercourse for infibulated women takes place after a painful dilation of the opening left after the mutilation. In most cases it is necessary to cut the hole a little bigger before intercourse, which is usually done unskillfully with a blade by then woman’s husband. The outer labium also has to be cut apart during childbirth. It is important that this is done or perineal tears can occur when the woman is giving birth, which usually results in death. After giving birth, women are often reinfibulated to make them ‘tight’ for their husbands. The constant cutting and restitching of a woman's genitals with each birth results in tough scar tissue in the genital area, and makes her much more susceptible to diseases.

A reason why the practice of female genital mutilation started was because women were seen as the weaker sex, which meant that they were much more likely to be possessed by evil spirits. Genital mutilation, especially infibulation, was believed to be a way to keep the spirits away from a woman’s body. Although this was one of the main reasons why this ritual started, it does not seem to be the reason anymore. Now it is done because it is seen as a custom or tradition that is supposed to be carried out and passed on to generations to come. Also, perhaps because men like to see their women weak so that they can take control and dominate. Female genital mutilation was not only a custom, but it was a significant part of the African society. It is more of a defining point for the society now than before because it does not hold as much cultural value as it did.

The examples of sati, foot binding and genital mutilation are only a few of the many cultural traditions in developing countries. These traditions define the society and the way of living for people, and they are designed by man. This brings up the point that men and women are designed differently. Some things will always be different because of the physical differences between males and females. For example, as I mentioned in my ‘Bicycle Seats Timeline’ that the seats designed for women are short and wide while they are long and narrow for men. This is because women generally have wider pelvises. This is a difference between the two genders that is natural, and not created by man. Whereas the cultural discrimination, and the societal differentiation, is designed by mankind.

Image 1

Image 2 - Shoe size scaled next to a pack of cigarettes