- Words by PriestmanGoode
Over the last 20 years, PriestmanGoode has built a reputation as one of the world’s leading transport design studios, dating from the first lie-flat seat for Virgin Atlantic in the 1990s to designing interiors for transport providers and services across the globe.
Perhaps even more than our client work, we have become known for our self-initiated projects that raise awareness of important issues such as accessibility in air travel or personal mobility for older demographics. Our most recent such project ended up becoming an exhibition at the Design Museum in London. Titled , the exhibition addressed the vast problem of waste in travel and explored ways in which we can use design to change the products and services that make up our journeys, as well as affect consumer behaviour to make a positive impact. While the focus of the exhibition was on air travel, the principles apply across every transport mode.
The statistics we came across during our research were staggering. According to the International Air Transport Association 5.7 million tonnes of aircraft cabin waste is generated on passenger flights each year. And if current behaviour patterns continue, that number will reach 10 million tonnes by 2030. That’s the same weight as 5 million black cabs. (For the record, there are about 21,000 black cabs in London.)
We also came across a report commissioned by the EU, which found that people who exhibited sustainable behaviours in their day-to-day life often did not apply these when they travel. One of the reasons for this was the view that ‘it’s just for one day, it won’t make a difference’. But with over 4 billion airline passengers a year (the long-term impact of the current pandemic not withstanding), such actions do indeed matter.
On a fundamental level, we need to rethink and challenge existing processes, exploring all elements of the journey. The experience of travelling does not just consist of your seat environment onboard a plane or a train, it starts the moment you book your ticket, and includes how you get to the airport or station; it includes public transport systems, and that all important first and last mile of the journey.
To make travel more sustainable, we need to rethink the products we use along the journey. What are they made of? How are they disposed of? While we worked on , we found that 500 grams of single-use plastic waste is produced per person, on average, for every long-haul flight.
Circular design principles will be crucial if we want lasting positive change in response to problems like this. We need to look at different industries and see what ideas we can carry over to our transport systems. For instance, exciting developments in biodesign and material technology and innovation mean we’re seeing designers and material scientists develop more and more materials made from waste by-products or renewables. While these might not yet be ready for use in heavily regulated transport industries, we should work together with suppliers to see how we can certify these for transport use.
For we attempted to reduce weight and eliminate plastic waste by using edible and commercially compostable materials to make a meal tray and its accessories. The tray was composed of coffee grounds and husks mixed with a lignin binder while wheat bran was used for base containers that slot into the tray.
In terms of accessories, a cup was made from rice husk blended with polylactic acid binder, with its liner — which saves the cup from being thrown away — being made of algae. Coconut wood was used to make a ‘spork’ (a single utensil combining a knife, spoon and fork), while soluble seaweed formed capsules that could contain sauces and milk. Finally, banana leaf was used as a lid to cover salads, with wafer doing the same for desserts.
Further to showcasing design possibilities such as these, we need to raise awareness of consumer behaviour, so that travellers are aware of the small changes they can make that will have a positive impact, but also so that they encourage the industry to change. If we want to have sustainable transport systems in the long term, we will need to change both supply and demand. Case in point: if passengers at Heathrow refilled existing bottles instead of purchasing new ones, the airport would use 35 million fewer bottles per year.
The response we have had to has surpassed what we could have imagined. Whether from the industry supply chain, the press or the public, our work has resonated with people. At a time when the chose ‘climate emergency’ as its word of the year, we have shown that there are alternatives that will make travel more sustainable. What we need now is a joined-up effort to make lasting positive change.
Designers often laud the value of design to make things better. We need to go further: collaboration between designers, architects, masterplanners and local governments is what we need if we want to make our cities and our transport systems more sustainable.