When it comes to the right grocery bag, paper is often thought of as the greener choice. This intuition is part of what Acaroglu calls "environmental folklore." But what's more important than thinking about what is more natural, or even more biodegradable, Acaroglu says, is thinking about where it will end up—namely, a landfill.
"Functionality defines environmental impact," Acaroglu said. And because the paper bag has to be 4-10 times heavier than a plastic bag to carry the same weight, when that paper bag ends up in a landfill, it produces more methane.
The problem, of course, doesn't end with grocery bags. Take refrigerators, which aren't designed to preserve food as efficiently as they could be—and are growing in size. Or electric tea kettles, which waste energy by boiling more water than necessary. The energy use involved with one day of this extra water boiling in the U.K.—where 97% of households own such a device—could power streetlights in London for an entire night, Acaroglu notes.
The solution isn't just about greener production or using natural materials. As director of Eco Innovators, Acaroglu helps companies figure out how to rethink the way their products are used and then discarded.
"Consumption is the biggest problem," Acaroglu said. "But design is one of the best solutions."
At TED, Acaroglu called for pioneers to create products by thinking in fresher terms about issues of sustainability. Our very future depends on it.