Every year, humans produce 300 tons of plastic, much of which goes on to clog our landfills and oceans. It can be hard to wrap your head around such an enormous figure, but when you look around your home, you quickly notice how many objects in your daily life are made of plastic. The casing of your Sharpie and Paper Mate pens. The exterior of your Mr. Coffee machine. The Contigo bottle you take on walks.
All of these products are made by Newell Brands, a conglomerate that owns dozens of consumer brands, including Elmer’s glue, Graco strollers, and Crock-Pot. The portfolio of brands relies heavily on plastic in its manufacturing and reaches hundreds of millions of households around the world each year. But Newell, like many consumer goods companies including Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and PepsiCo, is now on a mission to cut down on its enormous plastic footprint. And it has turned to an unlikely source for inspiration: students.
Nate Young, Newell’s senior vice president of design, runs a team of 300 designers who serve all of the company’s brands. As a group, they’re exploring different ways to reduce plastic, from launching a recycling program for Rubbermaid containers to using more recycled plastic across all brands. But he wanted to bring fresh eyes to the product development process, so he tapped students at the Pasadena, California-based ArtCenter College of Design to help redesign some of the company’s most iconic products, include Expo dry-erase markers, Holmes air purifiers, and Mr. Coffee machines.
Young graduated from ArtCenter in 1987. Through Newell, he helped create a Sponsored Project—a long-standing program at the school—in which students collaborate with companies to find solutions to real problems. At the end of the project, the company can purchase the concepts that students developed for the course. Last year, three sponsors purchased intellectual property, paying between $4,000 and $10,000 per student on the team that created the concept. If the company chooses not to purchase the concept, it remains the intellectual property of the students.
In the spring of 2020, Newell launched a 14-week project called “Life Without Plastic: Alternative Explorations Through Design.” A professor of product design convened 24 students, in six teams, from a range of disciplines including industrial design, graphic design, and interaction design. “I wondered, what would happen if a bunch of unbiased students tackled the problem,” Young says. “At Newell, we have our own assumptions and orthodoxies about what we do: We don’t often ask ourselves why we’re using plastic. And yet a student would ask very different questions because they’re not involved in the system.”
Why is plastic so entrenched in consumer products?
The vast majority of consumer brands on the market rely on plastic as a core material, and, as Young points out, it is so embedded in design and manufacturing systems that it is hard to think outside the box.
In Newell’s case, many of the brands and products it creates have been on the market for decades, before it was widely known that plastic was bad for the environment. Plastic was first invented in 1907, and, when many of these brands came to the market, plastic was still seen as a cheap, exciting new material that could morph into almost anything. “Plastics, as they emerged in the postwar period, were just seen as a miracle material,” Young says. “Once you learned how to work with it, you could do almost anything with it.”
The problem with plastic is that it is generally made from oil, a non-renewable resource, and it does not biodegrade, so it will sit in a landfill for centuries. If pieces of plastic end up getting swept into oceans, marine animals can mistake them for food and may choke on them. Plastic can also break into tiny pieces called microplastics that end up in the food chain, poisoning animals and food. “We now realize that plastic’s flexibility and efficiency has a price,” Newell says.
Over the past few years, sustainable startups have started designing products that cut down on plastic, like Abeego, which makes food wraps from biodegradable cloth covered in beeswax, and Stashers, which makes baggies out of silicone. Young says it is important for Newell to take cues from these upstarts. “These insurgent brands can bypass the slow evolution that incumbent brands like ours took, and effectively leapfrog us,” he says. “So we’re trying to take on some of that insurgent thinking.”
There are some challenges to working toward sustainability at a large, publicly held company, Young says. New materials usually add to a product’s cost, whereas plastic is cheap. And mass-producing a totally redesigned product at Newell’s scale can be difficult if you have to retool a lot of machinery and find new suppliers. So Young’s strategy is to focus on improving products incrementally. For instance, rather than aiming to eliminate plastic altogether, he has encouraged his team—and the students on this project—to think about reducing a significant proportion of plastic without a major cost increase. “The highest impact we can have at Newell is to reduce the amount of harmful material,” Young says. “We need to start having design proposals that achieve the goals of the product, but also reduce the plastic content by 60%.”
The big ideas
With this in mind, the ArtCenter students explored ways to redesign iconic Newell products. They took apart existing versions of these products—from Mr. Coffee machines to Holmes air purifiers—and explored the function and form of each. The goal was to reduce plastic and focus on durability and repairability, so the products last longer. They also explored circular systems, to see if products can be recycled and reused.
With the Mr. Coffee machine, the students completely deconstructed the machine. Rather than using a system of plastic pumps and tubes to direct the coffee into the cup, like a traditional machine, they relied on gravity to ensure the coffee flowed into the cup. And they swapped plastic in the pot for aluminum. The only plastic in this device is the button and the cord.
With the air purifier, the students took a completely different approach. While most air purifiers look like industrial machines, the team designed this one to double as a clock. They used a corn-based plastic, which is less energy-intensive to make than the oil-based kind, but is still not biodegradable. The logic is that by combining two products a customer might need—a clock and an air purifier—they are reducing the overall use of raw materials.
With Expo pens, which are used for writing on whiteboards, the students created a refillable system. The pens are made from clear polyethylene, so you can see how much ink is left, then refill it when you need a top-up using a mechanism that ensures the ink doesn’t drip or spill. The plan would be to buy a subscription, so that new shipments of ink are delivered to your office on a regular basis. “Here, the goal was reuse,” says Young.
The team that worked on the Freshlock FoodSaver, a device that vacuum packs food in plastic bag, focused primarily on cutting down the amount of plastic used. They reduced the size of the machine itself, but they also designed the vacuum mechanism to be able to create a seal closer to the food, reducing the overall amount of plastic used.
Finally, with the Coleman water bottle, the students created bottles out of coated fiberboard, which uses a very small amount of plastic compared to a plastic bottle. They also wanted to increase its functionality, so they used an accordion system that collapses when you don’t need it. “Instead of carting around empty containers, you could put this in your car or purse,” Young says.
Ultimately, Newell chose not to buy the concepts although it came close to buying the intellectual property for the air purifier clock. Instead, the company gave each student on that team $2,000 (a small fraction what they would have paid had they acquired the concept outright). Still, the projects helped the students learn about the real-world constraints of product development—and put them on the radar of a major company for future internships and jobs.
Newell, for its part, benefited from a fresh outlook, Young says, one that could help the company move toward a more sustainable future. “Millennial and Gen Z consumers think differently from older generations,” says Young. “They expect sustainability to be baked in from the start. What’s wonderful about working with these designers is that they’re also consumers, and they bring that mindset to the projects they do for our brands.”