The research-driven approach of design duo Studio Formafantasma might typically result in beautiful, poetic objects ranging from lighting and vessels to furniture, but the studio has been recently applying its efforts towards tackling a very contemporary problem: the recycling of electronic waste.

‘At the moment, electronic waste is the fastest stream of waste growing globally. Only 30 per cent is being correctly recycled while the remaining 70 per cent is being exported to developing countries or simply ends up in the landfill,’ says studio co-founder Simone Farresin during his presentation ‘I, You and IT’ during Brainstorm Design this week. ‘The obvious question here is why?’

Simone Farressin at Brainstorm Design 2019
Studio Formafantasma co-founder Simone Farresin speaking at the Brainstorm Design conference 2019. Photography: Stefen Chow/Fortune

While it may seem like stating the obvious, the recycling of electronic products is actually highly complex. Not only is this an issue being made worse by the increasing number of circuit boards being present in even more electronic products, the fact that most copper and metal elements are covered in black rubber for safety also means that they are harder to detect by the visual detectors in recycling systems that function by identifying and isolating various components by colour.

Studio Formafantasma has drilled down into the problem by conducting extensive research and investigations with experts in Europe, India and Kenya – analysing different levels of the recycling chain. Their design-lead process included speaking with legislators, activists using GPS to track where electronic waste is shipped off to, recyclers, non-governmental agencies establishing responsible recycling workshops and also manufacturers.

Studio Formafantasma System Recycling Ore Streams
‘System Recycling’, from the ‘Ore Streams’ project, 2019, by Studio Formafantasma

‘Design can be used to mediate conversation,’ Farresin emphasises. ‘One of the problems we had while speaking to recyclers was the need to gain the information from them to actually design. What we did was dismantle electronic products which we placed, almost as a taxonomy, into different elements so that we could speak with them about the problematics in recycling very specifically.’

One of Studio Formafantasma’s solutions includes the implementation of a colour-coding system that identifies recyclable metal elements, and also aids the separation of hazardous components. When an electronic device is opened, there is currently no universal design language to indicate what is harmful or not.

Studio Formafantasma Taxonomy Ore Streams
Taxonomy’, from the ‘Ore Streams’ project, 2019, by Studio Formafantasma

Another idea calls for the introduction of a labelling system that would be enforced by legislature. This labelling system would require manufacturers to outline the shelf life of each product, rather than concealing its obsolescence, thus allowing consumers to make an informed decision on purchasing. Yet another suggestion is the creation of a digital passport for different types of plastics in the form of a QR code that will enable recyclers to know the composition of the type of plastic they are recycling. ‘A lot of recyclers struggle to understand exactly what they are recycling because plastics are being engineered daily,’ Farresin explains.

Studio Formafantasma’s measures may seem simplistic, but they offer tangible, conceivable solutions to a mounting problem of a mammoth scale. ‘We needed to be very pragmatic,’ Farresin concludes about their strategies. ‘Rather than to completely rethink the system of recycling, we chose to operate within it.’ §