Thursday, June 16, 2011

Design, Energy, and Waste

Design TV for Kids

At a friend's house, I was introduced to a design show for children on NHK, the Japanese public television channel. It intrigued me because it was both for children and there was no talking! Graphics were used to point out features as the item was used in its everyday capacity- demonstrating the function of say the spout to both pour and pull away the inevitable drop that forms after pouring or the indention of an object in the center for the hand to grasp it.

Design & Function in Japan

My husband and I have often mused that in Japan everything has a function. We sometimes haven't discovered the function, but we've come to this conclusion because eventually we learn the purpose of the design. A few things in particularly have resonated with me. The saying goes something like, "Japan invents few things, but it refines everything."

The sides are very deep of my Japanese dish rack

A Dish Rack Illustration

I bought a pricey dish rack online from William & Sonoma, taking into consideration the of ease of an internet search vs. driving, searching, & shopping in Japan, delivery vs. parking fees, and with the assumption of a good design. However, we broke a lot of dishes with that rack and became annoyed over and over with it. The design failed to consider that when using a dish rack you are most likely to be hand washing and piling things up and that the water needs to drain somewhere besides a plastic mat that has standing water on it at all times which grows mold readily when not sparkling in the light of the catalog photographer. Not long ago I spotted a Japanese dish rack in the co-op catalog which is mostly for food delivery, but, from time to time, it has seasonal and home use items. The catalog descriptions are in Japanese, but the function is usually well-thought out especially for a Japanese household. We struck gold. The design of the rack is deep and the gaps are closer together; you can stack dishes up and the plates catch in the bottom grooves easily to accommodate as many plates as you wash. The drain rack is metal and does not touch the counter surface but sits up so that you can extract it to drain the water. Glasses no longer fall out of the gaps. It is all metal so no mold assuming you dump the water from the pan afterward.

A Garbage Disposal Illustration
The answer to the garbage disposal here is a mesh basket that fits into a fairly large hole in your sink. Admittedly, it took me a year to realize that there are liners to catch the food and bits so that you can toss it into the garbage or perhaps put it in a compost pile or in a bokashi bucket. I wouldn't go so far as to say it is superior to the insinkerator in most American houses, but the insinkerator uses electricity, increases water usage by about a gallon a day per household, and requires metropolitan water management issues to be addressed differently. The American way may appear harmless- just a bit more energy, just a bit more water, and just a bit more water management processing, but those bits add up to big numbers when we consider all of the users.


Consuming less appeals to me when I think of the impact of energy use whether it is my own, fuel, or electricity. Maybe it is living near as I ever want to be to a nuclear meltdown. The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was graded as a level seven nuclear disaster. Many European nations have responded to this energy disaster and to the unusable for thousands of years waste products by banning nuclear energy. I am beginning to agree with those favoring bans. To quote Dr. Loxtercamp, "Quality is more than metrics."

A Cross Cultural Awareness

A Japanese university student just back from a year abroad in America was over for tea and a chat. I was curious about her experiences as I had helped with her application. She had an all around good experience and reported interesting observations of kindness and consideration over and over again as she took classes, road the city buses, and traveled to some of the major cities in the U.S. One comment that struck home though was about there being few sidewalks or bike paths that allowed her to shop or go to places for daily necessities- safety from traffic was particulary her concern (high speed traffic in the car bound society of America). This dovetails into energy for me in the sense that a citizen of a town or community can advocate and ask for sidewalks and bike paths but those most likely to benefit (the poor) don't ask for them.

Energy and Money

Cars are generally used for about an hour a day, they cost on average $8000 a year to use, and yet we can't walk or ride bikes with ease in many communities especially to get to shopping centers or grocery stores. The way we spend money on our "transportation issues" is about cars, roads, airports, airport security, tax breaks to corporations for long haul transportation amongst other ways with nary a nod to the impact of the waste or alternate considerations for doing things (beneficial to the wealthier members perhaps). I dare not think of the health impact of Americans bicycling in terms of their weight and blood pressure.

Energy is tied to lifestyle. We've traded undiscussed options for an energy policy of bigger, better, and that benefits some corporation or group of shareholders while selling the rest of us short- we are holding the bag of nuclear waste, ruined ground water, and other environmental impacts. A whole lot of sidewalks, bike paths, geothermal sources, windmills, solar panels, and clothes lines could be erected for the cost of a nuclear plant or an airport or some other thing I can't think of, that would benefit the earth and a community acting on a different energy policy motive over a longer time frame. I don't think "cheap" power is good when it results in expensive clean ups. American ingenuity would pony up some new answers to a world with "expensive" gas and power, but clearly the price isn't quite high enough to get more of us to make changes in how we use and consume energy whether at home or work or how we get around. A quote from Platoon that might apply here, "You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that!"

One of the Indian workers in Bahrain once asked me about America. He said, "I heard in America that even poor people have TV." I think his point was he'd rather be a poor American than a poor Indian. I might agree on that.

My dad always told me that rich people don't waste their money; that is how they got rich in the first place. I am beginning to think that America is wasting too much money on energy- from fighting wars to protect oil access to nuclear power investments to a whole slew of unknown endeavors that don't benefit all of us as a community. If we waste our money, we won't be left with things that can be continually used such as a bike path instead of a road- whicih requires both a vehicle ($$$) and fuel ($), a clothes line instead of a dryer, a broom instead of a vacuum, a photo print instead of an electronic digital photo frame. We've traded away item after item for the "new and improved" version and not considered the impact on energy usage. Little things add up.