Dialling durably: Sean Miles and the grass phone

Copyrighted and supplied by DesignWorks

For designer Sean Miles, the idea of a phone made out of grass was anything but otherworldly. Using internal components of secondhand phones and grass from Twickenham Stadium, Miles and his team at Designworks created the first phone made entirely of recycled and organic materials.

Intuitively creative, Miles always had a passion for making things. He commercialized his skill set with an early career in designing and prototyping toys, film props and exhibition interactives. But one thing sat uncomfortably with him: product life spans were cut short long before they needed to be.

This, of course, is not unique to any industry. The “throwaway” culture that the magazine LIFE celebrated as a herald of modern society in a 1955 article is now being blamed for what UNEP has called a “global garbage crisis”.

According to a sobering World Bank statistic, annual municipal waste will climb to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025.

Still, just as it is that consumers be reprimanded for our implication in this crisis, the harm done by throwing away is compounded by the composition of the products we pitch. In this way, Miles points out, designers form “one of the first lines of attack when it comes to responsibility [of waste reduction]”.

Copyrighted and supplied by DesignWorks

Copyrighted and supplied by DesignWorks

In particular, today’s products are excessively reliant on plastic. Plastics revolutionised design with, among other properties, their durability and resistance to household wear-and-tear. However, that same durability also renders them resistant to, well, everything. Plastics do not biodegrade; they photodegrade. Only hundreds, if not thousands, of years of solar ultraviolet radiation will destroy them. Additionally, most plastic parts are manufactured through a process known as “injection moulding” wherein raw plastic pellets plus chemical components are heated and injected into a cavity in a block of steel. Once set, the mixture hardens into its final form. The chemicals in these mouldings, if not disposed of or recycled correctly, can leach out of the product and into natural habitats and our food chain.

It is here that Miles and Designworks, facilitated by the O2 Recycle initiative, saw an opportunity. If Miles and his team could find organic alternatives to the inorganic chemical fillers injected into the mould, plastics would be significantly less harmful. Enter grass, stage right.

“The potential benefits of using grass are twofold”, explains Miles. “It is relatively easy to grow, is in large part a waste material and replaces the need, by volume, of using more chemically reliant additives.

It also, importantly, provides structural integrity to the material”. When combined with recycled resins, it creates a composite with genuine sustainability potential.

Copyrighted and supplied by DesignWorks

Copyrighted and supplied by DesignWorks

As such, the impact of the grass phone was not limited to its own production. It inspired the development of an alternative manufacturing process of plastic parts. “There is vast potential to dramatically reduce the consumption of the more chemically filled materials”, says Miles. “[The phone] was just one particular product that we chose. It could be anything”.

Of course, costs are cumbersome for any new product as it tries to gain ground, and demand is typically precarious at first and unable to cushion the financial blow. This is especially true for environmental  initiatives known for garnering rhetorical support and less firm commitment. Briefly, “it can take time for technology and new innovations to filter down into the mainstream”, Miles admits. Nevertheless, he posits, with the kind of optimism unique to creative professionals, that a little inventiveness can overcome any obstacle.

“The challenge will always be surmountable. It’s a question of in what period of time, and what the financial costs will be”.

Fortunately, the grass phone has caught the public’s eye – and now it’s about trying to hold their gaze. “[Using grass from the stadium, rather than elsewhere] was a vehicle to allow the story that we were trying to tell to gain some traction”, explains Miles.

And what story does the grass phone tell? One in which functional design and positive social impact are presented as compatible. Not that it is easy to design sustainably: “the route of least resistance”, Miles confesses, “is to stick to tried and [commercially] tested processes that have established supply chains, rather than the more innovative but ultimately higher-risk strategies such as the use of recycled or organic materials”. But the grass phone proves that it is possible, as long as consumers actively support undertakings like it.

Copyrighted and supplied by DesignWorks

Copyrighted and supplied by DesignWorks

Product designers have always answered consumers’ needs. Now we need to grant them the ability to answer our most urgent crises. We must not only reduce our waste, but buy into and have faith in new technologies. Their commercial viability depends on our demand. And we, in turn, depend on new technologies to fuel our imagination. Whether or not designers are “burdened with a lack of reality”, as Miles kids, the grass phone indicates that they may be the only ones able to transform our sci-fi dreams into reality.

And for those waiting to call a friend through the blades of grass from Twickenham Stadium, “It’s a classic case of watch this space”, says Miles. But while you’re watching – “Keep hold of your stuff”.

Written by Emily Wolff, an Environment and Development student at LSE