Public Lab Research note

'Detritivore' Design: How to Use Trash to Create Scalable Tech Solutions

by mathew | May 02, 2013 16:43 02 May 16:43 | #7208 | #7208

Original article on IdeaLab

545px-Scarabaeus_laticollis.jpg Scarabaeus laticollis via Wikimedia.

Detritivores are creatures that consume decaying matter. Detritivore designs use abundant waste products to make scalable technology solutions. Unlike loftier concepts of zero-waste design such as Cradle to Cradle, Detritivore design accepts that the world is already loaded with discarded and broken technology. Detritivore designers need not create a recyclable or even non-toxic product, since the materials already exist -- we merely try to squeeze out whatever functionality objects may have left.

The Public Lab Spectrometry Kit is a detritivore design. It consumes waste products and uses them to search for other, more dangerous wastes. Pipe cutoffs, obsolete webcams, and optical discs are sufficient to make a functioning spectrometer. The central component, the diffraction grating, is made from CDs and DVDs, disposable media with extremely precise grooves. Long after the media written onto these discs decays into illegibility, they will still function as diffraction gratings, splitting light into a rainbow that can be quantified and used for material identification.

spectroscopy with consumer detritus

We've made spectrometer plans, sell kits, and have created Spectral Challenge an X-Prize-style competition to identify environmental contaminants. We are dedicated to this project's continuity, but with over 200 billion CDs and over 1 billion DVD players in the world, it is unlikely that we will ever run out of hardware. Our design patterns ensure that optical disc spectrometry can outlast any one project or manufacturer.


There are commercial diffraction gratings that we could use, and they would simplify the construction of our retail kits a little bit, but they wouldn't significantly increase the accuracy of our device. Doing spectroscopy with consumer detritus is more important to our scientific program than simplifying our kits. We mail kits around the globe, but mail can't reach all the places that DVDs and CDs already have. Detritivore design affects the permanence of trash as a badge of hope rather than dismay; we need never worry about losing access to our science equipment. We're developing a platform on top of ubiquitous trash, using its persistent nature to escape the ephemerality of the startup culture in which we design.


It is time to naturalize trash as a set of unique design materials valuable as more than just raw materials for new things or kitschy aesthetic references to previous eras. Reach into the trash can. Minimizing or eliminating non-reusable and non-biodegradable elements in designs is laudable, but we should put more effort into designing around the persistent functionality of objects whose primary purpose has failed. It's time to stop hiding trash and start living in it, studying it and embracing the roughly 1 million pounds per person per year the average North American creates.

Our dialogue on waste has shifted from disposal, displacement, and dilution towards minimization and elimination, but we need to move beyond a false hope that we will escape waste and towards an intimacy with our culture's primary product: broken junk.

Further Reading: Discard Studies Blog


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