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Don’t Make this Mistake when Helping the Environment – How Design Thinking can Help you Change from Plastic to Paper Straws

Posted by Plish on December 10, 2018

When designing solutions for the ‘E’nvironment, don’t ignore the ‘e’nvironment.

What do I mean?

I went recently to a Chicago Wolves hockey game at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, IL.  Following the lead of the Chicago White Sox (and Shedd Aquarium) who announced they were switching to non-petroleum based straws, the Allstate Arena decided to switch to paper straws.

But, there’s a problem.

They don’t work.

How can a straw not work?

They don’t suck.

Well, actually, they do suck, they suck badly.  (Check out this article for perspectives on how straw changes impact people with disabilities.)

The picture below shows what happens after 15 minutes of use. It’s completely unusable.

lid3

I either have to get another straw (a friend of mine takes two or more now every time he gets a drink) or get rid of the lid altogether (which isn’t always a good idea when people are getting up and down, walking through aisles, dropping popcorn, etc.)

For reference, take a look at a typical plastic straw in a lid from a fast-food establishment (This is what it used to be like at the arena).

goodlid

 

If the solution for replacing plastic straws was derived using design thinking (taking the ‘e‘nvironment into account) as opposed to simply being implemented by decree, none of this would have happened.

What do I mean?

This is what the design thinking process looks like:

fce97

Courtesy of Stanford’s D.School

 

And, here’s how the process for changing the straws should have gone:

  1. Empathy –  Understand how people are using cups and straws and lids.  Watch what people are doing.  Who is using straws the most? Understand the technical aspects of the straw, the lid, the straw/lid interface.  Understand what the straw feels like in the mouth.  What is it like to suck on a paper straw vs. a plastic straw?  I heard a person say, “It feels weird sucking on the paper straw.  It tastes funny.  Eh, I’ll probably get used to it.”  That’s the type of feedback that’s needed.
  2. Define the problem –  Here the problem isn’t just, “Plastic straws are bad for the environment, we need to replace them.”  A better problem statement would be: How can we create a pleasing drinking experience for people using straws, while having a minimal impact on the Environment and minimal cost impact?  The difference between these two statements is that People should be the focus, not the straws.  Their experience is key.
  3. Ideate –  Brainstorm solutions.  If the Empathy phase was done, and the problem statement defined, the solutions that would’ve seemed most viable would’ve come to the forefront.  When they checked with straw (and lid!) suppliers, only certain ones would’ve been chosen.
  4. Prototype –  Obtain straws and lids of all types.  Experiment.
  5. Test/Feedback –  Understand what works and what doesn’t.  See which combinations of straws and lids meet the problem statement:  How can we create a pleasing drinking experience using for people using straws, while having a minimal impact on the Environment and minimal cost impact?

Where did Allstate Arena go wrong?

Pretty much everywhere.

It’s clear that no one took the time to understand the situation, no one took the ‘e‘nvironment into account.

No one realized that because the lid material (Plant based, biodegradable PLA) is much stiffer than the former lids (usually polystyrene), the “X” cut for the straw puts major forces on the straw.  Paper gets wet and soft, and the stronger plastic lid collapses the paper. (Note to Fabri-Kal: use a circular cut in your Greenware lids!)

Instead someone, somewhere said, “Let’s do something good for the Environment.  Let’s blaze a trail and be like the White Sox.  Hank (or George, Tina, etc.), let’s start using paper straws.  See what our supplier has and let’s make the change!!!”

Boom!! Problem solved.  Only it isn’t.

The biggest shame here is that an entire exploratory project wasn’t even required.  A simple 15 minute experiment of taking a cup, putting a lid on it, putting the straw in and drinking would’ve done wonders!  It would’ve been clear that this particular combination of straw/lid is not usable.

Instead, lack of any aspect of design thinking resulted in a solution that is less than adequate.  An opportunity to make a positive change with positive repercussions will now be seen by some as a waste of time and money, as institutions needlessly intruding in people’s lives, of fixing a problem that some may view as non-existent.

A little observation, a little empathy, can go a long way…

EPILOGUE
Now that I know the problem, I fix the situation by poking my finger through the “X” and breaking one of the tabs. I then put the straw in and it works better.   But seriously, should any solution require a person to stick his/her finger through the lid of the cup?

lids2.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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