Principle of the HfG Karlsruhe Jan Boelen on elements of sustainable design

About the existence of sustainable design and the pure illusion of upcycling

Jan Boelen
Copyright by Z33 / Veerle Frissen

Jan Boelen is the new rector of the state Karlsruhe University of Design, As Artistic Director of Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Belgium and the Atelier LUMA in France, he combines experimentation, innovation and design. His vision for Karlsruhe is now to create a greenhouse and a laboratory of the future, because change can, as in times of Bauhaus start in Germany.

Jan Boelen defines the elements of the Sustainable Design and explain why Upcycling is an illusion.

Is there such a thing as sustainable design?

In Jan Boelen's opinion, a sustainable design consists of three core elements:

  1. Material and resources
  2. Production and systems
  3. Consumption and use

The time it takes for resources to thrive is today in a strong imbalance with the time we take to use the resulting products.

Raw materials take over 10.000 years to develop, but are only used in the form of products for a few years or even hours. After disposal, the same products also take around 400 years to disappear from our planet. The products are burned using fossil fuels, CO2 emissions are released and piles of rubbish are created.


“Sustainable design begins with the design of objects that are synchronized with the rhythm of nature”

Furthermore, according to Jan Boelen, the products should be circular and flow into the circular economy. Products and raw materials should be reused naturally.

When it comes to consumption, people should place increasing emphasis on a "healthy design" and carry out a kind of health check. That always means reflecting whether what we consume is not only good for ourselves, but also good for our neighborhood, for our city or for the region.

Such reflection would lead us to become aware of the consequences of our consumption and to change our behavior. For example, switch to public transport or take the bike. We would behave and move differently, says Jan Boelen.

Is recycled plastic bullshit?

Above all, materials should have an intelligent life cycle, says Jan Boelen, who studied product design in Limburg, Belgium.

Many high-quality plastic products can survive for generations, are even repaired and reused.

"I'm not against plastic, but against inferior plastic products”

Low-quality, mass-produced plastic products from large furnishing companies give the illusion that they will last a lifetime, but are unusable after a few years of use. What few consider: Society pays for that. The products are cheap to buy, but we pay immense costs for disposal, so-called environmental costs.

“Upcycling is an illusion because recycled plastic will inevitably be of lower quality than the original material”

The approach to recycling plastic is wrong, says the Artistic Director, since the original quality can never be achieved. The decomposition of molecules and the connection with emissions inevitably reduce the quality. The recycling process of plastic cannot be compared to metal or aluminum. The processes required for this do not currently exist and will probably never exist.

According to Jan Boelen, we pay three times for recycled plastic: after the cheap product is no longer usable, we pay for the environmental costs, second we pay for the recycling systems and third we pay for the purchase of a new product.

If companies had to bear their own environmental costs, they would stop producing such inferior products. But mass consumption always goes ahead and the illusion remains.

"The house is on fire! Institutions, politics and society must take action now"

According to Jan Boelen, education and research & development play a major role. Above all to rethink and reinvent systems and processes. For Jan Boelen, design means rethinking and reflecting. So new ways and solutions have to be introduced slowly.

In his opinion, the economy and society will face major changes in the future. The design of democracies will be the biggest challenge.


Always informed about the latest lifestyle trends, architecture, design & interior, as well as current technologies around sustainability.

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