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Leah Borden is a product design major working on a project that would help eliminate waste from take-out packaging. (Summer Surgent-Gough/Emerald)

When buying a cup of coffee, people often walk away with a disposable cup that will be used once and then thrown away. Few people consider the short lifespan of that coffee cup and the amount of waste being generated. Leah Borden has a solution — at least for the coffee sleeves that keep drinks warm. 

Borden, a junior studying product design at the University of Oregon, grew up creating art, but she worried about the likeliness of an art career. For her, design served as a less risky option. 

“In high school, I did IB art which was both fun, but also technical and historical,” Borden said. “During that time, that’s kind of when I explored different things I could do as a career with art. And in my head, for some reason art was still too risky.”

Borden is now the president of UO’s chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America. Pre-pandemic, IDSA toured design studios, talked to designers, reviewed portfolios and hosted workshops for participants. During the pandemic, all of their events are virtual, so their hands-on opportunities are limited.

Currently, Borden is taking a class that is working on sustainable take-out packaging. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each person generated 4.51 pounds of solid waste as of 2017. A majority of this waste comes from food and food packaging. Borden is designing one way to tackle the waste that comes from coffee sleeves: using recycled paper with seeds embedded so the sleeves can not only be composted, but planted to add greenery to the ecosystem. 

“Sustainability means making something not just to make it, but kind of for a greater purpose and sourcing those materials with greater thought to how they’ll be used through their whole lifetime and eventually not used,” Borden said. 

She is currently refining the coffee sleeve model and designing a compostable cup and lid to go with it. She hopes to eventually sell the design.

Borden discussed how sustainability is both necessary and desired by consumers. She also touched on the fact that privilege and sustainability are linked, especially in the fashion industry. Borden hopes to intern somewhere this summer that values sustainability and potentially combats fast fashion, the creation of clothes at the cost of ethical treatment of workers. The term also refers to clothes that are only relevant for one season and then thrown out, creating huge amounts of waste. Fast fashion is oftentimes a cheaper option than sustainably designed clothing. 

“Sometimes the only thing you can afford is something that’s inexpensive,” Borden said. “So I think sustainability has to come after the needs of people in general. It can’t always be their first thought.”

For Borden, her work in sustainable design is a form of activism. 

“In the design field, I think activism is kind of just, analyzing both your product and the people around your product and how it’s going to interact with those people,” Borden said. “That’s like people who are creating it, people who are buying it.” She suggested that this could mean “a system redesign,” prioritizing sustainability in all aspects of the design process.  

Borden is currently interning at Marley’s Monsters, a shop in Eugene that sells handmade sustainable goods. It offers a variety of kitchen products, beauty products, household goods and baby care items. The shop emphasizes zero waste as well as locally made goods. 

Borden’s goal after graduation is to work somewhere that values sustainability. She likes the idea of working in material design and hopes that wherever she ends up, it is an ethical company that supports her activism. 

Nika is a writer at the Arts & Culture desk. Send her an email if you know of any local artists or events that should be featured!