Designing reusable items is tricky, because so many of our consumption habits are built around the idea of using something once and tossing it in the trash. But that disposable mentality has contributed greatly to the sorry state of affairs in which the Earth now finds itself. Isabel Aagaard, a 29-year-old designer and co-founder of LastObject, is dedicated to eradicating those single-use items that litter our lives and our planet. So far, her company has created sustainable replacements for cotton swabs, tissues, and cotton rounds that can last thousands of uses.
The idea for LastObject came about during a discussion between Aagaard and her older brother, Nicolas, and a friend, Kåre Frandsen. As designers, they had experience in creating kitchenware and, in Aagaard’s case, medical instruments, but none felt like they were making a big enough impact on the world.
“We were talking about what we really wanted to do, what we were really passionate about,” Aagaard tells Mic in a video interview from her home in Denmark. “And then, well... we really wanted to make a difference on the environment.”
So they started looking at single-use items. These products, intended to be thrown away immediately after use, create an immense amount of waste in landfills. And because they are often manufactured as cheaply as possible, they burn up a bunch of resources during their production. Raw materials have to be harvested, factories have to manufacture the products, and then the products have to be transported for sale. When customers purchase these items and throw them out after one use, they end up lingering in landfills and contribute to the creation of additional methane gas. This means every step of a product’s life, from manufacturing to purchasing to disposal, can harm our environment.
Aagaard knew one good way to combat the single-use waste was to cut down how much is created in the first place.
“In the beginning, we were talking about straws,” she recalls, “but there’s so many different [reusable] straws out there.” Then, the team found a list of some of the biggest single-use contributors to waste and learned that cotton swabs were in the top ten. “Which was weird because it’s so small and we’d never really seen something that had tried to replace it.”
That discovery gave them the idea for their first LastObject product.
Reducing waste with reusables
Redesigning the ever-familiar cotton swab isn’t as simple as switching out materials.
“Before we talk about materials, we need to see that it looks like a Q-Tip,” Aagaard explains. “We have to, in some way, really make sure that the form is the first thing we look at. So anybody who takes our product up knows exactly how to use it and where to use it. I think that’s our main [goal].”
To do that, the designers broke down the cotton swab into its core elements. They tested out multiple materials for the tips and the body, looking to find things that were both sustainable and strong enough to encourage customers to use their product. It’s the reason why the body of their first product, LastSwab, wasn’t made of corn-based bioplastic.
“We could see it was too bendy,” she describes. “It was flimsy. It wasn’t something that could withstand the amount of times we saw this product being used. We had to strengthen it and strengthen it — we tried so many different materials, talked to different material experts.”
They went through the same process for the ends of the swab as well. They had to make sure it was created from a soft and skin-safe material that was also sustainable and reusable. Because it was reusable, it also had to be easy to wash and sanitize with soap.
In the end, Aagaard says, they tested around 50 different materials before finding the perfect one for the LastSwab.
The people demand renewables
When the company launched their Kickstarter in 2019, Aagaard wasn’t sure what to expect. The team knew their product was going to hit a market that had three types of customers: The first was the hardcore, environmentally conscious type that strives for a zero waste and zero carbon emission lifestyle. The second type was a group that’s interested in being environmentally friendly, but reluctant to do something “inconvenient” or “gross,” she says. The last group was somewhere in the middle — people who are willing to change their habits in slight ways if it means creating a healthier planet.
“I didn’t know it was this big,” she admits. “That there were so many people that actually are willing to change up their habits — but just slightly. I didn’t know there were so many people that were ready for reusable items.”
She understands why some people aren’t keen on making the switch. “Because it is a little bit more of a hassle: If you blow your nose and throw [the tissue] out, it’s gone. You don’t have to think about that again.” With renewables, “you put [the tissues] back in the pack, you wash them at some point throughout the week, you dry them — there’s a bit of work to this lifestyle.”
And yet the demand came flooding in. “We were very surprised. Every time we launch a new product I’m surprised that people are still with us,” she says.
The enthusiasm for their renewables has maintained even after the release of their later products, LastTissue and LastRound. And while there might be some skepticism around using certain items more than once, most people seem to love the products after they give them a shot. In fact, people are so into LastObject’s lines that fans eagerly await the company’s new releases.
“I had not imagined that, two years ago, this was the kind of company we were starting to create,” Aagaard says with a beaming smile. “It was just a dream, it was something we all loved, and it was something I knew us three would be really good at. But that so many people are waiting for our products, I think that’s crazy. Yeah, I'm very happy.”
The march for renewables continues
Aagaard isn’t finished with her mission to replace disposables with renewables. They’re going to continue creating at least a couple more bathroom items before tackling the next part of the home. She’s hopeful that the demand for renewables will continue strong and possibly even grow, even if larger companies don’t seem to be following that direction quickly enough.
“I think we’re seeing a shift in general, right now,” she says. She’s noticed more products that are either switching to sustainable sources or use advertising language to give off the appearance of being environmentally friendly — a practice called “greenwashing.”
“I want us all to talk more about it,” she continues. “What is this? What is it not?” The more people question whether their habits and their purchases make a difference in the world, the more the big companies will have to adjust their behavior. Because, right now, corporations are stuck on the belief that there’s more money to be made by making sure people buy products that can only be used once.
“That mindset has to be changed,” she says. “We produce products that actually are really well-made and won’t break.” Meanwhile, “a lot of the big companies will look at us and say, ‘You can’t make money off that’ because people don’t come back” for new items often enough. For big companies, disposables are a regular stream of income they don’t want to smother. “Single-use is really a subscription, in a sense, because you keep buying it.”
But that doesn’t matter to Aagaard. “I think [renewables are] where we can really tap into something huge,” she says. “Because if we can get a lot of people to change a little bit, then that makes a huge difference.”
A lot of people changing a little bit is the key. She believes that breaking wasteful habits shouldn’t be left to the smaller group of people who are willing to upturn their whole lives for the environment. “If we just make a few people change a lot, then how big of a difference do you actually make?”
It takes the combined efforts of everyone. Even Aagaard is learning new ways, every day, to create a more sustainable life. Especially with her newborn baby son.
“I think there’s so many things that are so hard. I tried to use reusable diapers and that has just been awful.” She bursts into laughter. “Absolutely awful. I’ll solve it at some point. Maybe not this year.”