Photo by Jeremy Bishop
Designers are rethinking our relationship with waste and developing new solutions to the plastic problem.
At the current Waste Age exhibition at the London Design Museum, the spotlight was placed on the negative environmental consequences of our throwaway culture and the harmful impact our waste is having on the oceans.
‘Daily 8 million pieces of plastic reach the oceans, this is the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic being dumped into the ocean every minute’
-London Design Museum
The Waste Age provided more evidence of the prevalent and much-discussed problem of waste in today’s society. The widely-reported impact that plastics are having in the marine environment and specifically microplastics, in our globally connected ecosystem is of huge concern.
Plastic, once lauded as a wonder material for its convenience, has infiltrated itself around the globe into new spaces and worryingly into different forms.
Plastiglomerates is a term coined by Dr. Patricia Corcoran and Kelly Jazvac to describe the permanent fusion of human pollution and nature. These so-called plastic pebbles form when plastic bottles or other such items have been burned, for instance, melted by the sun, come into contact with sand, shingle and seaweed, and other natural detritus. They have been found washed up on beaches all over the world.
While tempting to think of this as a global and therefore distant problem, plastic pollution washes up on every shore around the world. The image below demonstrates the local impact of plastic waste.
While this display indicates the negative consequences of our consumerist culture, it also illustrates the concern and motivation that people have in protecting their local environment (these bottle-tops were collected by volunteers from The Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition during the winter season of 2015-2016).
While the tireless efforts of communities and conservation groups are a cause for applause it would be great to imagine in the not too distant future, there would be no need to clean up this disposable debris scattered across the world’s beaches.
Designers against disposability
Designers have a crucial role in changing our disposable culture and designing products that are durable and high-quality as well as eliminating the use of plastic packaging. Since the plastic problem has been diagnosed, coupled with an awareness of virgin material scarcity, designers have been motivated to find ways to use materials with less of an impact on nature.
The Waste Age is a great testament to how designers have transformed their way of working and the innovative technologies and products that are being developed to tackle the waste and plastic problem.
The term waste is a misnomer
Designers have been challenging how we understand the concept of waste and the make, take and throw away model of consumption. Instead of dealing with waste as an unwanted end product, they view discarded materials as a valuable resource in the design process. Some great examples of this on display included:
‘Seastone’ – Newtab-22 Design Studio has developed a material using the shells of crustaceans discarded by the South Korean fishing industry. They use this ‘waste’ to create beautiful objects for the home, proving that anything has the potential to be used as a resource.
Studio Swine use plastics recovered from the ocean in collaboration with fishermen, to create the ‘Sea Chair’. Not only is a valuable and functional product created out of this waste but fishermen document the amount of plastic ‘caught’ in a single trip raising awareness of the amount of plastic in the oceans.
Global brands are also catching on to this shift in the use of waste materials. Adidas, in collaboration with environmental group Parley has designed a collection of trainers/sneakers using deep-sea gill nets and plastic waste found on the coastline of the Maldives.
Using waste as a resource not only takes it out of the environment mitigating the harm it causes, but is part of the circular economy, where materials once considered waste are ‘upcycled’ into new products with an added value.
Alternatives to plastic
Equally important for the health of the planet is the design of innovative materials that can replace plastic-based products and packaging, thus preventing them from entering our water systems and polluting the oceans.
Marinatex is a biomaterial designed by Lucy Hughes that uses fish farming waste such as skins and scales to create a transparent film as an alternative to plastic-based packaging. Unlike plastic, this biomaterial does not leach harmful chemicals into the environment and is safe for wildlife and humans.
Notpla, a material developed by Skipping Rocks Lab, a sustainable packaging start-up, uses brown seaweed as an alternative to plastic packaging. Brown seaweed is considered a sustainable alternative because it doesn’t require fresh water or fertilizer to grow and contributes to the deacidification of the oceans. An added bonus is that the seaweed-based packaging biodegrades in under 2 months.
Ello Jello is a cup made out of seaweed and plant-based materials, designed by Evo & Co as an alternative to single-use plastic cups. The cup is edible and both biodegradable and compostable. Not only is the cup an environmentally safe replacement for plastic but Evo & Co collaborates with seaweed farmers in Indonesia to produce seaweed at decent prices, helping to provide secure work and improve livelihoods.
One of the most polluting items that end up in our oceans is discarded fishing gear such as ropes and nets, these are particularly nefarious as ropes break down in the oceans releasing microplastics, harmful to marine life. Designer Sanne Visser has developed a solution to address this by replacing the polyester widely used in fishing ropes with human hair. These KNOT ropes take an unwanted material that of discarded hair, which typically ends up in landfills, to create plastic-free ropes.
These innovations demonstrate that designers are leading the way to a sustainable future. By developing circular products and materials that make the most of discarded stuff and reimagining waste as a valuable resource, they prove that throwaway products can become a thing of the past. The next step in this circular design process is developing a collection system where designers have easier access to these discarded materials in order to harness their potential.
Preventing plastic and other waste from contaminating our blue planet and realising that the oceans are not a global trash-can but a treasure trove of valuable resources is essential to guarantee healthy marine ecosystems for future generations.
Waste Age: What can design do? – Design Museum
Sea Chair – Studio Swine
Evoware | Evo & Co (rethink-plastic.com)
Technology – Notpla
The New Age of Trichology – Studio Sanne Visser
Sea Going Green is a sustainable tourism consultancy working with clients to measure and mitigate their environmental impacts including their plastic footprint.
Designers are rethinking our relationship with waste and developing new
solutions to the plastic problem. At the current Waste Age exhibition at
the London Design Museum, the spotlight was placed on the negative
environmental consequences of our throwaway culture and the harmful impact
our waste is having on the oceans.
Read about the exhibit and the future of plastic waste in this week’s blog.Read MoreEducationBlog – Sea Going Green