Our great plastic problem: a question of design
Our great plastic problem: a question of design

Our great plastic problem: a question of design

Plastic waste is causing massive problems for our oceans

Plastic. The sheer amount of it everywhere and the massive problems it creates is once again big news.

This month one of the world’s leading proponents of a circular economy, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, launched the New Plastics Economy initiative. The initiative brings together more than 40 leading companies and cities to develop a plastics system based on circular economy principles.

The initiative built on the foundation’s groundbreaking report, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, which brought global attention to our plastic problem.

With plastic waste in the headlines earlier this year, Life Size Media heard from Sophie Thomas, design co-director at The Great Recovery – an initiative of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and InnovateUK.

Little products, big problems

It was while brushing her teeth that Sophie first realised the true scale of the global plastic problem.

The pioneer of sustainable communication design counted how often her plastic toothbrush needed replacing and the flawed design principles making it worthless every four months.

Ms Thomas figured toothbrushes were designed to be cheap, ergonomic, appealing to shoppers and – because they contained four different types of plastic meaning they could never be recycled – destined for landfill or worse, the ocean.

“Only a little toothbrush, massive problem,” she thought.

During her talk, Sophie presented a show and tell of her latest work, entitled ‘Never turn your back on the ocean’. And it was rubbish, quite literally. On display was a range of art and design made from plastic rubbish collected from around the world demonstrating the challenge of waste and the opportunity it presents.

So exactly how big is our plastic problem? At least eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans every year. Or a rubbish truck load every minute.

“What the reports shows is that you cannot get it out, you just have to stop it from going in, so the next ten years are going to be really critical,” Ms Thomas said.

If business as usual continues there will be one ton of plastic for every three tonnes of fish in the oceans by 2025 and more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.

Who’s to blame?

Speaking to the audience at East London workspace Second Home, Ms Thomas said design, or a lack of it, played a big part.

Some major factors include:

  • Product designers being constrained by price, but not by product life;
  • Manufacturers bearing no responsibility for a product’s demise;
  • Consumers using single-use products; and,
  • The world’s waste management systems not being designed to value waste plastic resources.

“(Waste plastic) is more likely to be ignored, because it doesn’t have the value in it,” Ms Thomas explained. “It’s all about value – we’re trying to push the idea that this piece of packaging is not worthless, it has intrinsic value.”

It’s not enough to rely on the concept of recycling either, Ms Thomas says, with only five percent of PET plastic recycled into reuse globally. A number of factors affect this, such as recycling rates, contamination and the fact that plastic quality is downgraded at each stage of recycling.

The current situation, Ms Thomas explained, meant massive amounts of plastic ending up in our oceans. All countries are to blame but rising consumption and waste mismanagement in countries like China, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia are particularly damaging.

A trip to Hawaii

Much of the plastic in Ms Thomas’ exhibition came from one almost inaccessible Hawaiian beach.

The designer had travelled to the Pacific after hearing reports of a spot awash with plastic detritus from the great gyres of rubbish in the ocean. On this beach, she collected plastic of all shapes and sizes for her exhibition, including a number of toothbrushes.

“Plastic has very little value in our life. If we don’t start giving it value, we’ll never be able to think about getting it back again.

The New Plastics Economy initiative started recently, bringing together companies including Amcor, Coca-Cola, DuPont, L’Oréal, MARS, M&S, The Dow Chemical Company, Unilever, and Veolia, as well as cities like Copenhagen and the London Waste and Recycling Board.

The three-year initiative takes a first step towards the design of a plastics system grounded in circular economy principles.

Sophie’s top tips to do your bit:
  1. Do two-minute beach clean-ups when you visit, chucking the flotsam in the bin.
  2. Be mindful of just how much plastic is in your life.
  3. Consider reducing your use through things like keep cups and reusable containers.
  4. If you’re in a position to change things, like being a designer, then change things.