Not on our beaches?

I often read stories of animals being affected by plastic debris in our oceans which are really depressing. Recently there was one that now makes me refuse plastic straws whenever I can. A group of marine biologists in Costa Rica discovered an endangered sea turtle with a 10-12 cm plastic straw lodged in its nostril. Christine Figgener, a field biologist with a research interest in conservation filmed the excrutiating 8 minute-long extraction operation, which left the poor turtle bleeding and clearly wincing in pain. Warning, it is really distressing to watch: promo-sea-turtle-straw copy

An article in the telegraph references a recent study that estimated green sea turtles are 50 per cent more likely to ingest some form of plastic than they were thirty years ago. They often mistake items like plastic bags and straws for food, which can lead to blockages, infections and death.

This Easter when walking on a beautiful beach in Devon I came across this very sad sight of a dead juvenile black headed gull, strangled by a plastic top. It was so shocking that I ended up on BBC Devon News being interviewed about it and the issues around marine waste.

2015-03-31 14.10.48-1

We don’t really expect to see such sights on UK beaches, yes we hear about the terrible plight of albatrosses but not the gulls or terns. But no animal is safe from this increasing waste stream going into our seas.



Never Turn Your back on the Ocean


I am having an exhibition and talk on the 18th November at Pentagram, Westbourne Grove. Places are limited so please do book: 

How do you communicate positively about our depressing environmental situation? Sophie Thomas, founder of Thomas.Matthews and Director of Circular Economy at the RSA is on a mission to do just that. 

In 2014, I travelled to Kamilo Point in Hawaii – also known as ‘Plastic Beach’ – to see first-hand the plastic plight of our oceans. Never Turn your Back on the Ocean is an exhibition inspired by this experience, featuring plastic sourced from Kamilo’s foot deep piles of junk.

Join of us on 18 November at 6.30pm and be the first to see the exhibition and hear me talk about my journey to Hawaii and its enduring affect on her work. 

Spaces are limit so please RSVP to to save a spot. 

With thanks to Pentagram, Do The Green Thing and Thomas.Matthews

What’s in the sand?

If you look really hard you can see all sorts of things in sand. Inspired by the beautiful photos on I used a simple handheld microscope to look more closely at the plastic and sand samples I brought back to London.

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This set looks closely at the surfaces of plastic debri, like the surface of strange planets or expensive marbles. In some you can see the growth of coral, using the plastic as a scaffold.

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And finally my favourite image, a close up of one of the eighteen toothbrushes picked up along Kamilo beach in a half hour walk.

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a holiday destination?

If you ask many Hawaiian locals if they know Kamilo Point you mostly get a blank look. It’s not a tourist destination or a local hotspot. It’s also really hard to get to as its not on what you would call a road. You need a 4WD and a good sense of direction. We had both and still got lost and nearly stuck in the sand dunes.


Kamilo Point (or Trash beach, as it is known to the locals) is somewhere near the southern most point of the USA. It sits on Big Island, Hawaii nestled between the glassy green sands of the bay and the closest beach to the Pacific Garbage Patch. My general enthusiasm to go visit this beach brought me and the family to the beginning of a trip of a lifetime, a very bumpy journey along non-existent roads, and wrong turnings that led directly into the sea.

It was the beginning of an amazing experience, and one I am still working with. The work I am creating now is a response to this trip and I am really enjoying myself!

Kamilo beach



However, the subject is pretty depressing. The amount of plastic-to-sand ratio at Kamilo beach was really shocking, even to someone like me who has read a lot about plastic marine pollution. Every day the tide brings in a new load of tiny plastic pieces (here is a picture taken through a microscope of the sand particles and plastic pieces).

microscopic plastic and sand particles

So I picked up a lot of pieces and I sent them back home and now I am working on a show, but that’s another blog…


package of waste plastic

This year for Do The Green Thing and WWF’s Earth Day project I made some ‘Hawaiian Beach Lights’ Here’s the link;

Letterpress Archive: Creative type setting – Before and After

Having a simple proofing press is not great at precision printing, particularly if you want to typeset 13pt Dorchester script or do a large print run. It is very good however at allowing you creative license to do things differently. Here are a few pieces I have done over the last couple of years with the help of a lot of furniture and a few magnets. I have put in some images of before and after. I started to document this after a friend asked me if I had actually photoshopped the exclamation marks in place. Here’s the proof!




I don’t have a picture of this before the ink went on but believe me it was not easy setting type in an arc.


This was a piece done with the Thomas.Matthews team creating phrases that began with T and M to launch our new website It used every single bit of furniture I had and because of the mix of type sizes it was impossible to straighten. It took 5 hours to lock in! Results were nice though and if you are on the TM mailing list you may be lucky to get a piece in the post…





Article archive: 2014 – The Great Recovery, Phase 2

Take a look around you. Wherever you are there will almost certainly be something that has been designed. The buying and selling of these objects, the way they are made and the people and raw materials that are involved in the making build economies and develop societies. The design industry is a key part of this loop. With around 11% of the UK workforce in our sector, we play a key role in the economy and account for 7% of GVA, with a third of this coming from consumer-related spending (ref).

The designer’s role of adding value to products is fundamental to the markets. But sadly this industry, like many others, is only slowly waking up to some of the negative impacts of this system: the over extraction of resources, the exploitation of workforces and growing toxic waste streams. The staggering fact is that, according to EU research, 80% of a product’s environmental impacts are decided during the design stage. Ultimately our decisions at the very beginning stages on material specification or assembly process will be instrumental in determining the product’s lifetime in use and method of disposal (whether re-use, recycling or landfill), but our industry seems to have very little understanding of this. Why is this so?

To understand the challenges around system change you need to go right back to the beginning. Everything around you once had a written brief given to the design team to tell them what they needed to consider. These design briefs could include quite specific instructions which, in summary, might say: ‘We want a kettle design that is weighted so it can be held comfortably by an elderly arthritic person; is able to boil two cups of water in less than twenty seconds; uses minimum metal in the moulding; and retails at £12.99’. Or, it may say something about the aesthetic outcome: ‘We need a 50 page full colour report that makes our company look youthful and innovative’. However, you can absolutely guarantee that a brief will not include phrases like: ‘This product is required to be designed for a second life’, ‘must be able to have all its raw materials fully recoverable to their maximum value’, or ‘must not in any way be diverted to landfill in the first 5 years of its life’.

Imagine if it did. Consider how different our products would look, how differently we would use them, and how much easier it would be to recapture the materials. It would radically change the way our products were made. It would require a lot more collaboration and knowledge transfer around the extended supply chain, with those that see the problems at the end of life (ie waste disposal or materials recovery experts) telling those that potentially build in those problems at the beginning (ie designers) what they are experiencing. Design would not be so focused on the initial sell but would extend its vision far into a product’s potential second or third ‘life’, or even towards a ‘circular system’ of continuous re-use. To get to this point, the whole process of design, manufacture, recovery and ultimately re-manufacture would need a complete re-think.

Over the last 18 months The Great Recovery project at the RSA has been investigating the role of design in the ‘circular economy’. We have been building networks and using the creativity of the design industry to help understand why current design does not include ‘closed loop’ principles (where product ingredients can be recovered back into raw materials through re-use, industrial symbiosis and recycling). Our programme of public workshops and networking events set in the industrial landscapes of recovery and recycling facilities, disused tin mines, and materials research labs worked with people across all sectors mapped in our circular network model.


Participants went through a process based on the design principles of ‘Tear Down’ – where you literally pull products off the recycling pile and take them apart to understand how they are currently designed, manufactured and recovered/disposed, and then ‘Design Up’ – a process of rebuilding and redesigning the products around the four design models for circularity mapped by the programme: longevity, leasing/service, re-use in manufacture and material recovery.


This first phase of work supported the competition calls from the Technology Strategy Board on ‘New Designs for a Circular Economy’. These calls invested up to £1.25m into a range of feasibility studies proposed by business-led groups that included collaborative design partners.

The lessons that came out of these initial investigations underlined some key issues:

(i) the role of design is crucial to circularity but very few designers understand or think about what happens to the products and services they design at the end of their life;
(ii) new business models are needed to support the circular economy;
(iii) the ability to track and trace materials is key to reverse engineering our manufacturing processes and closing the loop;
(iv) smarter logistics are required based on better information;
(v) building new partnerships around the supply chain and knowledge networks is critical.

The inaugural Resource show saw the launch of The Great Recovery’s next phase of work in a two-year programme of work that will bring together materials science innovators, design experts and end-of-life specialists to explore the interrelationships and key levers in the manufacturing process. In a series of investigatory workshops we will be seeking further understanding around the challenges and obstacles faced by businesses and members of the circular network when considering the shift towards circularity. We need the problem holders, ideas creators and collaborators to get involved and share their resource knowledge.

In a move to nurture disruptive thinking across the network, The Great Recovery plans to develop short-term immersive design residencies that can set up inside recovery facilities around the UK. These design teams will be there to observe and experience the complexity of recovery systems, to help inform new thinking around current waste streams and new product designs. We will also be growing our network of pioneering professionals and circular economy stakeholders, developing thought leadership, influencing policy and nurturing disruptive thinking to fast-track innovation. By their nature, many of these activities will be highly creative and we are looking for interested recovery facilities, designers, materials experts and other stakeholders who want to participate.

This article appeared in the RSA Action and Research Centre blog, MArch 2014

Article archive: 2010 – Re-defining the 3Rs


This year’s debates have focused around challenges where design is a major player. Material scarcity and recovery, confusion around best practice, the speed of technological advances in production and the increasing complexity of stakeholders and client teams that need to be convinced. Designers who concern themselves with these issues are putting themselves in pole position for future trends.


It’s all about materials. Resource scarcity and material security is fast becoming a big topic in science and government. According to Chemist Mike Pitts – since 1900 the UK has increased its consumption of stuff (consumables) 40 times over. The mass of raw materials extracted to make them comes from an even bigger mass of minerals (it takes 1.5kg of raw material to make just one toothbrush and the US landfills 25,000 tonnes of toothbrushes every year), creating a huge amount of CO2 emissions in the process. Take a mobile phone for instance.

Our desirability to upgrade for the next model fuelled by tantalising ads and seductive designs (think “This changes everything. Again”) makes us upgrade even when we were probably quite happy with what we had. Would this be such a problem if we designed it so all the materials could be separated out? Probably not, but as an industry we are slow on the uptake of designing for deconstruction.

It becomes an issue when you think about how many different elements are built into modern mobile phones. (over 40 – see note). It is not to say that elements like Indium or Gold will disappear completely but designing in such a way that we cannot get them out is irresponsible for future need. In 2005 over $400m metals were locked away in unused mobile phones (Pitts)

We know as designers we pre-determine a big chunk of the impact and destination of our outputs and there are now good examples where recovery is maximised but form or function are not sacrificed. It requires holistic systematic thinking and probably a helpful chemist at hand.


Appreciating your raw materials is one half of the process, the other is understanding your production cycles and reconfiguring them for optimum environmental efficiency. Innovation in sustainable technology is happening at such a fast rate it is hard to keep up but keep up we must, for new technology needs good, knowledgeable designers.

Examples are abound in the field of packaging. Nick Cliffe from Closed Loop food grade plastics recycling plant brought up a few. He reinforced the need to understand what is currently actually able to be recycled with what can technically be recycled illustrating that you cannot just substitute one material for another without understanding the consequences.

Take the increasing use of biopolymers (bio plastics). Many designers and clients now opt for a bio-plastic bag ; plastic with added degrader in the mix (usually titanium). This plastic is getting into the recycling stream before the recycling infrastructure is ready often resulting in contaminated batches.

He also cites the danger of confusing light-weighting with recyclability, e.g. if you move 2 litres of milk or fabric conditioner from a 50g plastic bottle into a 5g plastic pouch you are, in effect, changing a 50g fully recyclable piece of packaging into 5g of landfill”.

People like Nick are looking for new ways to solve these issues. “It would be interesting to work through the available sorting and reprocessing technologies, defining their limitations and strengths in order, to give a range of sort-friendly design features and a tool to assess new ideas against.”


“The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.”

In the 40th anniversary year of the publication of Victor Papanek’s book: Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change Papanek makes arguments still feel radical and right. Design trends will always be influenced by the technological innovations of the day but the foundations of good design that strive to make the world a better place to live in must be rock solid.

Designers needs to re-connect with the people who use design; us human beings. Don’t just take your brief as final. Find out who the real decision makers are and influence them to make better decisions. Help them understand the bigger picture.

Design trends that utilise open source and co-creation are breaking down many traditional barriers in design practice. New collectives and networks like the Useful Simple Trust which has the word ‘trailblazing’ in its mission and the Carrotworkers Collective who are returning to alternative co-operative models show alternative business models that are not solely about financial gain but well being and passion. Associate models like 10Plan and Supergroup reflect this sentiment showing that competitors can now work as collaborators.

3 new Rs for a new decade – a renewed mantra from the green past. But first can we drop the word ‘sustainable’ and just call it good design.  Sustainability in design must become part of the back end process, another tool or check list – nothing worth shouting about, just done as a matter of course.

Roughly 40 different elements found in a mobile phone:
H, Li, Be, C, N, O, F, Al, Si, S, Cl, K, Ca, Ti, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, Ni, Cu, Zn, Ga, As, Br, Sr, Y, Zr, Ru, Pd, Ag, Cd, In, Sn, Sb, Ba, Ta, W, Pt, Au, Hg, Pb, Bi, Nd.

A mobile phone weighing 100 grams, contains 13.7 g of copper 0.189 g of silver 0.028 g of gold 0.014 g of palladium (source: Is Chemistry the Key to Sustainable Living? Mike Pitts, 2010)

This article featured in Design Week, 

December 2010

Article archive: 2013 – What Comes Around Goes Around


There is nothing more sobering than standing at the foot of a very steep mountain, particularly if that mountain is an enormous pile of waste electronics. At the bottom of the mountain stand a group of designers, chemists, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and technologists, all looking up in awe at the monstrous pile of objects. Coloured plastic casings, twisted cables, keyboards with missing on/off buttons catch the eye. An assortment of appliances including vacuum cleaners, hair straighteners, toasters and kettles are still recognisable, but mostly it’s a tangled mess of metal and plastic.

This pile of electronic waste, known as e-waste, is just a small sectin of the waste discarded on a daily basis by UK households. Between now and 2020 the UK will create an estimated 12 million tonnes of e-waste which will contain a lot of precious metals that if valued at current market prices are estimated to be worth in the region of £7billion.[1]

When we try to dispose of objects that we no longer want or need it is all too easy to take the route to landfill; this is the route of least resistance in our current industrial/ consumer model. Confusing advice and information comes in spades; from the non-compulsory legislation surrounding the WEEE directive[2]; to the different and confusing collection systems that each of our 326 local authorities, 36 metropolitan boroughs and 32 London boroughs have set up; to the built-in obsolescence that is part of the design for so many of those appliances; to the appliances which are deliberately designed so that they can’t be fixed and will break (or lose their warranty) if you try.

All these obstacles induce mild panic and frustration in the user and result in things either going in the wrong recycling bin or being dumped by a roadside often under the cover of dark, or being stuffed in the back of a cupboards until a solution is found, or at worst thrown in a black bin liner and put out for landfill collection. Of the 600 million tonnes of products and material that enter the UK, WRAP estimate only 115 million tonnes find their way to a waste recycling plant.

The broken stuff in front of us has had its fate determined. Deemed unfit, broken (our host at the recovery centre suggested that over half of the e-waste flowing into their processing plant could have been fixed by the user if they knew how) or just superseded by the newer, shinier model, it now forms part of the mountain. The mountain represents the small percentage of e-waste that found its way into a recovery programme. It has somehow traversed the overcomplicated journey from house to local authority recycling depot and on to its final resting place here where it is about to be shoved into an industrial crusher before being hand and machine sorted then transported out of the UK to a part of the world where someone earns a living melting, recovering and sell the valuable resources back into the production process.

From where the group stand it seems we also have an enormous capacity to consume goods which have short lives and seemingly little necessity – the electronic doughnut maker and mini pink candy floss machine before us being cases in point. Staggeringly over 90% of the material and products we consume are in our waste stream within six months[3]. But the Great Recovery team are not here to judge people’s taste or consumption patterns. Since September groups of designers together with material experts, local authority members, business leaders, manufacturers and entrepreneurs to name a few have been visiting facilities like this one.

The Great Recovery programme, run by the RSA design team with support from the Technology Strategy Board, has embarked on an investigation into how to design for a resource efficient and secure future. This means designing everything from an electrical appliance to a piece of packaging so that the valuable materials (resource) in those products can be efficiently recovered and fed back into industry once those products have reached the end of their useful life. This ‘circular economy’ is an exciting proposition. It focuses on understanding how we can redesign the 600 million tonnes of product we consume each year in the UK so that the materials can be captured with minimum effort and reused. Our focus is on developing an understanding about material flows, in which products are part of the material flow cycle, existing in a transitory state in which they borrow materials for a short period of time before releasing them back into the cycle at the end of their life.

We do not currently design or manufacture like this. This becomes obvious when you take these objects apart and try to split the ingredients. Toothbrushes, disposable coffee cups, books, TVs, houses; all designed and manufactured with lists of materials that are moulded and fused together by machines for efficient production, but making them impossible to disassemble so that materials can be recovered.

We have run a number of workshops in sites ranging from a packaging recycling plant, to textile sorting centres, to an engine remanufacturing factory, an electronic waste recovery facility and a disused tin mine in Cornwall. The tin mine was fascinating as it had come to the end of its commercial life but with tin prices and secondary elements like Indium rising fast, it is becoming commercially viable again.

We chose the mine and waste processing plants to give the designers who have signed up to the Great Recovery an understanding of where the materials they use and the products they create come from and end up. Up to now we have focussed on the end-of-life of everyday objects and the lesson learned from processing sites that are trying to break down, separate and recover materials. We have been left with a sense of ‘Fear, Farce and Challenge’.

1. The Fear is a reaction many of the designers have expressed when they are asked to ‘look, at the product they spent months designing, was launched to much fanfare a year ago and now sits in that mountain of rubbish’.

Waste is a design flaw. Current design process only takes us to the point where the consumer picks it from the shelf and takes it to the cashier. We rarely consider what happens post-consumer and when we do our knowledge is out of date and often incorrect. Designers hide behind the brief saying they have no power, they only deliver a service – so brief writers were invited to the workshops too.

2. The Farce is the growing realisation that in order to make these appliances we had to source all these raw materials (including some from war torn areas, or perhaps extracted using slave labour), invest in numerous production processes around the world and ship them from continent to continent incurring many ship and air miles’.

A new laptop can cost you under £300 but if you track the flow of raw materials from the mines to the factories and distribution centres (often starting their life in war torn Democratic Republic of Congo, the average computer travels the equivalent of three or four times around the world before they end up in the hands of the customer. Designers have to work with the global market system and it would be naïve to think otherwise but understanding material flows and designing to circular economy principles would result in more local and less carbon intensive production. Traceable supply chains designed around transparency can enhance resource security and support the corporate social responsibility objectives many large manufacturing businesses have adopted.

3. The Challenge is to re-think the design of our products from first principles. Pull an item off the waste mountain and take it apart. Understand what is in the product, where the materials came from and why they are there?

Most objects disassembled at the Great Recovery workshops were not generally made to be taken apart. Take LCD TVs that have hazardous light tubes full of mercurial vapour, which are taken out by hand before they can be put through the crusher. Some models have over 250 screws requiring 15 different screwdrivers to undo them before you can extract anything.

The process of deconstructing an object (also known as ‘tear-down’) in order to understand how it has been put together and how it can be improved is a well-established design tool. Many Japanese electronics companies train new designers on the recycling floor before they were allowed to enter the design studio. Many designers talk about their misspent youth tearing apart anything they could lay their hands on with nostalgia and joy. It engages the practical maker/creative part of the brain and even the hardiest consultants and heads of finance attending the workshops had glints in their eyes when handed a pair of safety specs and a hammer.

This newly re-set vision allows you to see things in a different way: a piece of packaging becomes a series of heat treated non-compatible material layers that can’t be separated; a disposable electrical toothbrush becomes an electrical appliance with a 4 month life designed with multi-moulded unrecyclable plastic, a long life battery and almost as many elements as a mobile phone.

The most important shift is the move away from design as a single object based activity to a step-by-step system consideration that designs in flow. How do we get material back into the economy, what information is needed to follow that material so that it is passed to its next user and how can we re-design production systems to enable this to happen?

Resource scarcity feels like a problem that should be solved by technology or sorted by government. The reality is that this challenge is so big and complex everyone must pick up the gloves. When approx. 80% of the environmental impact is locked in at the concept design stage[4] the reason why we bring a group of designers to face this mountain is clear.

Six months in and The Great Recovery program has begun in earnest. But the challenge is to rethink the whole consumer model and we are still only at the foothills of this journey. Our current best practice for recycling e-waste is to sort, crush and melt. Of the 40 odd elements in the ingredients list for each of these appliances even the best recovery facilities in the EU can only recover 16 at best and none of those materials are on the critical list.[5] A designer may come up with the best design for disassembly but with our current infrastructure there is still a very high chance it will end up on the e-mountain. The answer must lie in the re-design of the whole consumer system around circular principles and the prize is great.


[2] The WEEE Directive (2003) set collection, recycling and recovery targets for all types of electrical goods in the EU.

[3] WEF

[4] Design Council


This blog was featured on the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, April 2013.