It’s really hard to imagine a life without plastic. We are so reliant on it. We walk on it, and in it, drive in it (and now sometimes over it), fly in it, wear it, eat from it, sleep in it, sit on it, communicate through it, play with it, even deliberatelychew it (chewing gum is a plastic) It is colourful and adaptable, affordable and attractive, and omnipresent. So far this has all been good news for designers, as we have the opportunity to specify it in our work at every occasion. Amongst other things it covers paper, colours product, builds structure, brands packaging and allows us to express creative ideas in a million different ways.
And why should we imagine doing without? When plastic was invented it was heralded as a miracle material that could pull us up and out into a bright, colourful future following the crippling and cruel realities of the Second World War. It was marketed as a disposable product for the carefree future and was cheap to produce. Was it too good to be true?
A little over half a decade on and there is little doubt that we would not be where we are now if plastic had not been part of the ingredients mix of progress. As predicted in a small paperback simply called Plastics,written in 1945 by two material scientists; V.E Yarsley and E.G Couzens. , this then novel material has revolutionised the way we live, becoming the ‘workhorse of the modern economy’in a remarkably short time. As soon as it became easy to manufacture at industrial scale, designers raced to exploit its many properties. Its appearance in our products has increased plastic production from a mere 15 million tonnes p.a in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014. The amount of plastic produced in a year is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity.What is more remarkable is that production is expected to double again over the next 20 years.Fuelled in part by low cost feedstock from fracking, the US petrochemical industry is pushing a ‘renaissance’ in plastics by investing nearly $200bn to up capacity, building 325 new refining facilities devoted to making feedstocks for plastic.
Nowhere is the abundance of this material more evident than in packaging, representing 26% of the total volume of plastic used.The benefits of plastic packaging – including lighter transportation costs, reduced food waste and longer product shelf-life – are well established. However, the negative impacts of creating these short-use products with such long-lasting material are becoming apparent and visible in the environment, no more so than in our oceans as brought to the attention of the UK population in Blue planet II. Whilst we see the trajectory of single-use plastic production go up and up, we also see our waste infrastructure struggle to keep up, to the point where scientists are now warning that this irresponsible use of plastic risks “near permanent pollution of the earth.”
Our insatiable on-the-go appetite in the UK means that we produce a lot of single-use plastic packaging waste. The single-use bottle that holds the water purchased and drunk within the hour is made from a material with an estimated 450-year lifespan. If it is lucky enough to be put into a recycling bin it will be part of only 14% of the world’s plastic packaging that gets to a recycling plant, while 40% ends up in landfill. Around the vast plastics value chain of manufacturers, retailers, reprocessors and consumers around one third of this material leaks out into the environment and is lost. By 2050, if we carry on business as usual we could see more plastic in weight than fish in the world’s oceans.
So, is plastic good or bad? Let’s just get it out there – not all plastic is bad. Plastics has helped to revolutionise global health; plastic blood bags replacing glass and rubber that were prone to cracking and hard to sterilize and has helped lower vehicle carbon emissions by reducing fuel consumption through lighter construction. So, its not the material that is bad per say, but more the way we overuse it, over rely on it and badly dispose of it. And by the nature of its persistence, it definitely does not belong in the sea or in the soil.
Citizens are beginning to push back this continuous flow of packaging and disposability. For example, July is now ‘Plastic Free’ month. The Australian foundation that started this call to action has seen the movement gain massive popularity over the past year. It seems a simple enough challenge; to go plastic free for a month with an easy start – refuse a straw in your iced latte, carry with you a reusable coffee cup, take your own lunch in a Tupperware box (let’s ignore this is plastic for now), opt for a paper bag instead of a plastic one (we will come back to this option). But anyone who has tried to ‘choose to refuse’ will know that it is really hard because plastic is in literally everything and often the alternatives are not as squeaky clean as you think.
A group of single-use plastic products have become the focus of intense campaigning. Take plastic straws, the poster product for global NGOs such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition. We have a great appetite for this little short life product, the UK is estimated to use 8.5 billion a year.This product is an example of a now expected addition to a bought drink. But such small pieces of single-use plastic have very uncertain endings. Such items like straws, stirrers, cotton buds and bottle tops leaking through gaps in the system, not recovered by our massive waste infrastructure built for volume not value, or not deemed to be impactful so flushed down the toilet, straight into the waterways. These items are always present in the top 10 finds on beach cleans.
Is banning the single-use straw enough?
Taxation and bans alongside citizen pressure and NGO campaigns are key tools to reduce unnecessary and avoidable plastic pollution. Take the single-use plastic bag. In 2014 over 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags were given to customers by major supermarkets in England. That’s something like 140 bags per person, the equivalent of about 61,000 tonnes in total.Since the 5p charge was introduced, single-use plastic bag sales have fallen by 86%.Great news for something that has been found polluting the deepest, most remote part of the ocean and for the whales and turtles seen choking on them.
However, we do have to be careful with what we replace these items with. A 2006 study by the Environment Agency (EA) found that if a standard supermarket plastic bag was reused three times, a cotton ‘bag for life’ equivalent would need to be reused almost 400 times to become the better environmental option of the two. We also have to be realistic on the scale of the problem. According to reporting by The Financial Times, Shell Oil estimated that even if all single-use disposable plastic (bags, straws, cups, lids, cutlery etc.) were banned, it would only affect plastic resin demand by 3-4%. 
Treating the plastic in our system as a valuable resource that should not be squandered but managed effectively for reusability or recoverability is crucial. We know there is no silver bullet that can singularly tackle the rubbish truck of uncaptured waste plastic currently entering our oceans every minute but changing the way we design with it and the systems around it is fundamental.
The ‘Catalysing Action’ report from the New Plastics Economy summarise their findings into three categories:
1. Without fundamental redesign and innovation, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled. This includes small format packaging (sachets), laminates (foil lids) and uncommon plastics like PVC in packaging as well as food contaminated packaging (on the go packaging with remnants of food left inside).
2. For at least 20% of plastic packaging, reuse provides an economically attractive opportunity.
3. With concerted efforts on design and after-use systems, recycling would be economically attractive for the remaining 50% of plastic packaging.
As a designer I cannot face the possibility that something I have created could end up killing an albatross chick on some tiny island in the Pacific, and as a citizen I am fed up with overpackaged products that I am supposed to want/need and know exactly what to do with when I have unwrapped my shopping. When more and more images flood into my social media of rivers choking with plastic it seems clear that we need to reduce our reliance on single-use plastic, capture the value of this useful material to the max and start to redesign the systems. Our actions can help rebrand this material away from cheap and cheerful and ultimately disposable into something that we respect and value.
It’s a complex challenge and there is no silver bullet but there are questions you can ask, research you can do and reports you can read. Breaking it down into timeframes is a useful starting point.
Now: Optimising collections and recycling post-consumer plastics:
– Check your specified material has a good widespread infrastructure for recovery.
Avoid using plastics where it is listed as ‘check local recycling’ which means the odds are stacked against it that it will be recovered. Either it has little value or is very expensive to recycle.
– Avoid things that have small components (detachable lids), are black or have specific strong dyes.
– Make your label or shrink wrap the same material as the bottle or container you are covering.
– Don’t switch unless you know it is better. Paper as an alternative is more often or not a laminate; a paper with plastic laminate. How many people do you see hovering around recycling bins dithering about which bin to put their single-use packaging into.
– Make the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) your new design friend. Find a way to work out the pros and cons for your materials that is not just focusing on the carbon footprint but consider the end-of-life too. This can allow you to weigh up options on material substitution.
– Understand your plastics. Just as you can’t mix your biodegradable plastics into your recycling waste streams, you should not mix terminology. For example, a biodegradable plastic may not be compostable but is the only material that can possibly be accepted into industrial AD systems. To help you out WRAP UK has released a very handy guide to understanding plastic packaging. http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/Understanding%20plastic%20packaging%20FINAL.pdf
– Avoid oxy-degradable plastic completely. It’s just normal plastic with accelerants in it making it break down quicker – into smaller and smaller pieces (micro plastic) that will ultimately end up polluting both soils and oceans. A call for a total ban was supported by over 150 organisations last year. You are much better off using a widely recycled plastic.
– Simplify your polymers. Never mix your plastics where there is incompatibility or bond different plastics together when there are other options on construction as this will determine your product straight to incineration.
– If you have the influence design the packaging life in line with the use-life. A water bottle can have a use-life of 10 minutes but the plastic bottle with live on for 450 years.
– Design with the 3rd or 4th life of the material in mind. This means thinking beyond the product use-life and past the first recycling into the next and next. Clean materials (no laminates for example) will make this more possible.
Tomorrow: Radical reduction through designing systems that can challenge single-use plastics to reduce volume and leakage.
– Find your inner citizen. Across the globe, companies spend millions testing and focus-grouping their products before they put them on the market, but little is done from an end-of-life perspective and so our knowledge on when, how and why we put things in different bins is a bit of a guessing game. Because it is no longer the responsibility of the manufacturer after the customer has bought it, there is no impetus to survey at this point in the life of their product. The mess is often left to the local authority or waste management company to sort out.
– Do a waste diary for a fortnight. Just observe your use and interaction with plastic and single-use packaging, it’s very revealing. You can step this up by trying to do a plastic-free week. See how hard it can be. Bring your own reusable cup, Tupperware and look for fountains on your routes to work. This could give you insight on how we reintroduce reuse and refill to the masses.
– Train up your marketing dept. Do those that write the brief understand the impact of their words? Take them on a beach or street clean, see if you can find your product. Can you co-write the brief away from a product towards a service?
– Move outside your echo chambers. Talk and listen to households, citizens, communities – some people want to refill, others won’t drink from fountains, others want to give all their packaging back to the shops, most want to know why things are shrink-wrapped or bagged.
Future: New materials and systems for future packaging.
– Biodegradable will have its moment but only when we can sort out a composting infrastructure that can take it all. For starters the production of bioplastics needs to be stepped up. Current production represents only 1% of the 320mt of plastic produced annually. Innovation is happening in creating plastics from waste products from the food industry but conventionally it is made from crops that competes for land with food production putting pressure on the environment. The big stumbling block is at the waste end of the chain. Biodegradable plastic must be segregated from recyclable plastics to stop contamination. If a biodegradable plastic looks like a ‘normal’ plastic, then how can households tell the difference? And if you put it in the composting bin your food waste may be rejected for being the wrong mix or being contaminated with plastic. Our waste management infrastructure is struggling to identify new materials coming on the market.
– New innovation around plastics and packaging is exciting and forging into the future. Take a look and get inspired on how to make your own on sites like the new http://materiom.org/, and get inspired by the Ellen MacArthur Moon shot winners https://newplasticseconomy.org/projects/innovation-prize
Photography by Peter Clarkson and Thomas.Matthews
Article first published in Creative Review, Issue 4, Volume 38. September 2018.
Plastics. V.E Yarsley and E.G Couzens, 1945 (1st edition 1941)
The New plastics Economy report. World Economic Forum (WEF)/Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). 2016
The New plastics Economy report. World Economic Forum (WEF)/Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). 2016
The New plastics Economy report. World Economic Forum (WEF)/Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). 2016
We get through 5,000 disposable paper coffee cups a minute, but very few of them are ever recycled. Why?
The quote on the side of our meeting room coffee jug says it all. Coffee first. Schemes later. I don’t think our studio is unique in its love for coffee. I imagine that coffee serves as one of our industry’s primary fuels. Many a late night is sustained by shots of espresso, making sure we hit that deadline. The question is, at what cost?
In the early years of the Thomas.Matthews studio we did a quick count of cups of coffee consumed in a day. I am particularly keen on the substance and am often avoided by fellow workers until I have had my first sip. However, even I was surprised by the sheer quantity. I averaged out at seven cups a day. Four of these were bought from the local café, equating to £9 a day, £45 a week – £2,025 a year spent on coffee. An expensive habit of which I am not alone. Britons spent £7.9bn in coffee shops in 2015, it’s a growing market. In 1999 it was thought that the coffee market was at saturation, but it has grown sevenfold and is set on path that could see it double over the next decade.
“Britain is becoming a nation of coffee connoisseurs. The thirst and the desire to have better quality coffee is growing (thank god, there is nothing worse than a bad, weak, coffee) ((Jeffrey Young, MD of the Allegra Group))” So, it is confirmed – coffee is big business. Alongside the operations of supplying coffee to the masses is the fact that in the UK, unlike Italy, we love to drink on the run, and a hot beverage needs a specific container to transport it in.
The disposable coffee cup has seen a lot of press recently, and well it should have. The UK produces 5 billion paper cups a year and throws away a staggering 7 million of these disposable coffee cups every single day (that’s 5000 a minute). However, less than 1% of this waste stream makes it to the recycling plant, even though the main material – over 70% – is high quality virgin paper. The clue to the problem is in the misleading name; disposable. This object suffers from the same identity issue as a lot of packaging; once it has fulfilled its job of keeping food fresh or cold, hot or clean, delivered to your door or desk, it then loses its value, and in-fact takes on a negative value, being annoying to get rid of. What do I do with this sticky, smelly thing now? Where are the bins? Which bin should it go in?
But we are wrong to think there is no value in a used cup once the coffee has been drunk. The engineering behind the take-away cup is pretty extraordinary. There are two curves to deal when creating the cup shape. This demands a lot from the cellulose of the paper that a recycled stock with shorter fibres could probably not cope with. You need a virgin material for it not to fail, prompting claims that it takes at least 100,000 trees a year to fuel Britain’s coffee habit. Then, you have the bonded polythene layer inside to make it waterproof. This bond is so strong that it is very hard to pull apart the two materials. And so, the recoverability becomes economically unviable for the majority of recycling facilities to do it.
With 5,000 a minute streaming through our lives, and most of us having general confusion as to what bin they should go in, cups end up in every bin everywhere. And who owns the problem? We do not have Individual Producer Responsibility for cups. Once they are empty of coffee and become waste they is our problem to dispose of. We often put them in the recycling bin, hoping they will get recovered but only 1% does. They are either incinerated where we recover their calorific value in energy from waste plants, or they are buried in landfill where they give off methane whilst they slowly degrade. There is a little research on how long it actually takes for a disposable cup to break down in the environment on its own. The quality of the paper could see it take at least two years to start decomposing with the polythene taking up to 30 years.
So what can be done? For me, design will be the key, not just in the cup design, but in systems and materials spec too. Solutions are surfacing. In business, consortiums like Simply Cups have been working on building a strong collaborative cohort of companies that brings together every part of the supply chain and beyond; retail to producer, user to collector, paper mill to reprocessor , waste manager and collection service provider. What comes out from the collected cups that are sorted, baled, shredded, separated and cleaned is a high quality paper pulp suitable for luxury packaging and card which is high in value.
The interesting thing about this model is the scope there is to expand out, both in R&D and new business models. Companies are now working with them; like the coffee roasters who close the loop by offering a complete service of bean delivery and spent ground collection (that they use to fuel their roasting machines, which roast your beans for your next order). Simply Cups have also been building partnerships looking at designing out the polythene layer altogether in order to create a cup that any recycler will want to collect because they can easily reprocess it.
More obviously there are designers and businesses who have replaced the disposable cup altogether. Keep Cups are one of these barista size cups. They have pretty much the same thermal properties as a paper cup (ie. Good for 10 minutes) which is long enough for me, and are durable and reusable with added feel good factor.
What about levies and tax options? A few years back, Simply Cups mentioned that if we could add 5p onto the price of every coffee drunk from a disposable cup we would be able to fund recycling for every single cup thrown away in the UK. Last year the Liberal Democrats motioned a paper in parliament that proposed such a tax, to follow on from the success seen with carrier bags. This kind of model not only builds funds, it actively discourages the use of disposable stuff. (In July 2016 the government estimated the charge would result in six billion fewer plastic bags being used during the year and £29m had been raised).
What is pretty obvious to me is that with this sheer amount of packaging waste, with its complex material bill of materials, must be designed to factor in the end-of -life. Our current technical/marketing brief should stop thinking of the materials as having no value after they have fulfilled their original use (if it even considers it at all) and start to demand design for 2nd, 3rdand 4thlife. The fact that we can recycle paper fibres around six times in order to extract the maximum value (the same as plastic) shows us the potential and untapped value we are giving up too early just because we have designed something that does not consider the whole life. And to me that is just not good design anymore.
This article first appeared in Creative Review, Issue 3, volume 37. March 2017
Photography by Peter Clarkson
Reflecting on the quest for material infinity, and the massive changes and opportunities the circular economy offers to designers.
Look around you. Wherever you are there will be something that has been designed: beautiful things, functional things, frivolous things. What you can’t see is that behind all these things are intricate supply chains that criss-cross the globe, manufacturing sectors employing millions of people, complex processing systems assembling countless ingredients sourced from many continents.
When I became a designer I quickly discovered a stark truth: I was partly responsible for a rapid flow of materials and stuff that passes through our lives, and all too soon ends up on a waste pile. This realisation led me to investigate where many products end their lives. For the last ten years I have questioned our current state of take, make, then throw away. I have gone on shifts collecting household rubbish and dismantled computers, coats, high heel shoes, cars and even an oil rig.
Textiles featured in my investigation. A recent visit to a textile recycling facility revealed the magnitude of the problem. I saw piles of old clothing being dumped onto conveyors taking fabric to sorters to evaluate their worth. Bales stacked as tall as houses: men’s pleated trousers, sought after in Sub Saharan Africa; patterned jumpers esteemed in cold Eastern European climates; and worn-out t-shirts to be cut up for industrial wipes. Mixed up in this stream were other textiles: duvets, curtains and blankets, that have no secondary market, destined for an environmentally unsound end in landfill.
Witnessing this scene is dispiriting. It seems impossible to imagine how we, as designers, can change this. But change it we must. And design is a good place to start. Around 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at concept stage. Let’s rewind to when these products were just a scribble in an entrepreneur’s notebook. Let’s go back to the brief: ‘Design a kettle that can boil two cups of water in less than twenty seconds that retails at £12.99’, or, ‘Design an office that makes our company look youthful and innovative’. But imagine if the brief also instructed: ‘Design this product to have a second and third life’, ‘Design it so its raw materials may be fully recovered to their maximum value or so that no part of it will end up in landfill during the first five years of its life’. How would this affect the way we designed the product?
All too often, when designers consider materials or production methods, we jump to the finished product too quickly; we fail to consider its wider impact or future use. This new brief would present a big challenge. The very premise would need to change, to address a future where one product could easily become another. This would mean radically re-thinking everything: from the materials we specify, the product itself, its packaging, the logistics to retrieve it after use, and then to sort, process and make it into something usable again.
‘It seems impossible to imagine how we, as designers, can change this. But change it we must. And design is a good place to start.’
In a nutshell, this is the circular economy. It is an exciting proposition, letting the material flow drive the design and production method. It conceives of the product built from these materials as a ‘temporary state’; in other words, a product is always potentially on its way to being something else. Once redundant in one incarnation, it must be capable of being easily disassembled to go back to the raw material again and again, not in a degraded or down-cycled state, but in its most valuable form. Designing for a circular economy allows you to design for the optimal and longest life of a product; for re-use and fixability, recyclability or disassembly and recovery. It makes you match the potential lifespan of your product to appropriate materials and processes.
In the past, design has flirted with different methodologies and theories of sustainability, green design, eco-design, biomimicry, cradle to cradle, light-weighting. Designing with circular economy principles is based on systems thinking; it means designing the whole system, not just the products.
So designers are just one element of a circular economy. Even if they design a product that can be easily disassembled at the end of its life, with our current waste infrastructure, there is still a very high chance it will end up on a waste mountain. Achieving material infinity requires change on the part of everyone involved in the life of a product, from the suppliers of raw materials to the manufacturer, retailer, consumer and end-of-life disposal and recycling companies.
The scale of our waste problem, one for which we are all, in part responsible, should make us throw up our hands in despair. My shock, however, has subsided into curiosity. Where most see threadbare sheets or fading curtains, old electronics or forgotten fashion, I now see the fuel for our renewal.
This article first appeared in the publication for the launch of ‘Really’ by Kvadrat, May 2017.