Archive: Ghostnet Chandelier – glass and light at LDF 2018.

Ghost nets are fishing nets that have been dumped or lost in the ocean. Fishermen sometimes abandon worn-out nets because it is often the easiest way to get rid of them. These nets, often nearly invisible in the dim light, can be left tangled on a rocky reef or drifting in the open sea. They can entangle fish, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, dugongs, crocodiles, seabirds, crabs, and other creatures. 

They are one of the big problems of ocean plastic pollution and there are many active campaigns to stop the dumping. The Italian company, Aquafil is pioneering a new method which recycles recovered ghost nets into a synthetic material which can be used to create clothing.

Following the success of our glass bottles, The Seven Stages of Degradation (shown at the Royal Academy Summer show and other exhibitions), this collaboration continued developing the theme of ocean plastic, using glass medium as a communication tool for the issue. 

Fishing rope pieces collected from beaches across the world. These pieces are cut out from nets when they get repaired.
One of the sketchbooks for the project.

Using hand blown glass and LEDs this chandelier recreates the chaotic beauty of an entangles ghost net being pulled out from the deep ocean. The chandelier uses some of the traditional techniques used by the Murano glass chandelier makers. 

Glass ghost net pieces made by using the Italian Murano chandelier technique.
The ghost net chandelier sketch that looks remarkably like the final piece.
A bowl of glass fishing net pieces next to the real thing.
Fishing buoys study inspired the two colour glass buoys.
Threading each buoy and rope for the chandelier (and eating mini cheddars).
Don’t know how but the sketch got in the Evening Standard and we became a trend!
Smaller pieces hanging in LDF.
Setting up in the hotshop.
Looking through the glass chandelier.
Lit and in situ at Brompton Design District, LDF 2018.
Ghostnet Chandelier in situ at Brompton Design District, London Design Festival, 2018.

Article archive 2017: Living and decaying in the plastic age.

Plastic bottle found on a Devon beach. The bottle, which probably contained motor oil or an industrial cleaner, is made of coloured HDPE (High Density Polyethylene). The estimated lifespan of HDPE is 450 years.

When Plastics by V. E. Yarsley and E. G. Couzens was first published, in 1941, the material was still a novelty. The authors enthusiastically discussed its ‘inexhaustible potential applications’, imagining a shiny, colourful future, far away from the ‘dust and smoke’ of war. They concluded by announcing a second industrial revolution, looking to a time when science would have ‘new powers and resources to create a more beautiful world.’ The new spirit of planned scientific control would be expressed by the ‘Plastics Age’.

Yarsley and Couzens imagined the new ‘Plastic man’, who would come into an idyllic world of ‘colour and bright shining surfaces, where childish hands find nothing to break, no sharp edges, or corners to cut or graze, no crevices to harbour dirt or germs, because … he is surrounded on every side by this tough, safe, clean material.’

They were partly right. Plastic has revolutionised the way we live, becoming the workhorse of the modern economy. In 1964, 15 million tonnes of plastic goods were produced; in 2014, 311 million tonnes – and the figure is predicted to double over the next twenty years.

Plastic is everywhere, in clothes, cars, houses, planes, toys and furniture. It coats boats, laminates brochures, even turns up in shower gels. And nowhere is its abundance more evident than in packaging, which, as listed in a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF)/Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF). accounts for 26 per cent 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. But its negative effects are increasingly apparent. Water that is purchased and drunk within the hour comes in a bottle made from a material with an estimated lifespan of 450 years. Even though the UK has a well established system for collecting and recycling household plastics, we capture barely half of the 35 million plastic bottles thrown out each day, leaving 16 million to end up in landfill. The WEF / EMF report states that only 14 per cent of the world’s plastic packaging gets to a recycling plant; 40 per cent ends up in landfill, a third pollutes our most fragile ecosystems and the remainder is incinerated. By 2050, the report estimates, the plastic in the world’s oceans will outweigh all the fish.

The importance of recycling The success of plastic is built on its status as the ultimate disposable material, so cheap that we happily use it once and throw it away. The problem is there is no away. We are only 70-odd years into its lifespan: who knows when or how it will disappear from our environment?

The simplest way of encouraging people and businesses to reduce their contribution to waste is to give them products that can be recycled easily. The polymer structures that form plastic have the potential to be recycled up to six times – a fact that would have excited Yarsley and Couzens. Using recycled materials in the manufacturing process requires a quarter of the energy needed to produce new products from scratch.

So why do so few of us recycle? Garbologists – anthropologists who study rubbish – think this is not simply household laziness: design plays a role. At every stage in the packaging lifecycle, design can add complications: shrink-wrap labels that confuse the infra-red sorters at recovery plants, mixed materials moulded together which are impossible to ‘unmake’, confusing packaging information that leads to stuff going into the wrong bins – the list goes on. Finding solutions to this requires industry-wide collaboration.

Although we have no legislative pressure in force that demands producer responsibility, there are some companies that cast their eyes further than the supermarket trolley. In 2007, Innocent Drinks was one of the first to use a 100 per cent recycled plastic (rPET) bottle. Though the quality then was not good enough, they have now committed to using at least 30 per cent rPET in their bottles.

There are so many factors to consider when designing single-use bottles for manufacture. For years, designers have been briefed to reduce the weight. Although this has big benefits for carbon efficiency, it also has side-effects further down the line. The expensive, heavily legislated, investment-intensive waste-management industry cannot keep up with the fast moving, constantly innovating, test-it-quickly packaging sector: a lighter bottle could mean contamination in the automatic bottle sorters, or – once the plastic has been ground down – a mix-up in the plastic flake identifiers. Contamination means poorer quality recycled material.

We need to look beyond the shiny future imagined by Yarsley and Couzens, in which disposability is assumed, and redefine this amazing material. Plastic packaging needs to be treated as a valuable resource. Changing the way we design is fundamental to this process.

Photograph by Peter Clarkson.
Article first published in Eye Magazine no. 94 vol. 24, 2017

Article archive 2017: Circular By Design

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.
https://reallycph.dk/circularity/circular-by-design

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 copyhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw

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.

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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

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

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 events@pentagram.com 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 http://sandgrains.com/Sand-Grains-Gallery.html 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.

Hawaii_beach

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

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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…

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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; http://thomasmatthews.com/sophie-helps-launch-earth-hour-2015-for-wwf-and-do-the-green-thing/