Following the launch and talk at Pentagram in 2015 I have continued to talk about the work and tour the pieces around the world. The pieces have been from London to Brussels and are currently in Barcelona.
Alongside these pieces I created a limited edition publication. Here is the text and selection of images.
The first toothbrush I ever found was in a Victorian dump in Oxford. In the mud, amongst the bottles and broken crockery I pulled out a strange stick, made of bone, with faint blue lines and a grid of dots at the top. My family were appalled but I was fascinated, and though the bristles had long gone, I knew it was a toothbrush. The shape was basically the same as mine. It hadn’t changed for 100 years.
What had changed was the stuff it was made of. Toothbrushes are no longer bone but generally co-molded from a number of different plastics (including nylon, high density polyethylene or polypropylene and a rubber substitute called kraton, which has amazing resistance to heat and chemicals, just what you need in a toothbrush!). It is a really good example of an everyday product that is disposed directly into our waste streams. On average a person uses around 350 toothbrushes in their lifetime. The bad thing is all those different plastics are impossible to separate and cannot be recycled together, which creates enormous amounts of waste. Over 25,000 tonnes of toothbrushes end up in US landfill every year.
Plastics are now one of the most common pollutants of ocean waters worldwide. Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles collect with other debris and merge into large swirling accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres.
In the broad expanse of the northern Pacific Ocean, there exists the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre: a slowly moving, clockwise spiral of currents created by a high-pressure system of air currents. Due to its lack of large fish and gentle breezes, fishermen and sailors rarely travel through the gyre. This, however, doesn’t prevent the elements to collect some of the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic that enters the sea each year, and create what could be called the largest landfill in the world.
This area known as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one of five major accumulations of rubbish drifting in the oceans. One of the closest pieces of land near this patch is Big Island, Hawaii and Kamilo Point is the closet beach. Kamilo beach (or ‘Trash beach’, as it is called by locals) is near the southern most point of the USA. It is an hour further along the volcanic coastline from Green Sands beach, in a deserted part of the island where no-one lives. If you ask many Hawaiian locals if they know Kamilo Beach 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 it’s not on what you would call a drivable road. You need a 4WD and a very good sense of direction.
My enthusiasm to go and physically see this tragic scene, with my own eyes, was set in motion by the Algalita Foundation who were looking for people to join them on a boat expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch. However, having young children and being prone to awful sea sickness put a stop to that particular dream. But after interviewing David De Rothschild about the Plastiki voyage, and having run numerous workshops at recycling and recovery facilities (including one with Cape Farewell) my next stop had to be Kamilo beach, Hawaii. The islands of Hawaii are extraordinary, diverse and incredibly beautiful. But their magnificent beaches are becoming tainted by the results of this global plastic waste tragedy every day, on every tide. The plastic-to-sand ratio at Kamilo beach is shocking, and in my half hour walk along the coastline I picked up 18 toothbrushes alone.
I brought back what I could carry, feeling bad that I could not clean up more. Everything I picked up had a story: here a journey from Japan after the Tsunami; there a long haul drift after being blown from a US landfill. The snatches of words on bottles bleached by the sun – flotsam poetry.
There were tops of bottles, locally known as shark plastic, that sea birds and fish had gnawed away at the edges to give a ragged effect.
Some of the plastic had been in the sea, under the hot UV sun, for so long they turned to powder when I touched them. Other pieces had been conquered by nature, becoming a home for new life, new coral and new animals. Everywhere you looked plastic was present, deep in the fabric of the beach and seemingly almost impossible to extract.
90% of the world’s rubbish that floats in oceans is plastic and currently only 5% of the world’s plastic is recycled. We cannot just cut out plastic from our lives – it is the ‘workhorse material of the modern economy’ but we need to find ways to deal with it.
Cleaning up the oceans is one option. It is, however, not efficient. The oceans are too big, the estimated 5.25 trillion micro plastic pieces sitting on the bottom of the ocean are too small and no one country is directly responsible. And so the currents continuously move the pollution and the gyres continue to act as ‘shredders’ to the plastic before dispersing it across the globe. The solution to this truly global challenge must be therefore to tackle the problem at its source.
The global growth of plastic consumer goods is projected to increase significantly over the next ten years (current output is approximately 6bn metric tonnes a year). Unless steps are taken to manage wastestreams connected to this growth, the ocean could contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of finfish by 2025 (EMF).
Marine litter is also one of the most visual impacts of a resource inefficient economy. These objects that litter our beaches and fill our seas should be captured for their value before they reach the oceans.
Adopting a circular economy approach, which puts emphasis on: designing systems that prevent waste and encouraging recovery of valuable materials; designing products that optimise materials for their effectiveness in use stage; and simplifying the use of plastics, especially in packaging so that recycling can be streamlined and efficient, would be the most effective solution for marine litter and this tragic outcome.
Statistics from: Lucy C. Woodall, Marcus Eriksen Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey
Many thanks to all those that helped make this exhibition and publication possible: Dan for enjoying the terrifying drive to find Kamilo and agreeing to my madcap plan to go to Hawaii. Stella and Aaron for putting up with journey. Alan Kitching and Marta Dos Santos at Letterpress workshop for giving me access to bigger woodblock and a critical eye. Tamara and Jack at TM for giving up their weekend to help photograph pieces of plastic waste. Calverts Co-op for the waste ink. All at Thomas.Matthews including Alexie for getting the word out. Naresh and Zuleika at Pentagram and Do The Green Thing for their brilliant support.
But no thanks to those that do not recycle their plastic waste.
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
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
Studio Thomas.Matthews has put sustainability at the heart of its design practice and working environment. Mark Sinclair talks to its co-founder Sophie Thomas about creativity as an agent for change.
Communication design studio Thomas.Matthews will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and mark a new chapter in its life that started to take shape in 2016. Last summer, the London studio moved into a new space in The Clove Building, tucked behind the Design Museum’s previous home on the River Thames.
The space is still very much a blank canvas, yet indications of what TM want the place to feel like are already visible – and founding director Sophie Thomas is keen to see how the environment will help the team to create great work. Sustainability has been at the heart of TM’s design projects since 1998 and the approach has filtered through into the new building: there’s a well-stocked research library, a workshop and materials library and evidence of ‘re-use’ throughout the main space – an old lightbox has been reconfigured as a lunch table, for example. Environmental and social integrity are key to TM’s work and its definition of what constitutes ‘good design’ is displayed on the studio business cards: “Appropriate, sustainable and beautiful”. Its approach to projects for clients ranging from NGOs and charities to museums and cultural institutions has also aimed to offer new solutions and change old habits through creativity. After 20 years, this is still a challenging area to work in but, as Thomas explains, it can be an extremely rewarding one, too.
Creative Review: Since 2010, TM has been part of an employee benefit trust called the Useful Simple Trust. The five companies in it, based here in The Clove Building, are owned by over 80 beneficiary employees. Can you tell me about how that structure works and what it gives you
as a studio?
Sophie Thomas: It’s like the John Lewis model but different because we don’t have shares. We have split profits, we have a holding company – Useful Simple Ltd – a trustee board and an operations team running the day-to-day and then there are the beneficiaries. It gives us two things: the opportunity to work with some really interesting people – I can go and have a conversation with someone working in the sustainability consultancy team, they can do life-cycle analyses [and] we can joint pitch on jobs. It [also] makes us part of a bigger thing, so we have more friends, we have more fun – and we have bigger opportunities for spaces like this. And we have collective support teams, so there’s a safety net.
CR: Was the recent move an opportunity to start again with an office space? How do you make sustainability integral to the office?
ST: [We] really push the sustainability side of things, even [in] the way we run the office [and] the kind of materials we use. It’s quite healthy, challenging [you to think] about what’s good and what isn’t. It comes down to budget as well, but in the end a lot of it was about re-use and re-appropriation and knowing what we’ve got. And there’s a good lesson in that – we had stuff in storage from past trade shows, tables [that we use] in the library. These are our old chairs, they do the job, but that’s the interesting thing: the aspiration to change them or adapt them? You need to decide what you can live with and what people [will] perceive when they come in. It’s quite a raw studio at the moment, it needs its personality put in, but the way you use a studio is very different to the way you ‘think’ you’ll use it.
CR: You talked to your staff about what they would need from the environment – what conclusions did you draw from this?
ST: We had a whole survey done [that] looked at how people work in the best way and how they use their time within the day. Effectively, it’s looking at when are you working best, how do you optimise time, do you actually need to be sitting at a desk? It was really interesting – surprising in the sense that we come and work at desks! Which is why we have spaces like the library and the workshop – the document helped us to understand what kinds of work requirements people needed, it also justifies the percentage of ‘hot desks’ we needed, and how people worked at home. We also spent a long time with the bbeneficiaries – looking at what kind of spaces we needed.
CR: Last year you released your own project, Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean, and have said that you still like to keep your hand in with the creative work at TM. Would you say you encourage your staff to develop creative interests outside of the studio?
ST: When you start a [design] business, you do a degree in design but actually the further on you get with the business, the more ‘business’ you become. The last four years I’ve done two and a half days at TM and the same at the Royal Society of Arts; and there I was very much involved in developing workshops and ideas, getting creative people to think differently. And after that I got to a point where I really wanted to get ink under my fingernails again. I think it’s really important [to encourage it]. Two of our staff, Tamara Piña and Jack Bardwell, did a self-initiated exhibition in Spain, for example –
CR: You launched The Great Recovery initiative in 2012. Can you tell me about that and how it relates to the idea of the ‘circular economy’ and current thinking in design that’s environmentally-conscious?
Imagine that anyone who writes a brief for a designer just puts in a sentence that says, ‘Consider the second and third life of this product’. You would have a completely different approach
ST: We’re currently in this really strange position where – and it’s a norm of [the] global economy – that we take stuff out of the ground, our raw material, and we make it and process it into a product, assemble it, brand it, sell it to people – they use it and they chuck it away. It’s a linear process. So what has been discussed and investigated is how you can join those two ends back together – you’re effectively keeping the value in the loop in society for as long as possible. I always go on about toothbrushes, there’s a rucksack of material, about a kilo that goes into making a disposable toothbrush and the majority of that is lost in the production and the manufacturing. So you can lose about 90 per cent of the material weight, before it even gets into the shop. We have to start thinking about how design can help, because design is part of the problem. A lot of recycling at the moment is about crushing [something] and making it into road aggregate, for example, but we’re talking about making sure that value gets back in and becomes another raw material for designers to use again.
Imagine that anyone who writes a brief for a designer just put a sentence in that said, ‘Consider the second and third life of this product’. You would have a completely different approach to stuff. A ‘third life’ means that you actually have to think about [how] you keep that value for the second time. [If something goes] straight to aggregate or is merged with a resin, then you’ve lost it. But if you pull up the value a second time, subsequently you can go into third, fourth and fifth life, it’s a very different way of thinking. But it’s really interesting for the designers to think like that – you start to really understand the lifecycle of your product. The real, whole life of it. And then when things like technology come in – ‘intelligent’ products that tell you that they’re not failing yet, but that they’re going to fail soon, like a lightbulb – [this] means you can get to it, fix it, or change the parts before it fails and that will extend its life. Things like that are already starting to happen.
CR: Are you working on anything outside of the studio that responds to this thinking?
ST: Something I’ve always wanted to do is be a ‘garbologist’ – a waste anthropologist. There were some brilliant studies done in the US in the 1970s-90s by William Rathje who, with his students, would do crawls of landfill sites in America to work out how the processes were working and to see what habits [were emerging]. They found that things don’t degrade in landfills sites; they’re not hot enough, they’re not exposed to oxygen. So this idea that we’re throwing things away, we’re not – we’re burying historical layers of very bad habits. So I’m fascinated with it. My friend challenged me … to record all the things I buy that I don’t necessarily need. I’m recording the ‘need’ versus the ‘want’ and also things like how much knowledge I have about [a product], what I think is in it, where I think it was made, how long it will last – what I do with it afterwards…. I don’t know what I’m doing with it yet, but if you can have something that will help you understand need and want, what has gone into a product and how much material is behind it, more often than not you’ll say you don’t really need it.
This article was first published in Creative Review, February 2017.
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.
A one minute animation done by D&AD for the Blank Sheet Project. Released in 2013.
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
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,