Following the success of our glass bottles, The Seven Stages of Degradation (shown at the Royal Academy Summer show and other exhibitions, see the other post), and the prototype ‘Ghostnet Chandelier’ at the London Design Festival 2018 (see this post too), this installation piece continued to develop our ideas around the theme of ocean plastic. Working with Louis Thompson once again and with hand-blown glass and waste glass fragments, found ocean plastic from Hawaii and other beaches around the world and recovered ghost nets this piece references the chaotic beauty of an entangles ghost net being pulled out from the deep ocean. These hand-crafted colourful objects represent a horrific future that our Anthropocene age threatens to leave behind if we do nothing about our dependency on plastic and its easy disposability.
Marine litter is one of the clearest symbols of a resource inefficient economy. These objects that litter our beaches and impact our environment should be captured for their value before the reach the seas and create problems, but this currently does not happen at the scale required. Adopting a more circular approach, which puts emphasis on; designing systems that prevent waste and encourage recovery of valuable materials, designing products that use materials that can easily be recycled and reused, and simplifying the use of plastics, especially in packaging would be the most effective solution for marine litter.
The plastic fragments used in this series were collected in 2014 on a trip to Kamilo beach, Hawaii. This remote beach (also known by the locals as Trash Beach) sees the results of the global plastic waste tragedy wash up onto its shore every day on every tide. The amount of plastic-to-sand ratio is shocking. Everywhere you look plastic is present, deep in the fabric of the beach and seemingly almost impossible to extract. Everything picked up had a story; a journey from Japan after the Tsunami or from the landfills of the USA. There are snatches of words on bottles bleached by the sun. Some plastic had been in the sea under the hot UV sun so long it turned to powder when touched.
Using these fragments along with images of microplastic swirling around the ocean gyres as inspiration the pair created work using waste glass to illustrate this chaos and intrusion into the natural environment. The creation of each vessel starts with picking a plastic ocean waste fragment to inform the shape.
This is followed by a process of gathering and adding waste glass, shaping and blowing. Some of the waste shards are engraved and enamelled with illustrations of seas, nets and packaging details. The piece is completed by the addition of the original plastic piece.
Using images of fragments of plastic swirling around the ocean gyres as inspiration these large vessels use waste glass fragments to illustrate their chaos and intrusion into the natural environment. The creation of each vessel starts with picking a plastic ocean waste fragment that will inform the shape. This is followed by a process of gathering and adding waste glass, shaping and blowing. Some of the waste shards have been engraved and enamelled with illustrations of nets, seas and ships. The piece is completed by the addition of the original plastic piece.
These smaller hand-blown glass bottles have waste glass fragments melted into the surface, clinging on like the barnacles attached to floating plastic in the gyres. Pieces of the waste glass are etched and enamelled with illustrations of ocean currents and fragments of nets. Each piece has a bottle top recovered from oceans around the world referencing the bottle’s once useful life.
The work was shown all together in a large installation called Broken Ocean at the 2019 Collect Open. Broken Ocean used nearly a ton of salvaged ghost nets, pulled out of the ocean by Surfers Against Sewage and represented the rubbish truckload of plastic that enters our oceans every minute. The installation won the prestigious Collect Open award.
Plastiglomerate is a term that was proposed by Patricia Corcoran, Charles J. Moore and Kelly Jazvac for a stone that contains mixtures of sedimentary grains, and other natural debris (e.g. shells, wood) that is held together by hardened molten plastic. .
For our exhibition pieces Louis Thompson and I developed different ideas on how to represent these strange fossils using traditional glass cane techniques used by Murano glass chandelier makers to create the pieces of discarded fishing rope.
The final faceted glass rocks contain the representations of cut knots from discarded fishing nets and ‘plastic shards’ etched and enamelled with details taken from found ocean plastic pieces.
The Plastiglomerate pebbles featured in the ‘Broken Ocean’ installation at Collect Open, Spring 2019. See separate post on this full piece.
Sometimes, using different media to talk about current issues can create arresting outcomes. This collection of pieces is the outcome of a collaboration between myself as a creative campaigner and Glass artist, Louis Thompson. The work is part of ongoing collaboration representing the challenge of the colossal flow of plastic pollution that runs into our seas every minute of every day – currently a rubbish truckload a minute.
The process of making this first series of solid glass bottles called ‘The seven stages of degradation’ is very hands on. Each bottle was created from the inside out, using waste coloured glass shards and forming them onto molten clear glass cullet, then dipping and rolling in coloured chips and strands to represent the breakdown of plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. Colour, one of the most seductive things about glass, was chosen very carefully for each stage; very little red or yellow in the end as these would have been consumed by sea creatures by then. The glass was formed into bottle shapes thentwisted and dented to represent the distortion from the power of the oceans. There are seven disformed bottles in all, each representing the stages of photo-degeneration of plastic in the oceans. The bottles themselves get darker and darker with pollution and each have a bottle cap from my collection picked up on Kamilo beach in Hawaii.
They have now been exhibited in many places including the London Glassblowing Gallery for Synergy II 2017, The Royal Academy Summer Show 2018, Collect Open 2019, British Glass Biennale 2019 and will be at Vessel Gallery as part of group show; New British Glass from November 4th to the 21st December 2019.
Louis Thompson MA RCA is an acclaimed glass artist winning numerous awards and commissions and he has been invited to create installations for various museums and international exhibitions. His work has been exhibited extensively at galleries in the UK, Europe, Japan and the USA.
Having spent over 20 years developing a creative career in graphic design and one that is dominated by the surface and two dimensions, I often crave making things that venture truly into 3D. My attempts so far have had varying degrees of success; a ceramics course led me to do all the glazes and patterns whilst others more successfully threw the pots, and when working in spaces I tend to gravitate towards building objects from decorative flat plains. But I feel the need to be more sculptural and have continued to look for ways to do it.
One such opportunity came through a past studio project. The glass artist Louis Thompson and I became friends when Thomas.Matthews was commissioned to create a set of awards for Arts & Business in 2012. (https://thomasmatthews.com/project/artsbusiness-awards-2012-throphy/)From that point, Louis and I continued conversations about possible collaborations. I talked to Louis about my research on plastic pollution and my personal collection of broken plastic pieces, picked up from beaches around the world. Handles, lids, bottles and tops, yoghurt pots and fishing net knots. Louis discussed his work in glass, amazing pieces of art of incredible colour, created with technical skill and precision.
Inevitably, as designer and artist collaborate, the conversation went back and forth around what we were creating and why. As a designer, I need to have reason – a brief or narrative behind the work, but Louis was more relaxed about this, focusing on the form and the how we could make. This was probably where I leant an important lesson – to let go and just start making.
I have blown glass before, though nothing like these pieces. I’ve made the requisite bauble and paperweight and was comfortable in a ‘hot shop’ – a very different environment from my tame studio desk. This the heart of a glass workshop with the furnaces that heat to 1300 celcius, benches and kilns. (When I asked if any special clothing should be worn, the answer was shorts and tshirt – the hot shop lives up to its name and you seriously sweat!). A workshop like this exudes creativity, you can’t stand there and do nothing, you have to make. And the nature of the raw material – hot molten glass – means that once you start the process you have to see it through in one go, no teabreak halfway even if your work take hours to create.
The pieces took shape over a series of weeks created specifically for the ‘Synergy II’ show at London Glassblowing Studio, set up by Peter Layton on Bermondsey street (https://londonglassblowing.co.uk/). After a couple of creative brainstorm sessions, we decided on developing a number of ideas based on the statistics and my collection, and the techniques Louis described. We wanted to create messages in bottles. Because we could not mix plastic into the molten glass we looked for other things to represent the flotsam and jetsam in the ocean.
Louis collected waste coloured glass from all the artworks created in the hot shop in the weeks before. We made twisted knots of glass rope, carefully matching the colours of the discarded pieces I had picked up.
The process of making the series of bottles for ‘The seven stages of degradation’ was very hands on in the hot shop. Each bottle was created from the inside out with a general idea of what the outcome could look like.
We prepared the elements, sticking waste shards onto a blob of molten clear glass, then repeating the process of re-heating, dipping and rolling in coloured chips and strands (to represent the breakdown of plastic into smaller and smaller pieces). Colour, one of the most seductive things about glass for me, was chosen very carefully for each stage; very little red or yellow in the end, as these would have been consumed by ocean creatures, mistaken for plankton. A certain amount of chemical knowledge is required as different colours made by the added elements react to each other, for instance creating a metallic effect or a yellow halo. You can’t see this when you are making a piece as molten glass is just all red-hot, that’s why you need an expert collaborator.
The last dip into the clear liquid glass was then expertly rolled and formed into a bottle shape, even with the rounded bottom, before being switched onto another rod and then given a neck for the tops to fit onto. And once we had our perfect bottle shape we took a wooden paddle to them and deformed them, aggressively recreating the twisted shapes of plastic bottles found on beaches around the world after they have been bashed on rocks or chewed by sea creatures.
The second series we created is called ‘Scrimshaw Bottle Tusks’ which reference the art of scrimshaw first developed by the American whalers more than 200 years ago when they created intricate carvings on sperm whale teeth during the long, monotonous days at sea.
Sailors who worked on whaling ships had a ready supply of ivory and bone. Many whaling voyages could last three, four or even five years, and several weeks or even months would pass between whale sightings. Without something to occupy their time the seamen may well have gone stir crazy in the cramped quarters and poor living conditions aboard these ships. (Where the word “Scrimshaw” actually came from is unknown but it probably derived from the Dutch or English nautical slang expression meaning “to waste time.” )
Each bottle tusk was blown by Louis in dark blue glass with a coating of white and ivory glass powders. They too have bottle bottoms like a litre bottle and where sailors used needles, knives, and other carving tools to etch their designs adding lampblack, tobacco juice, or ink to make them more distinctive, ours were line-drawn with an engraver into the glass surface and the lines were then filled with black enamel and put back into the kiln to melt in and set.
Every pieces of old scrimshaw holds its own history, story and intrinsic value. Stories of epic whaling battles, mythical sea creatures, commemorative sea voyages and the sailor’s ships were popular motifs. Our collaborative scrimshaw inspired objects are etched with imaginary visual records of future seas. Polluted by man-made waste, oceans rich with toxic plastics and littered with our unwanted detritus, we are contributing to the destruction of our natural planet. Stories from future sailors from 2050 that illustrate the state of the seas if we carry on business as usual there will be more plastic in our oceans than finfish in weight.
Making objects in glass taught me a lot about process and sequence. It was all really hands on – where we literally shaped the pieces as the molten glass cooled. Making objects like this was incredibly tactile and instinctive. There may be parallels in running a business but even a design studio can be very process driven. If you don’t keep yourself doing, making, creating you can get very frustrated. When I returned to my desk with the paperwork, email trails, contracts and excel spreadsheets I vowed to make sure I kept the creativity freeflowing and collaborated as much as possible. It seems its all about finding the right balance.
This article first appeared on the Creative Review blog, January 2018.
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.
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
We get through 5,000 disposable paper coffee cups a minute, but very few of them are ever recycled. Why?
A fraction of the 5,000 cups per minute that we consume in the UK.
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?
Cups after collection and baling (many of the waste cups are pre-consumer waste e.g. printing rejects).
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.
Cups are shredded and ready for the separation of the paper from the polythene liner.
“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.
Laminate packaging that has been separated for reprocessing. The polymer and aluminium is currently not recycled.
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.
Paper and polymer mixed pulp
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.
Shredded paper and pulp still has 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.
Processed and usable paper pulp
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.
Thomas.Matthews business cards printed on ‘Coffee’ paper (mocha). The cups were collected by Simply Cups, reprocessed and made back into paperboy James Cropper’s Reclaimed Fibre Facility based in Cumbria, UK
This article first appeared in Creative Review, Issue 3, volume 37. March 2017
Photography by Peter Clarkson
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw
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.
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.
I am having an exhibition and talk on the 18th November at Pentagram, Westbourne Grove. Places are limited so please do book: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.