Archive 2015: Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean – talk and publication

NTYBOTO Pentagram 2015

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.

Exhibition newspaper that accompanied the exhibition

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.

Toothbrushes from Kamilo Beach, Hawaii

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.

“There are 20x more Plastic Particles in the North Pacific than stars in the Milky Way Galaxy” – Dr. Marcus Eriksen, 5Gyres. Various fishing floats and buoys, shrunken rubber ball.

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.

Flotsam and Jetsam letterpress, ink and sand

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. 

The map to Kamilo Beach

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. 

Contrast.Bleached bottle on the volcanic sands of Kamilo point.

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.

Rubber glove becomes a home

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.

Ink spill (detail). Found ‘shark plastic’ bottle, waste ink, Kamilo sand, micro plastic and dyed sand.

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.

Plastiglomerate samples

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.

Box study/ Blue and Red. Dyed sand and Kamilo beach flotsam: bottle tops (various), lollipop ring element, peg, party popper casing, unknown flat bead, street cleaning brush filaments.

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.

“It’s hard to visualise the sheer amount of plastic in the oceans, but the weight of it is more than the entire biomass of humans.” – Julia Reisser, marine researcher. 

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). 

Halfers Knot Cut. When a fishing net needs repairing the knots gets cut off. Knots collected from UK beaches.

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. 

Box Study/ Aquamarine and Orange. Dyed sand and Kamilo beach flotsam: Bottle tops
(various) comb segment, toy shoe for doll, unknown flat bead, lollipop ring element. 

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.

Artefact comparison. Shoe heel, children’s spade and plastic bolt from Kamilo beach. Jawbone, shoulder blade and knuckle bone, industrial waste from London foreshore.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article archive 2017: What am I supposed to do with this cup?

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

 

 

Not on our beaches?

I often read stories of animals being affected by plastic debris in our oceans which are really depressing. Recently there was one that now makes me refuse plastic straws whenever I can. A group of marine biologists in Costa Rica discovered an endangered sea turtle with a 10-12 cm plastic straw lodged in its nostril. Christine Figgener, a field biologist with a research interest in conservation filmed the excrutiating 8 minute-long extraction operation, which left the poor turtle bleeding and clearly wincing in pain. Warning, it is really distressing to watch: promo-sea-turtle-straw copyhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wH878t78bw

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

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

2015-03-31 14.10.48-1

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

 

Waste It Ain’t

Like last year I have had the great pleasure in producing a poster for WWF’s Earth Hour campaign with Do the Green Thing. I say great pleasure because I absolutely mean it. If you have had a design studio for as long as I have you will know that generally my days are filled with emails, meetings and document writing and that all the exciting stuff like designing is given to our (brilliant) design team. All this paperwork is important but ultimately not very creative and is not really why I went into design in the first place. So I jump at the chance to actually do something myself instead.

Last year I used my collection of plastic flotsam. This year I went messy. Having spent the last 18 months behind the doors of recycling and recovery facilities for my other job (Co-director of Design at the RSA and project director of The Great Recovery) I now find it very hard to throw things away. It’s kind of a magpie complex what others see as waste, I seem to see beauty, colour, opportunity.

The journey for this piece started with a conversation with Sion Whellens from Calverts, our friendly litho printers. It went: ‘do you throw ink away?’ ‘No.’ ‘What happens to it then?’ ‘When someone specifies a pantone colour on their piece of print we buy in enough ink to print with. Ink comes in 1kg tins and generally we don’t use it all up. A tin which is more than half full is marked up and put in (and on) our (overflowing) cupboard.

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After a few years, if no-one has specified that colour again it has probably passed its sell by date so we empty the ink into a big vat and it gets taken away and recycled into oil products but not into new ink.’

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This vat of ink is sticky smelly and gloopy but full of colours of the rainbow from past jobs – annual reports, comics, art books, posters, promotional leaflets…lovely. I pull some out and mark up the tin; ‘magic ink’ and take it back to the studio.

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Printing it was a challenge. The subject deemed it to be messy and gloopy so basic printing etiquette was out the window.Image

The effect I wanted was drippy

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but as soon as I pulled the ink down with a squeegee suddenly all the colours appeared, like a rainbow in the dark black clouds!Image

It took two weeks to get close to drying but the result is out now here. You can even buy one! The money goes to Do The Green Thing, a great cause and the poster was part of the WWF Earth Hour campaign.

I also helped judge and mentor the young creatives entries which was great fun. You can see all of these here as well as last years collection. I met someone last month who said they had mine on top of their 3D printer as it helped him stop printing when they didn’t need to – an interesting progression from ‘do you real need to print this out?’ footer on the bottom of emails!