Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Dart and the humble, disposable EPS cup

You might be wondering what’s so special about a humble disposable expanded polystyrene cup and why it warrants a place in the Museum of Design in Plastics collection. 

It is an object that most of us have encountered at some point in our lives, but we now might do less frequently as manufacturers and take-away retailers respond to consumer demands for more environmentally friendly materials. But the fact remains, that expanded polystyrene does a great job when we want to retain the heat of our food and drink. It is cheap to produce, lightweight, so transport costs are low, and contrary to popular opinion, it can be recycled when the infrastructure is there.  

This rather fragile little cup has its origins in mid-20th century USA when American company Dart developed their first disposable hot drinks cup.   Dart Manufacturing Company was established in 1937 in Mason, Michigan, USA, manufacturing products such as plastic key cases, steel tape measures and ID tags for the armed services. In the late 1950s they had begun to experiment with expanded polystyrene foam and they began production of the first 6oz insulated foam cup in 1960.

By 1962 they had expanded their range to include 8 and 12oz cups and an 8oz food container, and in 1963 they changed their name to Dart Container Corporation.  Throughout the 1960s they expanded production and their range, opening plants across the USA and in 1965 fulfilled their first order for 1 million cups, to one customer in 1 month. 

In its first half century, Dart grew to become a global corporation with a range of more than 600 products for the food services, retail and packaging industries and is the worlds largest producer of single-use foam cups and containers. 

With an awareness that the recycling of expanded polystyrene is not as commonplace as the recycling of other plastics, Dart opened its free public EPS recycling facility in the West Midlands, UK in 2011. The company has an active environmental policy with many initiatives to limit or eliminate the impact of their products.

So next time you find yourself drinking from an expanded polystyrene foam cup, take a moment to look on the bottom. Chances are it will carry the DART logo and with it, decades of history. 

Pam Langdown, Documentation Officer.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Synthetica: a toxic enchantment ONLINE

Synthetica is a chamber opera about plastics with libretto and music by Karen Wimhurst, created during her residency at MoDiP. Following my post of 22 July, I am pleased to share the good news that Arts Council England have agreed that, because of the shut down of theatres caused by Covid 19, we can use our grant, intended to further performance of the work, in a different way. The project team has already met, some in person and some online, to work out how to develop the opera levering value from the virtual platform. Who knows, it could even turn out to have greater impact and we will not lose sight of the importance of again providing live performances when that becomes possible.

Currently there are eleven sung chapters that tell the story of plastics from the early expectations of this essentially modern materials group to the current troubling reality. These existing chapters will be presented Zoom-like by the singer, Brittany Soriano, and the trumpeter, Elaine Close, with vinyl accompaniment, reflecting the new normal. The viewer will be able to experience whichever chapter they feel drawn to, selecting from a turntable of possibilities along these lines, although the design is still very much work in progress:

Synethetica A toxic enchantment

Each chapter will provide inspiration for learning resources, which will be accessed through six objects from the MoDiP collection that tie in with the lyrics.

For example these lines from the chapter ‘Utopian Dream’:

Nature’s larder will be left untouched

Grained ivory, turtle shell, amber, horn,

mother of pearl, coral and the lac beetle

ebony, mahogany and oak,

the whale swims in the blue ocean

the elephant runs free

the leatherback turtle saved

might be accompanied by items such as these:

Ivory coloured powder bowl

Each MoDiP object will be the trigger for a particular learning resource aimed at Key Stages 3 to 5 (ages 11-18) consisting of a cross curricular series of ideas and tasks.

The opera itself poses the question where are we going now? Given the lesson history shows us, what are the possibilities in the new world we enter? With this in mind the website will contain a new chapter in the opera as imagined by young people.

We propose holding online workshops. The trumpeter and the composer will demonstrate trumpet techniques and approaches to writing fanfares. The singer and composer will collaborate on composition workshops in which small snatches of libretto will be written and sung. Participants will then be invited to submit their fanfares and thoughts about the future of plastics directly to the website. In addition to creating a new chapter we will build a resource from their ideas looking to the future value of plastics while acknowledging the issues that make many uneasy about the material group’s prevalence.

Susan Lambert, Chief Curator, MoDiP.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Your five a day

Inspired by our current #anappleaday social media campaign for September, I thought why not show how our collections can encourage us to reach the ultimate healthy-eating goal, and go the whole hog (not a great expression for a vegetarian) with a blog post featuring your 'five a day' fruit and veg.

Jif Lemon bottle

My first offering is this infamous - and easily recognisable - Jif lemon-juice container made from blow-moulded polythene. The design has remained relatively unchanged since the 1950s, so it is a definite winner in my book. Rich in vitamin C, lemon juice can add that much needed zing of acidity that enhances the taste of a whole range of dishes. So, although we wouldn’t eat a whole lemon in one go like we might eat an apple, its juice is one of the most versatile and commonly used ingredients in our daily diet.

The Cooks Carrot

My second object is this whisk, which has a carrot-shaped handle made of orange silicone and balloon wires covered in green silicone which look a bit like carrot tops. If this doesn’t inspire you to whisk up a healthy carrot soup, or maybe the ingredients for a ‘healthy’ carrot cake, then nothing will.

Bananice moulds

My third choice is this set of banana shaped ice lolly moulds. Each one has been made in the shape of a banana with the holders resembling peeled back banana skins. What better way to enjoy this potassium rich fruit, than mixed with yoghurt (and maybe a few strawberries) and frozen for a fun-filled fruity treat.

Strawberry Flip Syrup bottle

And talking of strawberries, my fourth choice is this strawberry-shaped, blow moulded bottle, used to contain syrup for flavouring (healthy skimmed milk) milk shakes – though you will have to add a handful of fresh strawberries, to count it as one of your 'five a day'!

Sweetcorn butter dish

My fifth and final object to inspire your ‘five a day’ is this polystyrene, butter dish in the shape of a corn-on-the-cob. And if you love the buttery taste of corn, where better than to keep your butter than in here? With vitamins B and C, as well as magnesium and potassium, corn is a much-loved summer vegetable which is enjoyed the world over.

You don’t have to be a vegetarian (or a vegan for that matter) to enjoy your happy, healthy ‘five a day’ diet, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction - and if our mouth-watering museum collections have helped steer you towards a fruitier way of thinking, then pile on the pick of the crops!

Julia Pulman, Museum Digital Communications Officer, MoDiP.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Talking about toothbrushes

MoDiP has many toothbrushes in its collections. There are gimmicky ones like the thermochromic example, with a handle that changes colour with heat from the hand, or one that glows-in-the-dark. There are those conceived by well-known designers such as Philippe Starck and Martyn Rowlands. There are ergonomic toothbrushes with special grips, including one manufactured specifically for babies that incorporates a teething ring. There are toothbrushes made for travel and single-use, whilst others address plastics waste by offering replaceable heads. There are electric versions, interdental examples and ones with special mouldings for cleaning the tongue.

They all serve to provide an interesting glimpse into changing oral hygiene trends, but my absolute favourite has to be the Dr West’s Miracle-tuft toothbrush, acquired during lockdown and currently waiting to be catalogued (see image below). This fantastic example is unused, believed to have been traded/gifted to a Briton by an American GI during WWII. It is particularly special because the Miracle-tuft was the first successful commercial application of nylon (you can read more about this wonderful material here).


Dr West’s Miracle-tuft toothbrush, c. 1940–1945 
Image credit: Katherine Pell

The Chinese are credited with inventing the concept of a bristle toothbrush in 1498, which they brought to Europe in the 17th century. One hundred years later, William Addis developed the first mass-produced toothbrush (involving some 53 separate stages) in London in 1780. Despite other manufacturers joining the market, the toothbrush remained a luxury item accessible only to the wealthy until the late 19th/early 20th century.

Natural materials such as wood, ivory and horn were all used for the handles, but bone soon became the preferred choice due its cheapness, availability and durability in withstanding the manufacturing processes. For the bristles, horse and badger hair were sometimes used but boar became the most popular because it was stiff enough to clean the teeth whilst being sufficiently flexible to avoid damage.

Dental catalogues first started to advertise synthetic handles in 1893, made of cellulose nitrate and offering no unpleasant odours when wet (such as those associated with bone), in a wide variety of colours. Technological advancements soon introduced improved plastics such as cellulose acetate and polymethyl methacrylate, but the bristles remained boar until February 1938 with the introduction of ‘Exton’ in the Dr Wests’ Miracle-tuft.


‘Exton’ nylon bristles. 
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Advertised as having none of the undesirable qualities associated with natural bristles, the ‘Exton’ nylon would not break, split or shed, it would not scratch tooth enamel, was 100% waterproof so would not get ‘limp or soggy’ when wet, would dry quickly so was hygienic and it would last twice as long. The innovative new toothbrush was initially sold for 50 cents, packaged in a sealed, glass tube.

During the war, the brand utilised propaganda in its advertisements, suggesting the wartime need to keep healthy for victory was ‘making thousands of Americans realise that their old toothbrushes just won’t do!’ This excellent addition to MoDiP’s collections includes 14 contemporary adverts dating from 1940-1957, a few of which can be seen in the image below.


‘Life’ magazine adverts. 
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Katherine Pell, Collections Officer


Friday, 21 August 2020

Record store day

In a normal year, one day in April would see over 200 independent record shops across the country coming together on Record Store Day.  However, as with many things in 2020, celebrations have had to be postponed.  So, instead of one day to celebrate vinyl records and the stores that promote them, we get 3 new dates instead: 29th August, 26th September and 24th October.

Vinyl LPs were introduced in 1948 and were outsold by CDs for the first time in 1988.  In the past couple of decades vinyl sales have risen with a renewed interest in the medium being sparked in 2006 with the release of albums such as Arctic Monkey’s debut, ‘Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not’.

A 25-year high was reached in 2016 vinyl with more than 3.2m LPs sold, this was a year that saw the death of many musical heroes including David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and George Michael. The loss of these highly regarded artists is considered a large factor in 2016’s surge in vinyl sales, with fans buying mementos of their musical icons. After David Bowie’s death he became the bestselling vinyl artist of 2016.

Philips Stereo 200, AIBDC 008068

William Hernandez Abreu
Gallery Technician, TheGallery.


Wednesday, 19 August 2020

The end of one journey

At the end of July, I passed my PhD with minor corrections. 

It is a simple thing to say, and seems really rather poignant at a time when young people have recently received their A-level results.  Many of whom, having been assessed by their teachers during the unprecedented COVID-19 lockdown restrictions we have been experiencing, have been down-graded for reasons that don’t completely make sense to me.  These students did not get to sit the exams that they had been expecting and it was the exam part of the PhD, the viva, which was something that I was dreading from the moment I took on the challenge.  I did not get great A-level results, which were mostly based on exams. I personally do not believe that exams are the best way to assess someones ability, if you are not at your best on one single day you put several years' worth of work in jeopardy, and that is a lot of pressure to be put under.  I was lucky enough to still get in to the university course that I planned to do through the clearing system. 

My undergraduate degree in the History and Theory of Design, Art, and Photography was modular and was graded throughout the course with a written essay at the end of each unit and a final dissertation.  I then went on to do an MA in Museum Studies, again graded through course work which included essays, group work, work experience, and a final dissertation, again no exam. Twelve years later and after working curatorially at various museums, gaining great experience and insights into collections, and visitor relationships with them, I started my PhD at the University of Brighton.  Seven years of hard work, alongside working as the Assistant Curator and latterly Curator of MoDiP, culminated in an unusual digital hand in of an 75,500-word dissertation in May this year.  The COVID-19 lockdown meant that the viva had to be conducted in a virtual way, which for me was a welcome experience.  I was happy to be sat in my own home and was much more relaxed being in such a familiar environment, the exam fear was reduced.

After an hour of conversation and a short break during which the outcome was discussed, it was a joyous moment when my examiners told me I had passed.  All that hard work had paid off, both examiners said they enjoyed reading my work which was extremely gratifying, and I have very few corrections to make so plan to hand in the final version of my dissertation by the end of August. Then I can really celebrate.


My thesis, A Matter of Material: Exploring the Value of the Museum of Design in Plastics (MoDiP), sets out to understand how a museum focusing on a single material family can contribute to the societal and museological comprehension of design in plastics.  It looks at how museums communicate a group of materials that audiences believe they know and understand, yet that knowledge and understanding may not be the whole story.  It explores why it might seem strange that a museum dedicated to plastics even exists.  It does this by looking at what museums are, what they have been traditionally, and what they can become.  

The research uses the tools of case study as a methodology to make a close study of the functions and collections of MoDiP.  These tools sit alongside the curatorial practices of collections and object research, audience sampling through surveys and social media, as well as visiting other museums and exhibitions and reflecting on such experiences.  By using these methods, this work investigates the material qualities of plastics, alongside other materials, and looks at why the placement of some materials within the museum setting might be difficult to comprehend and how, by being the sole focus of the museum, materials can be more deeply explored.

Passing my PhD might be then end of one journey, but it also represents the beginning of another.  I look forward to finding out where that journey will take me.

Louise Dennis, Curator of MoDiP

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Why my life is spinning around plastics and why they are so important

Plastics help us to protect the environment by reducing waste, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and saving energy at home, at work, and on the road. Plastic insulation, sealants, and other building products are making our homes significantly more energy efficient, while reducing costs for heating and cooling.

There are many ways to use plastics

Most modern plastics are based on organic chemicals that offer manufacturers a huge range of physical properties that is still growing today. There was a time when anything made of plastics was considered to be of inferior quality, but those days are past. You are probably wearing plastics right now, maybe a polyester mix garment or even glasses or a watch with plastic components. The versatility of plastic materials comes from the ability to mold, laminate or shape them and to tailor them physically and chemically.


Plastics are made from natural materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil through a polymerisation or polycondensation process. ... In a polymerisation reactor, monomers such as ethylene and propylene are linked together to form long polymer chains.

We can find plastics everywhere... computer, your pen, my phone - a plastic is any material that can be shaped or moulded into any form. Some are naturally occurring but most are manmade like the polycarbonate (PC) used to make my Machine Studio which helps me to create my music. Laminated polycarbonate is made by layering polycarbonate, a heavy-duty clear plastic, between two sheets of glass and laminating it all together. It can be ¾”, 1” or 1-1/4” thick depending on the level of protection required. Polycarbonate is a tough, transparent thermoplastic with excellent impact and heat resistance. ... Bullet Resistant Polycarbonate is used as an alternative to bulletproof glass.

My mobile phone case

The vast majority of cellphone cases are made of plastics. The most common plastic used in cellphone cases is polycarbonate, an extremely hard plastic. Another type of commonly used plastic is polyurethane, a plastic that can be hard or soft depending on how it is manufactured.
So, what material is best for a phone case? For a baseline level of protection, choose a case made of a shock-absorbent material (like silicone or rubber) that covers your phone's vulnerable corners. Shoman advises smartphone owners against plastic cases, which do not effectively absorb shock and are likelier to translate the impact onto the device itself.

How do you make plastics?

Plastics are made from natural materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil through a polymerisation or polycondensation process. Plastics are derived from natural, organic materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil.

Who invented plastics?

Over the last 50 years plastics have saturated our world and changed the way that we live. The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm's offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory.

Why create plastics?

Plastics can protect the natural world from the destructive forces of human need. The creation of new materials also helped free people from the social and economic constraints imposed by the scarcity of natural resources. Inexpensive celluloid made material wealth more widespread and obtainable.

How the vinyl record is made...

'First, a master recording is made, usually in a studio where engineers perfect the recorded sound. Stampers are just negative versions of the original recording that will be used to make the actual vinyl records. Next, the stamper is placed in a hydraulic press, and vinyl is sandwiched in between. Vinyl is short for polyvinyl, or a polymer of vinyl chloride.
Music On Vinyl is a vinyl only record label that releases high quality 180g LP and 7" vinyl pressings of titles licensed from a wide range of record companies and artists who control their own repertoire.

You can create your own custom vinyl record. Vinylify makes personalized vinyl records on demand. You decide what music you want on your record and create your own cover art. They will then 'take care of the rest' and deliver the record to your door so you can start spinning. Records are recorded onto a master, and then pressed into vinyl. Record players have a stylus, usually made from diamond or sapphire, which is attached to a tone arm (the thing you pick up and move to start playing a record). Many record collectors say the sound is much "warmer" than digital music.

Why vinyl sounds better

Vinyl sounds better than MP3s ever could. Most music is broadcast where details are missed and the overall quality is reduced. It happens because audio files get compressed to make them small enough to store thousands of them on the phone, and to stream online.

Because of dust in the grooves, vinyl tends to produce a fair amount of static electricity and this is picked up by the cartridge and then amplified by the phono preamplifier. The stylus in the grooves of the record picks up these bumps which are amplified and you can hear this as it pops and crackles.

What's so special about vinyl?

Audiophiles will claim that vinyl has a warmer sound, but most people cannot tell the difference. Vinyl record covers are easier to read than CD covers because they are so much bigger. Vinyl records can be special if they were the first way you heard music in your formative years.

Why does vinyl sound warmer?

The reason your Vinyl sounds warmer is due to the analog format of the record. A record contains more information due to the analog format, which improves your listening experience. While the lack of compression improves and enhances your listening experience, vinyl also sounds warmer due to the continuous signal.

Why white vinyl labels?

White label records are vinyl records with plain white labels attached. There are several variations each with a different purpose. Variations include test pressings, white label promos, and plain white labels. Today, white labels discs are commonly used to promote new artists or upcoming albums by veteran artists. White BOPP labels are our the most commonly used material and is suitable for most applications. White BOPP labels are made with polypropylene and have a permanent adhesive.

And finally...does coloured vinyl sound different?

Yes, coloured vinyl always sounds worse! They are not pressed with the same well-formulated vinyl but as much as possible is done to regulate this and have it sounding as good as it can.

William Hernandez Abreu
Gallery Technician, TheGallery.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

The Ericofon

The story behind the development of the Ericofon began in 1939 when Hugo Blomberg, a technical director at Ericsson, learned of a revolutionary telephone being produced by his competitors at Siemens. Named the ‘Crouching dog’, this model had been designed in one piece: the microphone, earpiece and dial all mounted within a single unit.

Image ref: Siemens ‘Crouching Dog’ single unit telephone prototype, 1930.
Image credit:

Inspired, Blomberg worked with designer Ralph Lysell to produce their own version, early examples of which can be seen in the image below.

Image ref: Early prototypes for the Ericofon, 1940
Image credit:

Two models were selected for further development but, as resources became restricted due to the war, work could not properly resume until 1949. Gösta Thames was then chosen to lead on the project because of his successful design of a loudspeaker phone that had combined all the various componentry into a single unit. This new Ericcson phone would similarly be manufactured in one piece, but it would require all of its working parts to be significantly reduced in size to fit into the shape finally chosen. It was intended to be small, light in weight, comfortable to hold and instinctive to use.

Image ref: A wooden prototype of the final form selected.
Image credit:

One of the most significant problems the design team faced was the selection of materials for the case. Thames was not satisfied with either acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate) or the cellulosic plastics (cellulose acetate and nitrate) because of their proneness to scratching. He considered compression moulding the phone in Bakelite (phenol formaldehyde) but, as production was about to begin, a new thermoplastic became commercially available. ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) had been developed in 1948 but was not released until 1954. It possessed all the qualities they needed: it was rigid, hard, impact resistant, durable, resistant to chemicals, opaque, glossy and importantly, could take any colour.

Image ref: How to use the Ericofon
Image credit:

Production began in 1954, first to Swedish institutions such as hospitals, but within two years to the open market throughout Europe and Australia. North Electric in Ohio manufactured the phone for the American independent market. The first model released, the 600, was injection moulded in two pieces as mirrored halves that were then glued together. In 1958 the phone was redesigned to enable it to be moulded in one piece, resulting in the neck becoming shorter and more pronounced. Soon afterwards it began to be known as the ‘cobra’ phone for its resemblance to the snake.

Image ref: The Ericofon 'old' and 'new' case designs
Image credit:

A third case design, the 700, was released in 1976 to mark Ericsson’s centenary. Easily distinguished by its square design, changes to the handle and the addition of a push button keypad instead of the rotary dial, it was never as popular as the earlier models.

Image ref: The Ericofon 700 model, released in 1976
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In 1978, the Post Office (GPO, later to become British Telecom) released the Ericofon 600 as part of their ‘special range’ of rental telephones to be used on the UK exchange. At that time, any phones using this public network had to be owned, installed and maintained by the Post Office. The Ericofon was made available to the British market in only the orange or ivory colours whereas 18 different colours had been initially marketed within the US and 5 throughout the rest of Europe. 

Image ref: The 18 different colours released in the US.
Image credit:

Despite the fact that the Ericofon finally ceased production in 1984 (1974 in the US), it is still widely recognised as one of the most significant industrial designs of the twentieth century. It was completely different to the telephones widely available at the time of its release which were typically large, heavy and dark. By contrast the Ericofon was small, light, bright and colourful. The innovative design made use of new plastics materials and ergonomics to produce something really rather wonderful.

Image ref: MoDiP's Ericofon, c. 1964 - 1984.
Image credit:

Katherine Pell, Collections Officer, MoDiP.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020


There aren’t too many positives about working in isolation at home, but one of them is that I have had time to investigate more thoroughly some of the issues which are thrown up when researching for forthcoming exhibitions.  Starting with the inevitable Google search, I found myself reading through government reports and newspaper articles and went down many research rabbit holes, only to emerge at the other side almost as confused.  So, I am trying to make sense of what I have been reading about the subject of the disposal of single-use fast food or take-away packaging with a view to including this topic in MoDiP’s Beside the Sea exhibition.

 FC1 Fish and Chips box 

In 2019 the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a report on Plastic food and drink packaging. It referenced a U.N. Environment Report that stated foam take-away containers were in the list of the top ten most common single-use plastics found in the environment. 

Awareness of the adverse environmental impact that packaging such as clam-shell boxes and trays made from EPS (expanded polystyrene), commonly used to serve take-away fish and chips, has had over the years, has led to a recent move towards using biodegradable and compostable alternatives.  But it seems that they too are not without their problems. 

The problem with containers made from EPS, it seems, is that EPS is very difficult and not financially viable to recycle. It is inevitably contaminated by food waste and often ends up in landfill or in the environment where it can cause considerable damage. These containers were a popular choice for fast food businesses as they were cheap to manufacture, were lightweight and had excellent insulating properties.  More recently there has been a move towards the use of alternatives made from bio-mass materials such as Bagasse, which is a by-product of the sugar industry, and which has similar properties. But currently this type of material is also fraught with difficulties when it comes to its disposal. 

Bagasse is compostable with the rate of decomposition depending on the composting conditions. However, it is thought that even if the consumer is made aware that their container is made of such material, there will be confusion over how to dispose of it.  It all depends on local infrastructure and the type of composting facilities they use.  If mistakenly included with regular recycling then it risks contaminating that batch.  It seems to me that clear material identification and clear instructions are needed for the efficient disposal of this type of packaging, and like all other packaging there needs to be a national consensus on what is recycled.

The House of Commons report concluded that:

“Although industrially compostable plastic packaging is appealing as an alternative to conventional plastics, the general waste management infrastructure to manage it is not yet fit for purpose.  In addition, we are concerned that consumers are confused about how to dispose of compostable packaging, particularly if there is no dedicated compostable waste bin available.  We therefore don’t support a general increase in the use of industrially compostable packaging at this stage.”

So, it still feels like there is a long way to go, both with managing recycling and with my research, but who would have thought that reading about rubbish could be so absorbing!


Pam Langdown

Documentation Officer