Monday 26 November 2018

Don’t blame plastic, it didn’t want to be rubbish

Following on from my last post about the word ‘single-use’ becoming the word of the year, and the connotations that single-use plastics are bad plastics I wanted to explore the relationship people have with the material.[1]  A lot of people associate plastics with waste, pollution, and litter.  We see the material and we name it as the bad guy.  However, to take the personification of the material a step further, when it was born it didn’t see its future as floating in the seas for evermore or clogging up the drains. It wanted to be something useful, something that would last; it wanted to do something good and more often than not, it does do good – we just don’t notice it when it is doing its job well (Meikle, 1997, p. xiii).  When the material is being put to a job incorrectly or it is in the wrong place, it is us, human beings, who must take responsibility not the material.

US Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, [accessed 20 February 2018].

We all need to take responsibility for the products that we design, make, and use, as well as the way we dispose of them.  As designers and makers we need to think carefully about the materials we select.  What do we want them to do, and how long do we need the product to last. What can be done with the product when it comes to the end of its useful life? 

We need companies and governments to take more responsibility for the waste that is generated.  For example: Pret a Manger in Brighton have started to trial a scheme offering cash-back for the return of plastic bottles (BBC News, 2018), the supermarket Tesco are trialling a similar scheme (Tesco PLC, 2018).

We need designers and manufacturers to see the value of the materials they use and to make appropriate use of such valuable resources.

As consumers, we need to make informed choices about what we buy.  We assume that natural materials are the best choice environmentally but that is not necessarily the case.  Unbleached, undyed cotton uses large quantities of hazardous chemicals and high levels of water during its production (Burall, 1991, p. 39).  

We need to understand that biodegradable products aren’t always the best option either and can encourage littering.  These materials need special environmental conditions to break down; biodegradable doesn’t mean we are free to dump it in the street.

We need to change people’s behaviour when it comes to waste – too many people are littering and have the attitude that rubbish is ‘not my problem’, ‘someone else will clean it up’.

The UK government needs to take responsibility for the country’s recycling. Up until recently much of the UK’s recycling was sent to China.  Since 2012, the UK has exported 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong, which is two-thirds of the UK’s plastic waste exports.  But as of January this 2018, China has put a ban on plastics imports (Laville, 2017). The UK needs recycling plants in this country and we need the government to see the value of the material they have been sending out to China – we should keep that economic value in this country.

We cannot go on blaming the material, other people, other organisations for the environmental situation in which we find ourselves.  We need to think about why we use the materials and products that we do, as well as those that we choose to avoid asking ourselves if we are seeing the bigger picture.  We also need to take home our rubbish when we are out and about, recycle what we can, contact local and national authorities to demand improvements to recycling schemes, pick up the litter that we see, and take responsibility.

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator) 


BBC News, 2018. Pret A Manger to trial plastic bottle cash-back scheme in Brighton [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 3.5.18).

Burall, P., 1991. Green Design. The Design Council, London.

Laville, S., 2017. Chinese ban on plastic waste imports could see UK pollution rise | Environment | The Guardian [WWW Document]. Guard. Online. URL (accessed 2.20.18).

Meikle, J.L., 1997. American Plastic: A Cultural History. Rutger University Press, New Brunswick & London.

Tesco PLC, 2018. Tesco trials money back on returned plastic bottles, and calls for a national approach to recycling [WWW Document]. URL

[1] For the purpose of this post I am using the singular form of plastics ‘plastic’.  However, it must be acknowledged that plastics are a group of many and varied materials.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

A parade at MoDiP

Whilst filing paperwork recently I came across the leaflet for the Eames Elephant we have in our collection. 

Elephant stool, Charles and Ray Eames, Vitra, 2012. AIBDC : 006729

It is a favourite object of mine, and it got me thinking about other elephants we have in our collection.  A quick word search in our catalogue told me that we have quite a herd in all sizes and colours, including the pleasingly shaped Rowenta Bimbo bottle warmer from the 1970s, Hanibal, the tape dispenser, designed by Julian Brown for Rexite, and a group of wooden maquettes and mock ups for Bostik Zoo glue bottles. What these objects have in common, and a number of other elephants in our collection, is that they are all made for children to enjoy.  

The appreciation of this wonderful creature is not the preserve of the young, and plastics have played their part in trying to wean us humans off the desire for ivory products.  Indeed some of the first attempts to produce a hard plastic in the U.S. came about when the search for an alternative to ivory was sought for making billiard balls. A competition to find that substitute was won by printer John Wesley Hyatt who developed a cellulose nitrate material subsequently known as Celluloid, but although there was a reward of $10,000 it is thought that Hyatt never received it. He did however go on to form the Celluloid Manufacturing Company in 1871. A few years before this, in the UK, Alexander Parkes was also beginning to produce a hard cellulose nitrate substance he called Parkesine. We are lucky enough to be the custodians of a very early example of a Parkesine snooker ball part of the loan collection of the Plastics Historical Society. 

Snooker ball, Parkesine, 1865. PHSL : PAR 119
The elephant is depicted on a sample of Ivoride, a late 19th century cellulose nitrate material manufactured by Daniel Spill at the Ivoride Works, Homerton, London. 

Ivoride sample, Daniel Spill, 1870s circa. PHSL: X12
Perhaps with the emerging social conscience for animal welfare and the realisation of the need to preserve and protect the elephant rather than exploit it, this material is marketed as a substitute for ivory. It could though be the result of dwindling supplies of ivory and the desire to produce an affordable alternative with acceptable aesthetic appeal that gave rise to its invention. 

The elephant is also depicted, along with the turtle, as the trademark Xylonite as domenstrated on this collar, another cellulose nitrate material.
These two characters are the subject of a poem, written by S. Brooks who worked at the British Xylonite factory. The poem was published in the company magazine in 1947 and appears to lament the transition from hand made products to mass production. Quite a mournful tale, but such materials and their production methods have offered an affordable and ethical alternative to ivory and tortoiseshell. 

The Old Craftsmen

Whilst resting in my old armchair, and lost in reverie
My thoughts returned to days of long ago.

I was thinking of the Pals I had within the factory  
Old comrades that long since I used to know.

Then a vision rose before my eyes, that filled me with alarm
A vision fit to make me stand and stare.

An Elephant and Tortoise were standing arm in arm 
They surely were an ill-assorted pair.

I watched them wander through the shops, their faces showed dismay
They were startled by the changes they could see

So I followed close behind them, to hear what they would say
On the progress of the Plastics Industry.

At last they reached Shop 50 – the injection mouldings floor 
Their faces showed their agony of mind

As they watched the giant Lesters turning combs out by the score
No liking for such methods could they find.

“That’s progress,” said the Tortoise, “That’s progress, don’t you see?”
But the Elephant in anger shouted loud,

“You call that progress, brother, don’t talk such rot to me.”
And the Tortoise he just sorrowfully bowed.

“When we were young, O Tortoise, we were craftsmen at our trade”
And the Elephant, he spoke these words with pride,

“Our combs were really works of art, and every comb hand-made, 
We were masters of our trade, can’t be denied.

“We fashioned combs of Tortoiseshell, and Ivory Celluloid
A credit to our skill without a doubt,

“That’s why this so-called progress doesn’t leave me overjoyed,
These things aren’t made they’re only squirted out.” 

The two old craftsmen wandered off, with footsteps none too strong
Dead sure that their opinions were right –

Two very gallant Gentlemen, whose memories were long
And the vision slowly faded from my sight.

Pam Langdown, (Collections Manager)