Earth Day coming up on April 22, MoDiP has a session today with
students from our Creative Writing course in support of Dr Kevan Manwaring’s ‘Writing
the Earth’ Programme.
Many discussions across
the world this week will explore the negative impacts that plastics and the
products they are made into can have on the environment. These discussions are extremely valid
especially when we see the horrific amounts of detritus that clog our water
ways and can be seen in overflowing waste heaps across the globe. I am certainly not going to counter the opinions
that such waste should not be in our seas, streets, or countryside, but I will
be exploring with the students some of the interesting ways designers and
manufacturers use plastics in a more thoughtful, and sustainable way. As with much of the activity of the museum I
will be acknowledging the negative impact the poor use and disposal of
plastics materials has on the environment, and show how valuable plastics, as a
materials group, can be when used appropriately.
Plastics are a group of materials that have no inherent shape, colour,
or texture. The amazing thing about them is that they can become anything
we want them to be. They are celebrated for having a long
life. At the same time, they are vilified for having a long life
when they are in the wrong place. Nobody wants to see waste (of any kind)
in our seas, on our beaches, in our streets. Plastics are particularly
highlighted as a waste issue because they are so visible. They are light
in weight and often colourful, and so can be easily seen floating in water,
blowing in the wind, and caught in trees as litter.
The overuse of
plastics has its origins in the early twentieth century, where disposability, and
the notion of using something once and then throwing it away grew to become a
sign of wealth and cleanliness. In the West, consumers were encouraged to
use disposable products for their efficiency and to avoid contamination.
The ideas of purification and convenience encouraged the development of ethical
justifications for the use of disposable items. It will take time to change human behaviours -
whether as designers, manufacturers, or consumers.
Much of the issue with plastics is that they are seen
as ‘cheap’ materials that are made into ‘cheap’, throw away products. This is exacerbated by the use of plastics to
create single-use products, particularly packaging, which has little or no
perceived value. This is because it is
not our intention to purchase the packaging; only the product inside it. Consumers do not readily see that investment
has been made into the research and development of the packaging, that it has a
material cost, and it has value in its function - to contain and / or protect
the contents. If we were more readily
able to recognise the value of such products, we would be more inclined to
maintain that value within a circular system.
One way of showing value is by creating objects that
are well designed and highly desirable.
This is demonstrated in our current exhibition, Why plastics?, in our Affordable
relative cheapness of mass-produced plastics objects means that well-designed
and well-made, fashionable or timeless products can be acquired by a wider
demographic of consumers. From the 1940s, European companies placed significant
investment into the production of quality objects, made of materials that were
fit for purpose. The ‘good design’ concept developed by the Council of
Industrial Design (CoID) was adopted by the British plastics industry to bring
simple but functional products to the British public. During this time some
plastics firms set up their own design studios to create objects that were well
conceived and used the materials at their disposal to the best of their
abilities. Well regarded designers included A.H. ‘Woody’ Woodfull for
British Industrial Plastics, David Harman Powell for Ranton & Co, and
Martyn Rowlands for IMI Opella. As time went on other companies, such as
Habitat and Ikea, have used designers and design studios to bring ‘good
design’ in plastics to the masses.
With Bournemouth beach being popular with families, we see
lots of beach toys being left behind; because they can be purchased so cheaply,
they are seen as lacking in value. A
local initiative set up by an AUB MA student enables people to borrow toys
rather than buying a cheap bucket and discarding it. https://aub.ac.uk/latest/check-it-out-ma-student-designs-boscombes-new-toy-library
An alternative to borrowing is to ‘buy once and buy
well’. If you acquire objects that you
would not want to leave behind, you are more likely to make sure it goes home
with you. And when your children have
outgrown the toy, it will still be in good condition and be desirable enough to
be handed on to other families. The
Ekobo sand toys are a case in point.
They are beautifully made using recycled sawdust from a chopstick
factory in a bio-based resin meaning they are desirable, durable but also
If the facilities, such as good bin provision, are
available and the consumer or manufacturer is willing, all plastics have
the capability to be recycled. Some materials are more easily reprocessed than
others, and it becomes more complicated when multiple materials are used in
combination, either through lamination or separate componentry.
The simplest materials to recycle are the thermoplastics,
those which can be shredded, melted, and reprocessed. Other plastics materials,
the thermosets, have to be ground or chipped to be reused. The latter is a more
laborious process and as such is seldom done.
There are many factors which make it difficult to recycle
plastics materials. If a material is dark in colour, the resulting recyclate
also has to be dark. To counter this, Coca-Cola changed its iconic green Sprite
bottle to clear in 2019, and Dai Nippon Printing use an external,
removable film to provide colour to their clear bottles.
Recycling uses energy and other resources, as such
the most sustainable way to maintain the most material value in a product is to
reuse it. As mentioned previously plastics
materials are durable and this means that they make great products for reuse. The robustness of some plastics materials makes
reusable drinks bottles and lunch boxes safe and reliable and means that we can
avoid single-use alternatives.
Alternative feedstocks and materials
Most plastics as we know them are made from fossil-fuels
which are finite resources. Although the
production of plastics only uses 4% of the world’s oil
production, with the rest being used for energy, transport, and heat,
manufacturers have for some time been experimenting with alternative,
plant-based, feedstocks. Plant materials including cornstarch, needles from
pine trees, algae, and wood are harvestable, with some growing very
quickly, therefore they provide a more sustainable raw material with an almost
Plant-based materials, also known as bioplastics, need careful
consideration within the wider production context of water, chemical and land
use all of which have an environmental impact. The end of their life requires
careful consideration too. Products made of bioplastics are not always
biodegradable. If they are compostable,
they often need industrial conditions. If they degrade within a recycling
system they can undermine and weaken the resulting recyclate, and in landfill
they can produce methane, a greenhouse gas, as they breakdown.
Other alternative materials for the creation of new products
can come from materials that are already in existence. The Airpaq bag, for example, makes use of reclaimed
materials such as car airbags and seat belts.
The skateboard and rash guard use recycled fishing nets, either before
they are discarded into the sea or those that have been reclaimed from the oceans
where they are described as ghost nets which continue catching fish and other
marine life. The gumdrop uses recycled
chewing gum and attempts to prevent a source of waste from looking unsightly on
Many of the sustainable aspects of plastics products are
derived from their durability and recyclability. However, one property that
enables them to have a positive environmental impact, but one that is often overlooked,
is that they are lightweight. In terms of packaging, by being light in weight,
plastics products take up less space and require less fuel than heavier
materials like glass, for example, in transportation. Plastics packaging also
helps to reduce losses and damaged contents, therefore preventing food waste.
The relative lightness in weight, when used in car parts, saves on average over
the lifetime of the standard car, 3000 litres of fuel.
The Bodyflik is a squeegee which scrapes off excess water from
your body after washing. It was designed
to reduce the amount of water absorbed by a bath towel meaning the towel would
dry more quickly and need changing less often.
This helps to reduce household gas and electricity bills. The Jar Tops divert glass jars from landfill or
the recycling process by giving them a second life.
Plastics can be
used to play important environmentally supportive roles. Fence
booms are used as an emergency response, or for long term deployment, to
contain oil spills or debris, in calm or sheltered waters such as harbours,
rivers and ponds. By containing a spill, the boom prevents more of the
environment from being affected by the contaminant.
The sustainability of the modern commercial fishing industry
is affected by the discarding of excess catch due to fishing quotas
and bycatch. The Pisces and the ProGlow use LED light to
influence fish behaviour. Both
examples are housed within a robust polycarbonate case
that can withstand the pressures of deep water. Pisces illuminates the fishing net
and emits six different colours to either attract or repel specific species. The
ProGlow is a cheap and reusable alternative to single-use glow sticks that
are environmentally damaging when thrown overboard at end-of-life; it
is estimated that 700 million end up in the oceans every year.
One day in 2020 saw 22 tonnes of rubbish removed, by the council, from Bournemouth and Poole beaches
after half a million people
visited the area. Beach goers left behind food
packaging, disposable barbeques, buckets, spades, toys, clothing, beach shelters, and other equipment.
Ideally all visitors to the
seaside would take responsibility for the rubbish they generate. Alternatively, to stop this
litter getting into the
environment, many charities and groups, including the 2 Minute Beach Clean, Keep Britain Tidy, Surfers
Against Sewage, Dorset Devils,
and many more, organise beach cleans,
where individuals are encouraged to come together and remove the debris. Many plastics products are used to gather and
take away the rubbish including refuse bags.
A reusable alternative is the 4Ocean Beach Bag and Cleanup Tote with its mesh material
which allows sand and water to
drain out keeping it lightweight and easy
Curator of MoDiP