Plastic Pollution: Can we design ourselves out of this mess?

November 2018

Share Twitter / LinkedIn

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 Couzens1, this then novel material has revolutionised the way we live, becoming the ‘workhorse of the modern economy2 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[3].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[4].

Nowhere is the abundance of this material more evident than in packaging, representing 26% of the total volume of plastic used.[5]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.”[6]

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[7].

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.[8]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.[9]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%. [10]
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.

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 here.

– 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.

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.

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.

– New innovation around plastics and packaging is exciting and forging into the future. Take a look and get inspired on how to make your own on sites like the new, and get inspired by the Ellen MacArthur Moon shot winners