Sir David Attenborough announced his support for the Plastic Oceans campaign, which is aiming to create the first research centre dedicated to studying the problem of plastic pollution. Last year, San Francisco became the first city in America to ban the sale of small plastic water bottles on public property. And in the UK, we are now charged for plastic bags by law, in an attempt to reduce the 7.6 billion plastic bags that were given to customers at supermarkets in 2014 (approx. 140 bags per person). Plastics are very much in the spotlight, so how is design responding?

Before I get into some design examples, let’s have a little context. Plastic is an amazing material. Arguably the birth of modern plastics came in 1907 with the invention of Bakelite - the first synthetic plastic to be derived not from plants or animals, but from fossil fuels. A wave of now-familiar synthetic plastics followed - polystyrene (1929), polyester (1930), polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polythene (1933) and nylon (1935). But due to the 20th Century upsides of its durability and widespread use, we are now facing the 21st Century downsides of the substantial impacts of plastic waste.

Plastic doesn’t deteriorate. It just breaks down into ever-smaller parts, most of it being invisible to ours eyes. As well as ending up in landfill, some is trapped in Arctic ice; some sinks to the seabed; some rests on beaches. Research published in the journal Science showed that between 5 to 12 million tonnes of plastics enter our oceans every year. It is eaten by animals and found in every species of fish. We don’t yet know what effect this might be having on humans (hence the need for new research centres).

Theoretically at least, plastics could be kept from the waste stream. The ability for it to be recycled for reuse and the rates of recycling are on the increase in many countries. This is largely due to the success of kerbside collection services. But as larger recycling bins were provided, people began to include more of the wrong materials, which requires costly sorting services. Falling oil prices and a weakened economy in China (the top destination for waste) have sent prices for recyclables plummeting worldwide – making it difficult to stay in business if you are in the waste plastic industry.

There are a number of ways in which design can create solutions and help drive demand. Some new products set out specifically to deal with plastic recycling. For example, based in the US, SelecTech was a company founded with the mission of creating valuable products from scrap plastics. The company supplies various types of flooring for commercial and domestic use with up to 70% recycled content. Plus their interlocking design eliminates the need for adhesives during installation. Other, already established, flooring companies, like Forbo, have evolved to incorporate plastic waste materials into their manufacturing. For example, their Coral range of commercial entrance flooring has backing made from recycled PET bottles and uses Econyl®, a high quality yarn made from 100% regenerated polyamide. 

Furniture designers are also at work on this. Designs vary from 'eco-chic' feature-pieces to products that embed their environmental credentials to the extent that only those who read the spec-sheets would ever know. For example, Rodrigo Alonso designed a range of seating for Fahneu, an urban equipment company in Santiago, Chile. Using a Rotomoulded production technique, he worked with plastic waste obtained from electronic devices, toys, drink trays and stadium seats. The waste materials are transformed into durable pieces that have their own ‘irregular polygon’ aesthetic (see image).

The famous Eames moulded plastic chairs, sold by Herman Miller, contain just under 20% recycled plastic content as standard. This is part of the company’s 'Design for Environment' protocols. So whilst they may be more commonly purchased for their timeless design style, Herman Miller is one of the many global companies that are integrating sustainable design practices into their already highly successful businesses. 

And the global high street brands are not unaware of these issues too. Adidas launched a prototype shoe last year by British designer Alexander Taylor, with an upper made entirely from yarns and filaments produced using plastic salvaged from the ocean. This concept design is part of a wider ‘sustainable range’ of Adidas sportswear set for this year, and the company announced its plans to raise awareness about the state of the seas, in further collaboration with Parley for the Oceans – a UN-backed scheme. 

And lastly, the creation of household recycling systems can also be given design attention so that we do not need to have recycling bins that look like they were created by your public authority. Designworks, a BMW Group company offering strategic design services for innovation, were the partner of choice to create the stylish Ecopod. Winner of an IF design award, aluminum cans and plastic bottles are placed into the top. By stepping on the ‘easy-step compaction system’ it can store 50 or more containers. The company also provide an online ‘redemption calculator’ to confirm how much energy your recycling saves, or how many dollars your recycling is worth. And if all designers explored the use of recycled plastics in their designs as standard practice – that dollar-value would go up.