Plastic is fantastic. It gets a bad press right now but that’s not because it is a bad thing, but because it has been used badly.
Products made from plastic that have long lifecycles and are multi-use add real value to our world. Not only can they be used repeatedly, but they can be recycled and transformed into something new within a healthy circular economy.
So although we are constantly confronted with information about the impact of plastics, the solution is not to stop using them.
Sustainability and the circular economy are two phrases you will more than likely have heard being mentioned on the news, in conversations with your friends and families, or through initiatives at your workplace.
As pressures on the environment grow, society is battling to find solutions to what some are calling an ‘environmental crisis’, with the overproduction of single use plastics.
For generations, we have ramped up our consumption potentials at breakneck speeds with the development of fantastic technologies and access to an ever-more connected world. However, our essential production and consumption model hasn’t really changed; it simply grew to cope with demand.
Until relatively recently, the world has operated on a linear economy model, which is often described as the ‘take – make – waste’ process. We take resources from our world, we make amazing things, and then we simply throw the products away. Repeatedly, we produce things that are designed to be used for a pre-defined period before simply being discarded.
As we strive to do better for our planet and the environment, we are now transitioning to what is known as the circular model, whereby we actively design out the potential for waste through positive material selections and extended lifecycles. This design process supports the reduction of waste, and increases the potential for use and re-use over time.
As a designer, I have worked on projects where product lifecycles, planned obsolescence, and the resulting circular impact of my own design process were in sharp focus. Considering the potential for circularity can be a complex issue for many designers as we confront the consequences which come with constantly creating new things, more things, and doing so while consuming our world’s resources. This forces a designer to question the value of their contribution to circularity.
It is commonly agreed among those working in the circular economy space, that design is at the centre of strategies to improve circularity. However, while the design process can certainly implement good circular practices at the core of new production and consumption models, the true power of circularity sits squarely in the hands of the user.
The circular economy debate is not new, and is widely accepted as a crisis which we must all act upon. It is an agenda with a growing common understanding that, regardless of your social, political, or economic status, there is one universal factor when considering this issue: people.
Everyday users now, more than ever, consider the environmental impact which they exert. How can we harness this and play a positive role in the transition to a more circular economy?
Along with the principle of ‘designing out’ the potential for waste, we must also look to keep materials and products in use for much longer. A classic example of the worst and most linear approach to material longevity is the single-use plastic.
At the core of this transition is behaviour change for both industry leaders and consumers. At our everyday level, small changes in behaviours can make big differences. Simply trying to reduce your consumption of single-use plastics is a great way to start. Thinking twice before throwing away things; asking yourself, could someone else use this?
It can be tough though, to feel confident that you are contributing to circularity. Regularly described as ‘greenwashing’, there is a growing debate about the use and misuse of terminology when referring to sustainability and circularity.
Such confusion and misunderstanding sits at the heart of empowering the everyday user and consumer to contribute to better circularity and make positive behaviour changes. For example, how many of us feel confident about what happens to a piece of plastic once we recycle it?
Greater action is being taken at national levels to encourage clarity about circularity, such as the call by the UK Government to establish far clearer standards surrounding the nature of how ‘bioplastics’ are described, and Zero Waste Scotland’s Deposit Return Scheme. It is heartening to see these steps towards clarity and simplicity for the everyday user in how we understand materials, waste, and the true nature of sustainability.
However, sustainability is not only about materials and process; it is also about people and, perhaps most importantly, it is about action.
Daniel Sutherland is a Designer and Academic Strategic Lead at Robert Gordon University’s Gray’s School of Art. He is also the founder of startup company, Origin Plastics, which designs new multi-use products from discarded single use plastics at the source of waste