We just came back from Clerkenwell Design Week in London. The event this year was especially focused on sustainable design, and we were excited to see how many conferences were dedicated to sustainability, marine litter, plastic, and trash. Many called it the “the Blue Planet effect” referring to the fact that any talk about plastic waste and recycling — after the broadcasting of the show with Sir David Attenborough — is now at a turning point in which awareness about the problem should turn into action.

“Never before have we had such an awareness of what we’re doing to the planet. And never before have we had the power to do something about it.” David Attenborough

We are all well aware of the problem of plastic that, although it only stands for 10 percent of the garbage the world produces, it represents 60 to 80 percent of the debris collected on the seashore. Leaching into the sea, plastic can cause injury and death to 267 different species, including 86 percent of all species of sea turtles, 44 percent of all seabirds and 43 percent of all marine animals.

We attended all conferences on this topic and pulled out a couple of main points to keep in mind when designing with recycled plastic. At the end of the article you will find a vast number of useful links to interesting projects and people who are offering solutions and inspiration.

A complicated love story

The beginning of our love story with plastic was based on the infinite possibilities offered by this new material with unseen properties: strength, durability, flexibility, elasticity, and clarity. Plastic freed us and especially designers and artists from the confines of the natural world, from material constraints and limited supplies. The first use was, in fact, to substitute precious and limited natural materials like tortoiseshell, ivory, ambers, marble or coral. Then, the material was freed from any boundary and was used to create new shapes, new colors, and new textures. The adaptability of plastic inspired innovation in many industries: from toys to healthcare, from packaging to photographic filming.

Plastic is “the answer to an artist’s dream…a family of materials that can be made to assume virtually any size, shape, form, or color the mind of man may conceive.” — 1968 New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts.

“The quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can be buckets as well as jewels.” Roland Barthes in his meditation on plastic in 1957.

The problem came around the ’50s and ’60s when plastic was so spread out and was so cheap, compared to other materials that was also used for disposable items in huge quantities. As Professor Mark Miodownik says in the first chapter of his new series “Plastic Fantastic” on the BBC Radio 4: “Plastic pollution is not the material’s fault; it’s how we treated it that is the problem.”

The same strength points — durability and price — that made it a fantastic new material created the problem once it was used for disposable items. Plastic became ubiquitous and started to accumulate both in landfills and unfortunately in nature, as in the case of ocean plastic.

So, what can we do today with all this plastic, and how can design offer a solution?

Designing with the end in mind

This is a concept on which designer Sophie Thomas focused a lot in both the conferences we attended at Clerkenwell Design Week. The idea is to design a product already thinking about its disassembly and possible reuse at the end of its lifetime. Part of this approach includes simplification of the type of materials used and special care in trying not to mix different plastics which are then difficult to recycle.

Today there are more and more options for recycled plastics that allow designers to be creative without compromising quality. Some plastics are also recyclable many times without any use of virgin raw material.

One example is our ECONYL® nylon. It is a 100% regenerated yarn that comes from waste material like fishing nets or old carpets but because of chemical recycling instead of mechanical recycling, it can assure 100% quality just like virgin nylon and can be regenerated infinitely. Having a material like this, it’s possible to turn the waste problem into interior design (rugs and carpets) and fashion solutions without using new resources.

A fantastic idea that was brought up during the “Myths of Sustainability” conference was to add a waste manager to the design team. It looks like a great option considering that nowadays the design work is already the result of teamwork of different professionals more and more working together from the very first phases of a project. So why not integrate a waste manager to make the right choices of material and strengthen the design thinking around the end-of-life use?

The changing behavioral power of design

Design has another magic power that is key not only to solve the waste problem but a broader sustainability problem. Design is, in fact, very powerful in shaping and influencing human behavior within the social and environmental contexts. So today, if we want to adjust the way we use and dispose of plastic products, designers are crucial in making it easier for people to change behavior and for example choose sustainable products or increase the lifespan of objects or make sure they will end up in the right waste bin. Mass behavior doesn’t change overnight, but it’s important to design tools that can help modifying the existing habits and are designed for the future consumer and not for the buying/use habits of today.

Good design that is also beautiful

But we need designers also for the age-old task of adding value and aesthetics to a product because the old rule is still in place: “design is only good if people like it”. At the end of the day, even conscious consumers will not buy a sustainable product if it’s not nice. So, aesthetics is essential, even more when we are talking about recycling waste material that comes from landfill or is abandoned in nature. The idea is to use imagination and creativity to add aesthetics elements to these secondary raw materials using the opportunity to make them better, more beautiful and more durable perhaps than the object they were before.

On this topic, American architect Lance Hosey wrote the amazing book “The Shape of Green” where he underlines that if it’s true that we conserve only what we love, then aesthetics in design is an environmental imperative. So, he suggests that designers should think about how to solve the design problem and then check if the solution is beautiful.

A great example from Clerkenwell Design Week is the RCup introduced by Sophie Thomas that is manufactured in the UK by Ashortwalk, one of the few recyclers of disposable coffee paper cups. Ashortwalk takes around six disposable single use coffee cups and recycles them into beautifully designed cups where the color and the texture is not hiding the story behind but instead suggesting it with little dots of colored paper pieces inserted in the plastic that constitutes the cup.


The narrative value of trash

If materials form the language of designers then using a waste material instead of a virgin one can have an added narrative value that can be highlighted by design.

It was the topic of the conference organized by Interface: “Trash to treasure” and it was Nick Gant of Community21 who underlined the joy for a designer in working with waste material that has a narrative value. He talked about the “poetry of the material”.

Fortunately, people today are more and more interested in knowing the story of the products they buy because these stories are what give an edge to recycled/sustainable products especially over mass-produced ones. To include a hint to the previous story of the material in the design of the final object is a way to give it a narrative added value and make it a strong tool of conversation on the problem of trash and on the solution that design can offer.

A beautiful example is offered by Outerknown. Their surfer trunks that had a fishing net pattern helped tell the story of the material used to make the trunks, which is our ECONYL® regenerated nylon made from waste like fishing nets recovered from the oceans.


From Awareness to action with some inspirational links

Today, thanks also to the “Blue Planet effect” we all know the risks of ocean plastic and the power we all have in our hands. As designers, as manufacturer and as consumers we can change this system moving away from single-use items, choosing more sustainable products and material and moving from awareness to action.

Below is a list of interesting projects, solutions or people to follow that were mentioned or were present during the conferences at Clerkenwell Design Week. Have a look and be inspired to be a change agent!

– DESIGN STUDIO — Happenstance workshop is a UK-based studio that creates closed-loop plastic home wear.

– DESIGN STUDIO — Studio Swine (Super Wide Interdisciplinary New Explorers) is a collaboration between Japanese Architect Azusa Murakami and British Artist Alexander Groves.

– BOOK — Radical Matter: Rethinking Materials for a Sustainable Future by Kate Franklin and Caroline Till.

– PRODUCT — Ooho! The edible water bottle.

– INSTITUTIONS — The Ellen MacArthur Foundation for circular economy.

– NGO — Surfers against sewage is a is grassroots movement tackling plastic pollution and protecting the UK’s coastlines for all to enjoy safely and sustainably.

– CAMPAIGN — #OneLess campaign is a movement of pioneering and progressive individuals, communities, businesses, NGOs and policymakers, collaboratively striving to reduce the amount of single-use plastic water bottles entering the ocean from the city of London.

– NGO — Forum for the future is a leading global sustainability non-profit working with business, governments and civil society to accelerate the shift toward a sustainable future.

– INITIATIVES — Net-Works™ is a unique partnership between carpet producer Interface and the Zoological Society of London with the support of Aquafil as an expert in fishing nets recycling into regenerated ECONYL® nylon. Discarded fishing nets are collected and regenerated into nylon yarn for new carpet tiles.

– INITIATIVES — The Great Recovery Project ran between 2012 and 2016. It looked at the challenges of waste and the opportunities of a circular economy through the lens of design.

– PRODUCT — Really and Kvadrat joins forces, taking on the sustainability challenge. Really upcycles end-of-life textiles into the engineered material Solid Textile Board: a high-density material made from end-of-life cotton and wool from the fashion and textile industries, households as well as Kvadrat’s selvedge waste.

– Product — Max Lab benches from discarded textiles.

– DESIGN STUDIO — Community 21 is a social design agancy based in the University of Brighton UK.

– BOOK — Urban Eco Chic by Oliver Heath is a book that explores how we define sustainable design in interiors.

– INITIATIVE — Waste for life is a loosely joined network of scientists, engineers, educators, architects, artists, designers, and cooperatives working together to develop poverty-reducing solutions to specific environmental problems.

– PARTNERSHIP — Suez (France) and TerraCycle join forces in Europe to develop innovative recycling solutions.

– PRODUCT — RCup by Ashortwalk, the world’s first reusable coffee cup made from used paper cups by an award-winning company designing, developing, producing and selling a wide range of products made from redundant materials.

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