Following the launch of PlasticFree – a directory of plastic-free materials and system solutions – designers consult on how the industry can transform its relationship with plastic.
Jo Barnard, Founder and Creative Director of Morrama
We should always think: “What are the alternatives?”. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when designing, to do something the way it always was or because it’s the easiest solution. For this reason we inevitably resort to the use of plastic; It’s such an incredibly versatile material and it’s not always clear what other possibilities exist. This is where PlasticFree comes into play.
Typically, you won’t find an easy replacement, and it’s likely that cost, material properties, or manufacturing limitations will feel like insurmountable obstacles. So think about how to change the letter. What if you didn’t need a moisture-proof material? What if it didn’t have to be transparent? What if we relied on degradation instead of assuming everything will last for years?
Keep in mind that this change won’t happen overnight and it’s likely that there won’t be a plastic-free answer for some projects at the moment. But we should never stop challenging ourselves to find one.
Nissen Richards director Pippa Nissen
In exhibition design, the liberation from plastic is about rethinking the use of materials. For example, where we used to use plastic as a robust, easy-care, surface-sealed and absolutely document-proof material, we now have to turn this on its head. Plastic has a predictable, institutional feel to it. We need to celebrate more craft, personality and imperfection, and the lifestyle of natural materials that age, weather and respond to their environment.
In our studio we often think about layers of material, starting with strong and solid subfloors made from sustainable materials, with layers of other materials on top that have shorter lifespans and are easier – and cheaper – to replace. For example, a patinated metal holder containing printed cards for interpretation, or an etched stone with an interchangeable natural filler. It can’t just be about replacing plastic right away. We need to think in new and different, creative ways.
Mather & Co design director Paul Lee
We should see how we can improve simply by choosing better materials. Since this is a circular design process, the designer should focus more on how the materials used for packaging and shipping can be reused elsewhere or reassembled to even become part of the final product. Technical detailing should seek to consider how what we design and produce can be brought and delivered to site in more sustainable crates, boxes and crates, eliminating the need for bubble wrap, packing tape and single use protective foams.
There should also be more emphasis on looking at ways in which we can attract contractors who share the same values through qualitative assessments rather than just cost, by assessing those who, for example, use more plastic from natural textiles, recycled protective films and replace reusable strapping.
Blonde founder and creative director James Melia
Initiatives like PlasticFree are fantastic. However, I wonder if the pursuit of plastic-free products really is the best framework for the topic. Increasing environmental awareness and shifting priorities among policymakers are bringing positive steps forward. Still, I fear that being labeled the #1 sustainability villain in the race to go green could actually have adverse consequences.
Today, brands support green strategies by going “plastic free” and using natural materials in their products for an eco-conscious look. However, hidden non-recyclable parts, poor construction techniques and poor choice of materials make products in many cases inferior and less sustainable than their plastic counterparts. which (when properly selected) can be reused and recycled multiple times. If a product is made from more than one material glued together, it may be more difficult (or impossible) to recycle than, for example, something made from a single material; a recycled monoplastic.
While material libraries like PlasticFree are useful, ultimately the shift to sustainable products will be slower than desired unless designers are well-informed about manufacturing processes – how to use new materials in a scalable and mass-market accessible way – and can consider and need full product lifecycles. My advice to designers is to strategically look at the business as a whole and take the time to understand the entire product development process by engaging with stakeholders and through interdisciplinary collaboration throughout the supply chain.
Suzy Shelley leads sustainability and materials at Pearlfisher London
To reduce reliance on plastic, the best steps designers can take are to think about materials as early as possible in the design process, work with brands and suppliers, and think about the product and packaging together.
Material libraries are a great source of inspiration and for discovering exciting alternatives to plastic, but some products are easier to go plastic than others, and removing plastic isn’t always as easy as switching materials. This is especially true for products that require high barrier and testing of new plastic-free materials or even changes to the product formula is required to maintain protection and quality.
Rethinking product format, formula, materials and packaging in parallel, and considering the entire product lifecycle, can result in a revolutionary design that not only eliminates plastic but also offers a better consumer experience.
Helen Hamlyn Center for Design Director Rama Gheerawo
Designers need to embrace more diverse and natural materials as the base palette for our creations. Collaborating with materials scientists and technologists is important to the development of new composites technologies, but we must also trawl through human history to find natural and renewable products that draw on the intelligence of our ancestors and bring greater balance to the future. Design also has the ability to persuade, so we should consider how better communication can change perspectives on a global and individual level. Design can help transform our addiction to plastic convenience into a vision (and reality) of shared longevity for all life on our planet.
SmilePlastics co-founder Rosalie McMillan
If I may bend the question a bit, I think the broader question is how designers can focus on more sustainable material choices for their products. There are many approaches to making sustainable choices, but at Smile Plastics we focus on celebrating plastics in a closed loop system. Billions of tons of plastic have accumulated on this planet over the last few decades, and plastics are an enormously valuable resource with amazing material properties. Some questions to ask yourself could be:
•Can I choose materials that are 100% recycled and 100% recyclable? At Smile, for example, we only make materials that meet these criteria
•How can I avoid waste in the manufacture of my product? Can leftovers be collected and recycled?
•How can I design products so that they can be repaired, reused and dismantled at the end of their lifecycle to enable a zero-waste circular system?
Echo co-founder and creative director Andrew Capper
Designers don’t depend on plastic – consumers, retailers, brands, supply chains and manufacturers do. The entire commercial consumption infrastructure relies on plastic. As designers, we could make every structural pack ever made plastic-free. But does the brand have to charge more for the alternative? Will consumers pay for it? Will it arrive with the product in perfect condition? And is the CO2 life cycle assessment (LCA) really better than plastic?
Ultimately, it’s not about the material plastic, but about how we use plastic and what we use it for. Sustainability 2.0 is all about reuse. These are concentrates, cartridges, return and refill. We need stricter and faster legislation against single-use plastics and make plastic a durable material – not a disposable material.
In principle, the choice of material cannot be made in isolation: the entire journey from packaging – product – consumer – supply chain – recycling – end of life is unique for each individual product and must be considered simultaneously and holistically.