Design is the solution to the plastic problem, says Kara Melchers

21 February 2018
Reading Time
4 minute read

After David Attenborough drew much-needed attention to the global crisis in oceanic plastic pollution in Blue Planet II, the government and the Church of England used the discussion’s momentum to make strides in environmental awareness. Then, the BBC announced it would be working towards banning single-use plastics across the corporation by 2020. Here, Creativebrief’s Bite editor Kara Melchers spells out why she thinks plastic isn’t a consumer problem, it’s a design problem with attainable solutions.

In the lead up to Easter you may have given up chocolate, or alcohol, but did you ever think about abstaining from single use plastics? Lent may not be the route to purification and enlightenment it once was, but if you’re a member of the Church of England, or the Conservative Party, it was high on the agenda this year.

Blue Planet II opened our eyes to the devastating effects our plastic consumption is having on the oceans. But is giving up plastic cups and hotel toiletries for 40 days really enough? The Conservatives believe behaviour change needs to be driven by the consumer. I’m not so sure. I think we should start by questioning, how did we get to a place where plastic is considered a ‘bad habit’?

“I want to be plastic!” exclaimed Andy Warhol. By the early 1960s a new generation of designers were rejecting the solid values of 1950s organic modernism by experimenting with exciting new materials, particularly plastics, to create shiny new objects in vivid colours and fluid shapes. The sensuous curves of the Panton Chair (made famous for its appearance in a shoot for the British fashion magazine Nova, (titled “How to undress in front of your husband”) echoed the uninhibited sexuality and optimism of an era. Oh how times have changed.

The reality is, as far as the environment is concerned, plastic is a design failure. The material that offered up so many possibilities is now suffocating the planet as we struggle to cope with all the waste from a disposable culture. Until companies change the way they design products it’s an impossible challenge to encourage the world to change its buying habits.

We are making small changes. In the 60s and 70s plastic was the height of fashion, now it’s fashionable for designers to reuse recycled materials in their designs. adidas, Stella McCartney, Pharrell Williams for G-Star RAW, Patagonia, have all incorporated innovative fabrics into recent items.

Imagine a world where all companies had to adhere to an environmental code. A recent visit to an island in northern Indonesia showed me what that world might look like.

Misool is a 300,000 acre reserve that is part of the Raja Ampat islands. The resort is the vision of Andrew and Merit Miners, two passionate divers who, with no experience and very little money, have created a foundation that helps to protect one of the most pristine reef systems left on earth.

Here the sustainable option is the only option. If you’re the CEO of a company it should be mandatory to visit a place like this. I defy you not to rethink your impact on the planet.

It’s fashionable to show you’re being ethical but thinking sustainably has to be more than just a fad. 32% of Fortune 100’s CEOs previously held the role of CFO, so proving that it’s possible to be purposeful and profitable is a must.

By replacing two layer plastic trays with a single layer Tesco has helped remove 92 tonnes of plastic from their waste. By redesigning its two-pint milk bottles, Sainsbury’s is saving 580 tonnes of plastic a year. This proves the solution is a design one. And creates a huge opportunity for new brands entering markets.

Start-ups such as Everlane and Reformation, transparent fashion brands that provide information on the materials and production of all their products, have rapidly grown into multi-million dollar business. Their designs are ethical and affordable.

Not everyone can live on the Raja Ampat islands, thank goodness, but we can make better choices. While I think it’s great that 41 Conservative MPs are giving up plastic for lent, if this cause is genuinely important to the party I would implore them to force companies as well as individuals to question their environmental impact.

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