Design response to the plastic crisis

Guilt is a powerful emotion. Until we watched Blue Planet in horror we would happily sip cocktails through a plastic straw, buy coffee in disposable cups – and wrap our babies’ bottoms in disposable nappies.*

Now the guilt factor has kicked in – and the design response has been impressive. It’s not just guilt-free functionality that draws us to products that won’t damage the planet, but their style and good looks too.


The new style reusable nappies..a design world away from terry towels

And we’re getting militant. When I buy a baked potato from a takeaway, why do they present me with a plastic fork when eco forks in bamboo or wood are readily available? A few months ago, would I have even noticed?

So let’s first hail the heroes. Our local chain of deli supermarkets, Booths, have stopped giving away their ‘loyalty perk’ coffee in take-away cups. Now you need to take your own re-usable travel mug or you can buy an ‘eco-mug’ and fill it up.


On a bigger scale, Dave Hacking from Precious Plastics  is renowned for his DIY inspiration and creation of New Marble Plastic which can be cut and milled just like wood. The groundbreaking Better Future Factory,  a group of dynamic imaginative engineers, known as ‘imagineers’, have helped many start-ups to create products like the fully recycled plastic 3D printing filament.

Interface, the world’s largest commercial carpet tile manufacturer, have a ‘climate take back’ scheme where as part of their ‘full cycle’ ordering process they will collect your old office carpets and take it away for recycling into new carpets.

And Genomatica, a leader in bioengineering, have upscaled their mass production of biodegradable takeaway containers and packaging which are made using a natural chemical process which can be composted with the food waste, so time and money is saved by less sorting.

But what can we do ourselves to help save our blue planet? I’ve tried my best to reduce, reuse and recycle, but then we learn that our recycling attempts are passed over to China in huge shipments for them to ‘sort out’.

Following my recent trip to Clerkenwell Design Week I went to a lecture given by five of the top UK movers and shakers dealing with environmental issues and hosted by TV presenter Paul Rose. Among them were a couple of people I made a beeline for, a lecturer from Brighton University (my old stomping ground) on environmental product design and a VERY brave packaging director for Tesco, who looked understandably uncomfortable during question time. I believe it is not the consumers’ responsibility to change our habits but the responsibility of the supermarkets to change their offering. The buck surely stops with them?

He did concur and fully understood where I was coming from. I was delighted to hear that they are looking at ways of using alternative ‘eco packaging’, but what I hadn’t appreciated was the care for livelihoods at the heart of their decision making, as the strength of their buying power could seriously affect whole communities. Responsibly supporting sustainability for long term job creation and ‘re-training’ the plastic manufacturers into new ‘eco’ methods and packaging products, is top of their priorities.

Bamboo straws

Bamboo straws

The irony of it is that everything on this planet is derived from this planet. Plastics are made from oil, a natural fossil fuel which is running out, but “intelligent” humans changed its molecular structure so it can’t return back to its natural form. And for all our efforts less than 10% of plastic in the world is actually recycled.

My daughter came home from a school lesson insisting we need to use a local milkman and stop buying plastic bottles.  That’s a no-brainer, though a subsequent home-experiment to go one step further and try recycling by melting some old plastic milk bottles in the oven was an unmitigated disaster.

But we must move away from the old linear way of doing business to a ‘circular economy’ which requires courage and a new way of thinking, where waste becomes a resource.

We need to use our local butchers and fruit and veg markets. This presents another dilemma. There’s no market in Windermere so should I make a 20 mile fuel-burning round trip to Kendal instead. I tried the HelloFresh home delivery food box, which is British-sourced and delivered in eco packaging, but I’d rather support my local growers and suppliers.

We should be growing our own, or joining a community fruit and veg growing scheme, but that takes time, which we don’t have (too busy earning money, to pay for the food….)

And what are we prepared to sacrifice?  Synthetic fabrics like fleece release microfibres into the water when washed, which then transit into the rivers and lakes, are eaten by fish and go into our food chain, so now we’re eating plastic.

But come the winter, will we sacrifice fleece jackets and blankets for hemp, cotton and sacking? Come on designers, help us out with this one.


*Disposable nappies are 25% plastic. Three billion a year end up in landfill.


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