Plastics are great. Extremely versatile, very strong and incredibly cheap, they are also a vital part of many health delivery programmes, as the pandemic has shown. However, like many other cheap quick fixes, they are also highly addictive, and we have let them get catastrophically out of control.
Plastic products and packaging are literally everywhere, and until recently, we didn’t give a damn. Even when we did, we assumed that recycling was going to solve all the problems and turn our old shampoo bottles and toys into something useful. Now we know that it is all a lot more complicated than that. Aside from the very low recycling rates, and our attempts to dump our rubbish in other countries, there are too many types of plastic that have be dealt with, some of which are hard to identify and uneconomic to reprocess. Far more goes into landfill, incineration sites and the ocean than any of us care to think about, and there are precious few signs of the problem going away.
So, what to do?
Basically, we need to use less of the stuff. Not in ways that damage economies and industry, but we need to wean ourselves off our addiction to plastic. In much the same way as our behaviour has changed towards smoking and carrier bags, our automatic use of plastics for almost everything we make needs to be questioned and modified. Retailers are already starting to do this by reintroducing paper-based packaging and other material substitutes. Product manufacturers can take a similar approach by reviewing their use of materials and looking at using alternatives, like wood, glass and metal. These materials are more sustainable, less polluting and, in the case of metals and glass, far easier and more economic to recycle. For example, almost all the steel from cars and white goods is recycled, and efforts are being made to improve rates for metal food and drink containers.
But hang on a minute, won’t this make everything old fashioned and very expensive? No, not really. Many products, including computers, washing machines, ovens and cars are still primarily made of aluminium and steel and manage to be modern and affordable. Metal forming techniques have improved immeasurably over the last few years and are capable of very complex geometries and high production volumes. A move towards sustainable materials will only increase the rate of innovation in these technologies and generate more opportunities for designers to develop exciting products that are environmentally stable.
Finding creative ways to use less plastic without limiting consumer choice or commercial performance is a massive challenge to designers, and one we should relish. We need to look for innovative solutions in the same way that Lush, the cosmetics manufacturer, makes solid bars of shampoo and sells them in aluminium tins, not plastic bottles. In the consumer products sector, companies like Elephant Box show how even very simple products can be made sustainably and economically.
Our challenge is to find similarly innovative and sustainable ways to replace highly wasteful mass-market disposable products with more sustainable alternatives. Maybe we can start by challenging our clients – and ourselves – to look for non-plastic solutions to product design problems, rather than assuming that almost everything will be injection moulded.