Why plastic is a design failure – and the designers innovating to fix it

As a material for use in design, plastic only became readily available and widely used in the 1950s. Since then, we’ve used over 8 billion tons of plastic. Every single bit of this 8 billion tons of plastic is still sitting on our planet somewhere. Much of it is within our water system, where it’s becoming issue for our health as microplastics, and causing havoc for marine life in our oceans.

Plastic is a design failure. It was created as a useful material, but without the thought into where it would end up and how it could be sustainable as a material.

Why was plastic invented in the first place?

Plastics are a category of materials otherwise known as ‘polymers’, which are made of long chains of molecules, meaning that they’re pliable and easily shaped. These polymers exist in nature – for instance, cellulose, the material which makes up the cell walls of plants, is a common polymer. It’s only over the last 200 years that we’ve learnt how to make polymers synthetically to produce a cheap, strong, lightweight, and flexible material: plastic.

The very first ‘plastic’ was invented in 1856 by Alexander Parkes, and was known as Parkesine. It was made using the cellulose polymer found in the cell walls of plants. It was widely used as a synthetic version of tortoise-shell, which was traditionally made from the shell of the Hawksbill tortoise.

It wasn’t until 100 years later, in the 1950s and 1960s, that plastic became widely used in design. Designers in the 1960s were experimenting with new materials to create shiny objects in vivid colours and fluid shapes. Plastic was the perfect material for this experimentation. One famous example from this era of design is the Panton Chair.

Panton chair

Why is plastic a design failure?

“Plastic is a design issue. We designed our way into it and we have to design our way out of it.”

– Caroline Till, co-founder of research agency Franklin Till

Once you produce plastic, it’s here on our planet to stay. That’s why plastic is a design failure. It was created as a useful material with desirable properties: it’s light, cheap, and flexible. But, we didn’t think about the end of the process, and where the plastic would end up. You simply can’t just ‘throw’ plastic away. Instead it will end up in landfill where it will stay for up to 1000 years, unable to break down. Otherwise, it will end up floating in our oceans and getting tangled around tortoises or eaten by fish.

40% of the plastic produced today is used in packaging, and most of that is food packaging. Plastic was seen as something that could prevent food waste and keep food hygienic in transport. So, we ended up with thin plastic wrapping over all of our fruits and vegetables. This packaging, though, is single-use and so is disposed of as soon as the food is eaten, without being reused. Therefore, it’s an incredibly wasteful form of packaging design.

Supermarket shelves showing plastic packaging

How are brands and designers innovating to find solutions to the plastic problem?

The good news is that brands and designers are starting to innovate to find solutions to our plastic problem. The 2018 London Design Festival was even devoted entirely to plastic, and specifically the relationship between plastic and design. The festival explored how plastic could be used and reused continuously, in a circular economy model, rather than plastic just being endlessly produced and disposed of. Often, this involves using recycled plastics and reclaimed plastics as a material to create new products or packaging with.

Adidas x Parley sportswear

Adidas x Parley Sportswear

“Our strategy to end plastic pollution is to recognise the problem and really accept that plastic is a design failure.”

– Cyrill Gutsch, designer and founder of Parley

Parley is an organisation bringing together creators, thinkers, and leaders to solve our ocean plastic crisis by collaborating on projects. They see the solution as with consumers: we all have a choice of which products we choose to invest our money in, and if they can create alternative products then they have a chance of changing the situation.

Parley have worked with a few brands, but their highest profile partner so far is Adidas. Parley and Adidas worked together to create a range of sportswear made from plastic waste found in our oceans – the Adidas x Parley collection. They’re specifically focused on coastal communities and island states which are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and which are currently plighted by plastic waste covering their beautiful beaches.

Gomi portable speakers made with flexible plastics

“Flexible plastics are non-recyclable by UK councils, and so we thought this would be the perfect material to show that through innovative design this can be valuable, and does not have to end up as waste polluting our environment. Instead, we can craft this material into desirable objects.”

Tom Meades, designer and co-founder of Gomi.

Gomi is a design studio based in Brighton, UK. They decided to do something to try and tackle the plastic problem, and particularly wanted to focus on flexible plastics, which are non-recyclable in the UK. This includes items like plastic bags and bubble wrap.

Their speakers are made entirely from plastic waste, with the equivalent of 100 plastic bags in the body of each speaker. Because they’re made from plastic waste, each speaker is coloured differently and this creates a marble effect in the design.

The speaker consists of three components that can be easily separated and melted down into new parts for future products, meaning it doesn’t need to be thrown away and can be returned to Gomi for reuse. They’re also offering free repairs for the speakers, to keep the products in use for longer.

Gomi speaker made from flexible plastics
London Marathon seaweed pouches

Seaweed water pouches at the London Marathon

In 2018 40,000 runners at the London Marathon left behind 919,000 used water bottles or sports drink bottles. That’s an astounding number, and all of these used bottles were single use and so thrown away afterwards.

So, in 2019 the London Marathon worked with a company called Notpla who have developed a material made from plants and seaweed. The material can be consumed in its entirety, or the pod will break down and biodegrade very quickly if discarded – unlike plastic bottles.

The London Marathon purchased 200,000 seaweed pouches for the 2019 Marathon. That isn’t enough to eliminate the need for plastic bottles during the race, but it is a good star