The Morality of Materials: Using Plastic in DesignSustainability
Product design loves plastic––or so it seems after half a century of electing the wondrous material to a ubiquitous presence (and permanence) on Earth.
Why is the use of plastic so prevalent in design? It’s a matter of utility: Cheap, strong, lightweight, and flexible, plastic can be sculpted into fluid shapes and produced in any color known to the human eye. It can be used to create everything from food packaging to furniture, clothing, and computers. Plastic may have been inspired by cellulose, the cell walls of plants, but we engineered it to remain with us forever.
Less than 15% of all the plastic we’ve produced–– 9 billion tons since the 1950s––has been recycled. The rest is likely doomed to haunt our planet forever.
When is using plastic in design a problem? Is it ethical for designers to continue using plastic? Or should we be hurtling towards design futures that are plastic-free?
Reduce, reuse or eliminate?
The design community has a unique opportunity to reduce plastic waste by changing the way they make products. In particular, product design can play a leading role in applying or creating new solutions to the use of plastic.
Of course, it’s not so straightforward to design a new material that rivals the powerful properties of plastic. Often external factors, including legislation, creates hurdles for reducing plastic in design. However, at the very least, considerations such as designing for recycling or resource recovery should be at the heart of every contemporary design.
The Worst Offenders
Plastic bags, bottles, candy bar wrappers, disposable forks: upwards of 40% of all the plastic produced today is used for packaging, most of which is food packaging discarded after a single-use. Lightweight and hygienic, it is the preferred choice for the food industry, but it is often food safety legislation that actually demands its use.
Plastic protects food from contamination and damage, helping preserve it during long-distance journeys to supermarket shelves across the world.
However, plastic is losing its grip on its pervasive application in the food industry: in 2021 France banned the sale of disposable, single-use plastic cups and plates unless they are made of 50% biologically sourced so-called “compostable” materials. Likewise, Canada announced plans for a federal ban on single-use plastic products.
Another Way of Making
Despite our difficulties in managing plastic thus far, the material has endless potential: in the circular economic model, plastic can be used and reused continuously, rather than produced and disposed of within one production cycle. There is potentially enough plastic already in circulation that we could continue to recycle this supply stream for as long as we need.
What we need is a new way of making which already accounts of the likely obsolescence of the form but also imagines the possibility of reinvention. The other alternative is creating objects which can be tossed into the ground.
A new design assignment
While there has been a burgeoning trend for products made from reclaimed plastic, some members of the design community are inclined to disagree with its ethics. They would prefer to see designers stop using all plastic––including recycled–– and instead turn their focus on bioplastics, made from natural materials such as algae. They want no part in perpetuating the use of fossil-based polymers. Consider that recycling, one of the most culturally ingrained sustainability initiatives, is not really a viable solution to the plastic problem, but rather, continues to support the whole plastics industry.
The general consensus regarding the morality of using plastic in design is that the objects created should be at least fully recyclable or better yet, fully compostable.
Furthermore, the use of recycled plastics should only substitute products that would otherwise be made from virgin plastics.
“The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.” Albert Einstein
One reality discrediting the quality of recycled plastic is that once it is broken down and reused, the quality degrades. However, this implies the original purpose of the product remains the same after recycling. Issues of durability may not affect an entirely different product. Plus, the traditional method of recycling by heating and re-molding plastics is not the only way to re-use plastic waste.
There are certain industries, for example, the waterproof membrane industry, where product performance cannot be satisfied by recycled plastics. Food packaging has been slow to convert to recycled plastics due to concerns over it being suitable purity for food-contact applications. Instead, they have turned to the use of bioplastics to replace virgin plastic.
The complete elimination of plastic is unlikely, as it still makes sense for products intended to last for a long time or to fulfill some aspect of their specific function.
From the perspective of Mitte
We spoke with James, our Head of UX & Design at Mitte, to get his designer perspective on the use of plastic in the Mitte Home device:
“Fully removing plastic from a product design is definitely a goal but it currently has a significant negative effect on manufacturing costs, which in turn places the product in a higher price bracket. Overall, this reduces the wider positive impact potential of the product as the market segment is so much smaller. We have to assess the full impact of our product ecosystem.
The simple choice of using the Mitte Home instead of buying bottled water reduces plastic consumption. Coupled with the circularity and recycling of our Cartridges and Cylinders the wider impact is greater.
Where and how the plastic is produced, the quality and recyclability aspects, and where the device is manufactured are all considered variables in creating a better and more sustainable product.
Our design decisions are in a large way planet-led, every element and component of our whole product ecosystem are thoroughly analysed to assess the positive environmental impact.
We have a strong focus on materials research for use in product design. From recycled plastics and bioplastics to other materials like wood and stainless steel, we’re always actively assessing how new modern materials can be incorporated into designs.”
Will the plastic revolution be design-led? At least partially–– but consumers likewise hold the reins on making sustainable choices. Choosing to make plastic-free choices, whenever possible, will allow the continued use of this remarkable material where it is needed, rather than allowing it to proliferate.
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