Requiem for a Plastic Bottle

by Giada Giachino

Material tests

Material tests

According to Plastic Pollution, for more than 50 years, global production and consumption of plastics have continued to rise. An estimated 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 4 percent increase over 2012, and confirming and upward trend over the past years. In 2008, our global plastic consumption worldwide has been estimated at 260 million tons.

As Wendy Lipscomb says:

Plastics ushered in an era of incredible convenience and are largely responsible for our modern era of mass consumerism.

It is now believed that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that mass, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometre litter the deep sea. 

As Margareth Atwood states:

What should be done? First, organic and biodegradable substitutes must be found to perform the chores now done by plastics. Moulded and baked fungus, textiles made of milkweed, silicone food storage bags? All exist. Second, we need to invent methods to filter plastics out of seawater, collect them before they ever hit the ocean. Third, we then need to break them down into their component parts, rendering them harmless.

I would add, plastic hasn't been connoted with emotional features: leather, wood, ceramics, and metal (precious and not) are supposed to age, change in colour and texture, and their value grows with time and usage. Is this probably one of the weakest links and the reason why we cannot really cope with the exploitation of plastic and its impact on the environment? I think this is the great breakthrough that design has to work on in order to make plastic more sustainable.

How does the design world (the main user of plastic, by the way) inspire and rise awareness at the moment?

I have met creative duo Bob and Jordan Watson from Happenstance Workshop during Clerkenwell Design Week 2017 and Hannah Scott during the MA Art and Science Degree Show at Central Saint Martins. With two different approaches, both designer understood that recycling is not enough, that we need a story behind the shiny (but not so shiny) surface or our disposable forks.

Hannah has developed this conversation within the art context, rising awareness on the impact plastic pollution has on the marine life. She works with high and low density polymers, creating patterns and installation that talk about micro-plastics found in sediments, in the water and in the atmosphere.

Happenstance Workshop are working in a more practical way: I noticed their colourful bowls during CDW and I wanted to know a little bit more about their process. Their last collection is called STEW, a range of products made with recycled plastic.

Our STEW items are designed to build a relationship with a customer over time. This kind of closed loop system is being taken on by more and more companies, which is great, on our scale its a bit easier and our products are relatively simple (they aren't a TV or phone) but I think STEW shows a good example of how this can properly work. After all the waffle and the chat STEW products are colourful well made things, and that's a very important aspect.
Shredding phase of a milk bottle

Shredding phase of a milk bottle

Moulding phase

Moulding phase

Here what they told me about them:

Where did you start? Have you a background in art or design?

We are a 3 person Team, each of us have studied in art schools across London. Between us we have a lot of experience in making and come from that kind of experimental design back ground as well as furniture making. But in terms of STEW we have learnt most of what we know from online & book research, Youtube, Dave Hakkens, Instructables and Cradle-to-Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough are the main ones.

Where and how you supply the raw material?
We start with milk bottles made from HDPE, we started sourcing them from our own consumption then moved to our friends and eventually with demand began a relationship with a Café at a local theatre which now provides us with ample plastic. We also re-grind our own reject products, offcuts and breakages.

During the last CDW, I had the feeling that independent makers use sustainability as a design tool. Do you think this is a trend in the cluster of emerging designers? Is it related to the fact that most of them (or us) are Millennials? And how you market this feature?

You have probably hit the nail on the head there, it is inevitably used as a marketing tool because it is so emotional and yes I do believe certain people are more akin to that emotional response. Whether its specific to millennials or not I don't know. We try not to talk about sustainability specifically as a word or even eco (however it is unavoidable some times) we try to focus on the idea of the closed loop cycle. Starting with recycled material doesn't always matter as after one or two cycles it ends up in landfill anyway, thus becoming futile as a system. Our products can always come back to us direct, constantly circulating. Thats the thing that makes the difference and we think it should become a standard across design & manufacture.

Where do you see your practice n 5 years? 
We would love to have a proper physical shop which can act as a base for showing, selling and reclaiming our products. We love the idea of selling direct and that our customers can always come back to us directly to talk to us about there products.

What I really like about Happenstance Workshop is the conscious thinking of the whole life span of sustainable production:

We are all told constantly that we should be responsible in buying things whether that be food or a new TV. As designers and makers of products we think that there should be a lot of ownership on the company as well the consumer. Often we consume products and don't know what really goes on behind closed doors. I've bought items, from what I thought to be a good company, only to find out something horrible about them a year later and regret my purchase. When we set about designing STEW we designed a whole system of production (with the help of a great online community), changing our whole workshop and studio around to meet this system, and its a pretty simple one really.
We follow a cradle-to-cradle cycle, I sell you a thing, you use it, it inevitably wears with time or perhaps doesn't fit your changes in life, you bring it back directly to us, we make it into a another thing again aiming for 100% re-use, you get a discount on a new thing if you would like to buy again. 

I think the Happenstance Workshop has started understanding that the up-cycling process is not enough anymore, and we need, as designers to set up strategies for working in more conscious way.

STEW bowl (Tom Holloway & Sophie Hardcastle, 2017)  

STEW bowl (Tom Holloway & Sophie Hardcastle, 2017)

STEW pegs (Tom Holloway & Sophie Hardcastle, 2017)

STEW pegs (Tom Holloway & Sophie Hardcastle, 2017)