Don’t blame plastic, it didn’t want to be rubbish

26 November 2018

Following on from my last post about the word ‘single-use’ becoming the word of the year, and the connotations that single-use plastics are bad plastics I wanted to explore the relationship people have with the material.[1]  A lot of people associate plastics with waste, pollution, and litter.  We see the material and we name it as the bad guy.  However, to take the personification of the material a step further, when it was born it didn’t see its future as floating in the seas for evermore or clogging up the drains. It wanted to be something useful, something that would last; it wanted to do something good and more often than not, it does do good – we just don’t notice it when it is doing its job well (Meikle, 1997, p. xiii).  When the material is being put to a job incorrectly or it is in the wrong place, it is us, human beings, who must take responsibility not the material.
US Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, [accessed 20 February 2018].
We all need to take responsibility for the products that we design, make, and use, as well as the way we dispose of them.  As designers and makers we need to think carefully about the materials we select.  What do we want them to do, and how long do we need the product to last. What can be done with the product when it comes to the end of its useful life? 

We need companies and governments to take more responsibility for the waste that is generated.  For example: Pret a Manger in Brighton have started to trial a scheme offering cash-back for the return of plastic bottles (BBC News, 2018), the supermarket Tesco are trialling a similar scheme (Tesco PLC, 2018).

We need designers and manufacturers to see the value of the materials they use and to make appropriate use of such valuable resources.

As consumers, we need to make informed choices about what we buy.  We assume that natural materials are the best choice environmentally but that is not necessarily the case.  Unbleached, undyed cotton uses large quantities of hazardous chemicals and high levels of water during its production (Burall, 1991, p. 39).  

We need to understand that biodegradable products aren’t always the best option either and can encourage littering.  These materials need special environmental conditions to break down; biodegradable doesn’t mean we are free to dump it in the street.

We need to change people’s behaviour when it comes to waste – too many people are littering and have the attitude that rubbish is ‘not my problem’, ‘someone else will clean it up’.
The UK government needs to take responsibility for the country’s recycling. Up until recently much of the UK’s recycling was sent to China.  Since 2012, the UK has exported 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong, which is two-thirds of the UK’s plastic waste exports.  But as of January this 2018, China has put a ban on plastics imports (Laville, 2017). The UK needs recycling plants in this country and we need the government to see the value of the material they have been sending out to China – we should keep that economic value in this country.

We cannot go on blaming the material, other people, other organisations for the environmental situation in which we find ourselves.  We need to think about why we use the materials and products that we do, as well as those that we choose to avoid asking ourselves if we are seeing the bigger picture.  We also need to take home our rubbish when we are out and about, recycle what we can, contact local and national authorities to demand improvements to recycling schemes, pick up the litter that we see, and take responsibility.
Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator) 

BBC News, 2018. Pret A Manger to trial plastic bottle cash-back scheme in Brighton [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 3.5.18).

Burall, P., 1991. Green Design. The Design Council, London.

Laville, S., 2017. Chinese ban on plastic waste imports could see UK pollution rise | Environment | The Guardian [WWW Document]. Guard. Online. URL… (accessed 2.20.18).

Meikle, J.L., 1997. American Plastic: A Cultural History. Rutger University Press, New Brunswick & London.

Tesco PLC, 2018. Tesco trials money back on returned plastic bottles, and calls for a national approach to recycling [WWW Document]. URL…

[1] For the purpose of this post I am using the singular form of plastics ‘plastic’.  However, it must be acknowledged that plastics are a group of many and varied materials.