Sea change: how can museums turn the tide on ocean plastics?

30 October 2019
I was pleased to be invited by Dr Rupert Cole from the Science Museum, London, to take part in his panel session at the Museums Association’s conference. Inspired by the conference location on Brighton’s sea front, the session explored the issue of plastics, sustainability and the environment from the perspective of seaside heritage, asking what can museums do to engage with this global problem. 

Dr Kathryn Ferry, author of forthcoming books on the history of the seaside in 100 objects and a social history of plastics, placed current beach pollution in historical context. Her engaging talk identified three sources of pollution: the working coast for example fishing nets; plastics that belong to the seaside like buckets and beach balls; and plastics that get washed up carried from all over the world. She outlined a long history of pollution, citing sewage disposal directly into the sea in the early 19th century and trains carrying people to the coast in their thousands, day trippers as well as holiday makers.
Collection: Dr Kathryn Ferry
I found this poster especially piquant because there was a display at the conference in which someone said they had gone searching for what they called glass pebbles, which by now this broken glass will have become. Disappointed, they found only plastics detritus. Could there come a time when, likewise plastics waste could be treasured? My own contribution looked rather literally at three ways in which museums might address the question posed in the title. This is a précis of my main points.
Karl-H. Foerster, formerly executive director of PlasticsEurope, has stated that: ‘To protect our environment effectively, we need to educate citizens so they understand that plastics are too valuable to be thrown away.’ Thus, firstly, museums can help to engender respect for plastics so we no longer want to dispose of them carelessly. Ways of doing this could include telling people about their hugely democratising influence; how they can be used instead of animal products; how they prevent food waste; and how they have transformed world health.
43754b65-7896-400d-8925-6a4ac3ae7fef.jpg Oxfam’s simple plastic bucket, has dramatically improved the life expectancy of the 46% of the world’s population who still don’t have piped water at home.
Secondly we can show how appropriate design, consumption and disposal of plastics products can enable realisation of their value at every stage of their lives. The problem with plastics is not so much the material but rather human behaviour. Plastics mainly end up in the oceans because of the absence of effective end-of-life-procedures. Thus we can demonstrate the importance of designing so that different plastics can be identified and disassembled from a product at the end of its useful life to ensure that the various plastics enter the correct recycling stream. We as consumers also have responsibilities. If we continue to buy plastics products made without consideration of their disposal, they will continue to be made. Thus opting for headphones like these is responsible consumption.

https://gerrard This modular design for headphones by Domus Galama and Tom Leenders, 2018, provides an example of responsible design and an opportunity for responsible consumption. We can also champion the use in manufacture and consumption of recycled plastics.
Minnowskateboard, Bureo, 2017 This product is made from 30 feet of discarded fishing net which would otherwise have ended up polluting the oceans.
Thirdly, museums can act as platforms to promote and increase understanding of the ongoing research into environmentally friendly plastics, for example the different pros and cons of biodegradable fossil fuel plastics and plastics made from crops. We can also, in tune with Dr Errol Francis’s contribution to the plenary session ‘What is a museum?’ referred to in one of our recent posts, act as venues for debate.  The meaning of individual, collective, industrial and global responsibility for consumption and disposal of plastics is high on my agenda for any such discussion.
These are just a few ideas. I am sure there is much more we could and should be doing. Do please let us know your thoughts.
Susan Lambert, Chief Curator