Earth Day 2022

20 April 2022

With Earth Day coming up on April 22, MoDiP has a session today with students from our Creative Writing course in support of Dr Kevan Manwaring’s ‘Writing the Earth’ Programme. 

Many discussions across the world this week will explore the negative impacts that plastics and the products they are made into can have on the environment.  These discussions are extremely valid especially when we see the horrific amounts of detritus that clog our water ways and can be seen in overflowing waste heaps across the globe.  I am certainly not going to counter the opinions that such waste should not be in our seas, streets, or countryside, but I will be exploring with the students some of the interesting ways designers and manufacturers use plastics in a more thoughtful, and sustainable way.  As with much of the activity of the museum I will be acknowledging the negative impact the poor use and disposal of plastics materials has on the environment, and show how valuable plastics, as a materials group, can be when used appropriately.

Plastics are a group of materials that have no inherent shape, colour, or texture.  The amazing thing about them is that they can become anything we want them to be.  They are celebrated for having a long life.  At the same time, they are vilified for having a long life when they are in the wrong place.  Nobody wants to see waste (of any kind) in our seas, on our beaches, in our streets.  Plastics are particularly highlighted as a waste issue because they are so visible.  They are light in weight and often colourful, and so can be easily seen floating in water, blowing in the wind, and caught in trees as litter.

The overuse of plastics has its origins in the early twentieth century, where disposability, and the notion of using something once and then throwing it away grew to become a sign of wealth and cleanliness.  In the West, consumers were encouraged to use disposable products for their efficiency and to avoid contamination.  The ideas of purification and convenience encouraged the development of ethical justifications for the use of disposable items.  It will take time to change human behaviours - whether as designers, manufacturers, or consumers.


Much of the issue with plastics is that they are seen as ‘cheap’ materials that are made into ‘cheap’, throw away products.  This is exacerbated by the use of plastics to create single-use products, particularly packaging, which has little or no perceived value.  This is because it is not our intention to purchase the packaging; only the product inside it.  Consumers do not readily see that investment has been made into the research and development of the packaging, that it has a material cost, and it has value in its function - to contain and / or protect the contents.  If we were more readily able to recognise the value of such products, we would be more inclined to maintain that value within a circular system.

One way of showing value is by creating objects that are well designed and highly desirable.  This is demonstrated in our current exhibition, Why plastics?, in our Affordable case.  The relative cheapness of mass-produced plastics objects means that well-designed and well-made, fashionable or timeless products can be acquired by a wider demographic of consumers. From the 1940s, European companies placed significant investment into the production of quality objects, made of materials that were fit for purpose. The ‘good design’ concept developed by the Council of Industrial Design (CoID) was adopted by the British plastics industry to bring simple but functional products to the British public. During this time some plastics firms set up their own design studios to create objects that were well conceived and used the materials at their disposal to the best of their abilities. Well regarded designers included A.H. ‘Woody’ Woodfull for British Industrial Plastics, David Harman Powell for Ranton & Co, and Martyn Rowlands for IMI Opella. As time went on other companies, such as Habitat and Ikea, have used designers and design studios to bring ‘good design’ in plastics to the masses.

Designs by Woody Woodfull (AIBDC : 008014), David Harman Powell (AIBDC : 007869.2), Martyn Rowlands (AIBDC : 003367.1), and for Habitat (AIBDC : 008800), and Ikea (AIBDC : 006166.1).  Image credit: MoDiP.

With Bournemouth beach being popular with families, we see lots of beach toys being left behind; because they can be purchased so cheaply, they are seen as lacking in value.  A local initiative set up by an AUB MA student enables people to borrow toys rather than buying a cheap bucket and discarding it.

Image Credit MoDiP -

An alternative to borrowing is to ‘buy once and buy well’.  If you acquire objects that you would not want to leave behind, you are more likely to make sure it goes home with you.  And when your children have outgrown the toy, it will still be in good condition and be desirable enough to be handed on to other families.  The Ekobo sand toys are a case in point.  They are beautifully made using recycled sawdust from a chopstick factory in a bio-based resin meaning they are desirable, durable but also biodegradable.

Sand toys by Ekobo (AIBDC : 008195.2, AIBDC : 008195.3, AIBDC : 008195.1, AIBDC : 008196). Image credit: MoDiP.


If the facilities, such as good bin provision, are available and the consumer or manufacturer is willing, all plastics have the capability to be recycled. Some materials are more easily reprocessed than others, and it becomes more complicated when multiple materials are used in combination, either through lamination or separate componentry.

The simplest materials to recycle are the thermoplastics, those which can be shredded, melted, and reprocessed. Other plastics materials, the thermosets, have to be ground or chipped to be reused. The latter is a more laborious process and as such is seldom done.

There are many factors which make it difficult to recycle plastics materials. If a material is dark in colour, the resulting recyclate also has to be dark. To counter this, Coca-Cola changed its iconic green Sprite bottle to clear in 2019, and Dai Nippon Printing use an external, removable film to provide colour to their clear bottles.

Sprite bottles (AIBDC : 008416.1AIBDC : 008416.2), Awanama Sake bottles (AIBDC : 008379.1AIBDC : 008379.2).  Image credit: MoDiP.


Recycling uses energy and other resources, as such the most sustainable way to maintain the most material value in a product is to reuse it.  As mentioned previously plastics materials are durable and this means that they make great products for reuse.  The robustness of some plastics materials makes reusable drinks bottles and lunch boxes safe and reliable and means that we can avoid single-use alternatives.

eau good bottle (AIBDC : 007138), Kokeshi Hanako bento box (AIBDC : 007761), Stackable lunch box (AIBDC : 007763), Gumtech coffee cup (AIBDC : 007951). Image credit: MoDiP.

Alternative feedstocks and materials

Most plastics as we know them are made from fossil-fuels which are finite resources.  Although the production of plastics only uses 4% of the world’s oil production, with the rest being used for energy, transport, and heat, manufacturers have for some time been experimenting with alternative, plant-based, feedstocks. Plant materials including cornstarch, needles from pine trees, algae, and wood are harvestable, with some growing very quickly, therefore they provide a more sustainable raw material with an almost limitless supply.

Innocent bottle (AIBDC : 005703), Kupilka 55 bowl (AIBDC : 007498), Ultra Bloom shoes (AIBDC : 008116), Toy Seaplane (AIBDC : 008176). Image credit: MoDiP.

Plant-based materials, also known as bioplastics, need careful consideration within the wider production context of water, chemical and land use all of which have an environmental impact. The end of their life requires careful consideration too. Products made of bioplastics are not always biodegradable.  If they are compostable, they often need industrial conditions. If they degrade within a recycling system they can undermine and weaken the resulting recyclate, and in landfill they can produce methane, a greenhouse gas, as they breakdown.

Other alternative materials for the creation of new products can come from materials that are already in existence.  The Airpaq bag, for example, makes use of reclaimed materials such as car airbags and seat belts.  The skateboard and rash guard use recycled fishing nets, either before they are discarded into the sea or those that have been reclaimed from the oceans where they are described as ghost nets which continue catching fish and other marine life.  The gumdrop uses recycled chewing gum and attempts to prevent a source of waste from looking unsightly on our streets.

Airpaq bag (AIBDC : 008171), Minnow skateboard (AIBDC : 007963), Solange rash guard (AIBDC : 008185), Gumdrop bin (AIBDC : 007949). Image credit: MoDiP.

Waste reduction

Many of the sustainable aspects of plastics products are derived from their durability and recyclability. However, one property that enables them to have a positive environmental impact, but one that is often overlooked, is that they are lightweight. In terms of packaging, by being light in weight, plastics products take up less space and require less fuel than heavier materials like glass, for example, in transportation. Plastics packaging also helps to reduce losses and damaged contents, therefore preventing food waste. The relative lightness in weight, when used in car parts, saves on average over the lifetime of the standard car, 3000 litres of fuel.   

Celebrations tub (AIBDC : 005907), Original Source pouch (AIBDC : 005924), Smart car wheel arch (AIBDC : 006115).  Image credit: MoDiP.

The Bodyflik is a squeegee which scrapes off excess water from your body after washing.  It was designed to reduce the amount of water absorbed by a bath towel meaning the towel would dry more quickly and need changing less often.  This helps to reduce household gas and electricity bills.  The Jar Tops divert glass jars from landfill or the recycling process by giving them a second life.

Bodyflik (AIBDC : 005910), Jar Tops (AIBDC : 005916).  Image credit: MoDiP.

Doing good

Plastics can be used to play important environmentally supportive roles.  Fence booms are used as an emergency response, or for long term deployment, to contain oil spills or debris, in calm or sheltered waters such as harbours, rivers and ponds.  By containing a spill, the boom prevents more of the environment from being affected by the contaminant.

The sustainability of the modern commercial fishing industry is affected by the discarding of excess catch due to fishing quotas and bycatch. The Pisces and the ProGlow use LED light to influence fish behaviour.  Both examples are housed within a robust polycarbonate case that can withstand the pressures of deep water. Pisces illuminates the fishing net and emits six different colours to either attract or repel specific species. The ProGlow is a cheap and reusable alternative to single-use glow sticks that are environmentally damaging when thrown overboard at end-of-life; it is estimated that 700 million end up in the oceans every year.

One day in 2020 saw 22 tonnes of rubbish removed, by the council, from Bournemouth and Poole beaches after half a million people visited the area. Beach goers left behind food packaging, disposable barbeques, buckets, spades, toys, clothing, beach shelters, and other equipment. Ideally all visitors to the seaside would take responsibility for the rubbish they generate. Alternatively, to stop this litter getting into the environment, many charities and groups, including the 2 Minute Beach Clean, Keep Britain Tidy, Surfers Against Sewage, Dorset Devils, and many more, organise beach cleans, where individuals are encouraged to come together and remove the debris.  Many plastics products are used to gather and take away the rubbish including refuse bags.  A reusable alternative is the 4Ocean Beach Bag and Cleanup Tote with its mesh material which allows sand and water to drain out keeping it lightweight and easy to carry.

Fence boom section (AIBDC : 008199), Pisces light (AIBDC : 008603), ProGlow (AIBDC : 008601), 4Ocean Beach bag and cleanup tote (AIBDC : 008678). Image credit: MoDiP.

Louise Dennis

Curator of MoDiP