Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

We talk to designer Sophie Thomas about her visit to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a mass of unbiodgradable rubbish – and look at what designers can do to help prevent waste.

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Print by Sophie Thomas

The short lifespan of many disposable plastic products like toothbrushes and their composite material structure means that they are freely discarded, cannot be recycled and easily end up in landfill, or in some cases contribute to gigantic plastic islands in the Pacific.

For Sophie Thomas, founder of Thomas.Matthews and director of Circular Economy at the RSA, this presents a unique opportunity for designers to work with companies which produce plastic products. She believes there is potential to change both the systems which control the life-cycle of products and the design of the products themselves.

Thomas is preparing for a new exhibition and talk Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean, which she will present at Pentagram’s London studio on 18 November.

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Print by Sophie Thomas

A circular economy is one in which resources are used for as long as possible and is a founding principal of the RSA’s Great Recovery Project, which has set itself the task of “redesigning the future” and “turning waste into value”.

Thomas’ work with the RCA led her to visit Kamilo Point, or “Plastic Beach” in Hawaii, the nearest land mass to the notorious floating Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which amasses in the Subtropical Gyre – a spiral of currents created from a high pressure system of air currents.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be between 700,000km2 and 15 million km2 and contains a huge mass of unbiodegradable rubbish.

On her arrival, she found herself wading through foot deep piles of sea junk, much of it plastic.

Through Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean Thomas wants designers to think about the systemic design, production and life-cycle problems which lead to phenomena like Plastic Beach, but she is also recognising an ulterior beauty in plastic – “We shouldn’t always be so hard on it. We need to understand its properties and value,” she says.

We asked Thomas to tell us what some of the most pertinent problems are in plastics and how they might be addressed.

Toothbrushes

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Toothbrushes gathered by Thomas from Plastic Beach

“They have such a short life. Dentists tell us to change them every three or four months and they’re designed with multiple plastic layers heat moulded together. You can’t take them apart.

“You could use wood, bamboo maybe for the handles, but there are still nylon bristles and in the heads metal pins holding it all together. Then there are the rubber pads on the handle of some which are incredibly resistant.

“I worked out that if an individual got a new one every four months they would use 350 over a lifetime.

“If having a toothbrush was more of a service you could send your old one away every four months, the producer could recover materials, save money on landfill tax and if they were made with less materials there wouldn’t be such a big spend on virgin plastic.

“It’s not just an environmental argument. Even though there would be an up front cost for design and tooling there is a business case for producers.”

Razors

Razors gathered from Plastic Beach
A razor among other plastic gathered from Plastic Beach

“We took a razor apart for The Great Recovery. It’s a similar problem to the toothbrush – it’s the same model.

“Razors can be disposable and electronic. On some when the battery has run flat the product has exceeded its lifespan and again they’re made from lots of different components.

“There’s an awful lot of R&D put into razors but what the sector really needs is some kind of leasing or service model, a way to ensure longevity.”

Plastic that can be recycled

Debris on Plastic Beach
Debris on Plastic Beach

“When I was in Hawaii I saw tonnes of plastic waste that could have been recycled but hadn’t been.

“We have the capacity to recycle so much but we don’t really know which plastics can be recycled in the home. We haven’t cracked it.

“Every single piece of plastic ever made is still in the environment. There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans and many of them are 0.5mm and below, which means they get into the food chain more easily. It’s starting to move up the food chain more and we don’t really know the impact of this yet.”

Thomas, who says she has already opened a dialogue with companies about the inherently short life-span of their products, wants designers and clients to take on the challenges posed by plastics and create new products and systems that can increase lifespan, reduce waste and change customer behaviour.

Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean talk and exhibition 6-9pm, Wednesday 18 November, Pentagram, 11 Needham Road, London W11 2RP

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