How can designers be less reliant on plastic in their practice?

Following the launch of PlasticFree – a directory for plastic-free materials and system solutions – designers advise on how the industry can change its relationship with plastic.

Morrama founder and creative director Jo Barnard

We should always be thinking ‘what are the alternatives?’. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when designing, doing something the way it has always been or because it’s the simplest solution. This is inevitably why we fall back on using plastic; it’s such an incredibly versatile material and it’s not always clear what other options there are. That’s where PlasticFree comes in.

Typically, you won’t find a straight swap and it’s likely that cost, material properties or manufacturing limitations will feel like insurmountable barriers. So, think about how you can switch up the brief. What if you didn’t need a moisture resistant material? What if it didn’t need to be transparent? What if we designed for degradation rather than assume everything will last for years?

Remember that this change isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s likely that for some projects there won’t be a plastic free answer right now. But we should never stop challenging ourselves to find one.

Nissen Richards director Pippa Nissen

In exhibition design, becoming free from plastic is about a change in mindset about the use of materials. For example, where we once used plastic as a robust, easy-clean, sealed-surface and totally indelible material, we now need to turn this on its head. Plastic has a predictable, institutional feel. We need to celebrate craft, personality and imperfection more and the lifestyle of natural materials, which age, weather and respond to their environment.

In our studio we often think about layers of materials, starting with robust and solid bases made of sustainable materials, with other layers of materials on top that have quicker lifespans that are more easily – and less expensively – replaced. For example, a patinated metal holder that holds printed cards for interpretation, or etched stone with a replaceable natural filler. It can’t just be about replacing plastic like for like. We have to think in new and different, creative ways.

Mather & Co design director Paul Lee

We should look at how we can improve on simply selecting better sourced materials. Considering this as a circular design process there should be a greater focus with the designer on how the materials used in packing and shipping can be used again elsewhere or reassembled even to become part of the final product. The technical detailing should try and look at how what we design, and produce can be brought and delivered to site in more sustainable boxes, cartons and crates, removing the need for bubble wrap, packing tape and single use protective foams.

There should also be a greater emphasis in seeking ways in which we can procure contractors who share the same values through more qualitative evaluations than just cost, valuing those who replace heavier plastic use with natural textiles, recycled protective sheets and reusable strapping for example.


Blond founder and creative director James Melia

Initiatives like PlasticFree are fantastic. However, I can’t help wondering if the drive for plastic-free products is really the best framing of the issue. Increasing green awareness and the shift in policymakers’ priorities are bringing positive steps forward. Still, in the race to be ‘greener’, I fear that plastic being labelled as sustainability’s No.1 villain could actually have adverse consequences.

Today, brands support green strategies by being “plastic-free” and using natural materials in their products for an eco-conscious appeal. However, hidden non-recyclable parts, poor construction techniques and poor material choices are, in many instances, making products inferior and less sustainable than their plastic counterparts; which can (if selected correctly) be reused and recycled many times over. If a product has been made from more than one material glued together, it can be harder (or impossible) to recycle than something created from a single material, for example; a recycled mono-plastic.

While material libraries like PlasticFree are useful, ultimately, unless designers are well educated on manufacturing processes – how to use new materials scalably and accessibly for the mass market – and can consider full product lifecycles, the shift to sustainable products will be slower than is desired and needed. My advice to designers is to strategically consider the business as a whole and take time to understand the full product development process by engaging with stakeholders and through interdisciplinary collaboration across the supply chain.

Pearlfisher London sustainability and materials lead Suzy Shelley

To be less reliant on plastic, the best steps designers can take are to think about materials as early as possible in the design process, work collaboratively with brands and suppliers, and to rethink the product and the packaging together.

Material libraries are a great resource for inspiration and discovering exciting alternatives to plastic, but going plastic-free is easier for some products than others, and removing plastic isn’t always as simple as a change in material. This is especially true for products that need a high barrier, and testing of new plastic-free materials or even changes to product formula will be needed to maintain protection and quality.

Rethinking product format, formula, materials and packaging in parallel, and considering the entire product lifecycle can lead to revolutionary design that not only eliminates plastic, but also gives a better consumer experience.

Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design director Rama Gheerawo

Designers need to embrace more diverse and natural materials as a baseline palette for our creations. Collaborations with material science and technologists are important in developing new composite technologies, but we also need to search human history to seek natural and renewable products that draw on the intelligence of our ancestors and bring the future into greater balance. Design also has the ability to persuade, so we should look at how to change perspectives at a global and individual scale through better communication. Design can help change our reliance on plastic convenience into a vision (and reality) of shared longevity for all life on this planet of ours.

SmilePlastics co-founder Rosalie McMillan

If I may bend the question somewhat, I think the broader question is how can designers focus on more sustainable material choices for their products. There are many approaches to achieving sustainable choices but at Smile Plastics we focus on celebrating plastics in a closed-loop system. Billions of tonnes of plastics have been accumulating on this planet over the last few decades, and plastics are hugely valuable resource with some amazing material properties. Some questions to ask yourself could be:

•Can I select materials that are 100% recycled and 100% recyclable? At Smile for example we only make materials that fulfil this criteria
•How can I eliminate waste in the production of my product? Can offcuts be collected and recycled?
•How can I design products to allow them to be repaired, repurposed, and disassembled at the end of their life to facilitate a circular zero waste system?

Echo co-founder and creative director Andrew Capper

Designers are not reliant on plastic – consumers, retailers, brands, supply chains, and manufacturers are. The whole commercial infrastructure of consuming stuff is reliant on plastic. As designers, we could craft every structural pack ever made to be made plastic free. But does the brand have to charge more for the alternative? Will consumers pay it? Will it arrive with the product in perfect condition? And is the CO2 life cycle assesment (LCA) really better than plastic?

Ultimately, plastic as a material is not the issue – it’s how we use plastic and what we use it for. Sustainability 2.0 is all about reuse. It is concentrates, cartridges, returning and refilling. We need to legislate harder and faster against single-use plastic and make plastic a durable material – not a disposable one.

Fundamentally, material choice cannot be made in isolation: the entire pack-product-consumer-supply chain-recovery-end-of-life journey is unique to every single product and needs to be considered simultaneously and holistically.


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