Redefining Plastics: Unprecedented Possibilities

In a world where a million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, with many  ending up in landfill or the oceans, it is only logical that the name of the recently proposed geological epoch, “Anthropocene”, recognises the unparalleled impact of human beings on the Earth’s ecosystems.  Kate Franklin and Caroline Till’s new design publication, Radical Matter, published by Thames and Hudson, acknowledges this overwhelming insight into waste, whilst offering an optimistic, alternative vision of the future through practitioners who place sustainability at the heart of their work. Till recognises that the time has come to act and strive towards a closed-loop, zero-legacy future: “We are now equipped with more information than ever, digital communication means that provenance behind material sourcing can’t be ignored anymore.”

Practitioners highlighted in this imaginative volume include Will Yates-Johnson (b. 1986), who creates objects which can be infinitely reused. By breaking household items down into fragments and subsequently repurposing them, the designer creates colourful, eclectic products that draw attention to their own physicality. These new creations – collectively named Polyspolia after the ancient Roman philosophy of repurposing building resources – make visual the process of recycling, embodying a sustainable ethos whilst playfully referencing the popular “terrazzo” aesthetic. The method requires no external energy, and incorporates the whole of the previous iteration, avoiding waste entirely. Till expands: “Yates-Johnson’s project takes a very systemic approach. It’s about how we use materials, highlighting where they’re coming from and the process of transformation we put them through. It’s an example of thinking of a substance in a continuous cycle. He’s an advocate of inspiring people to think about what will happen to the object after use, taking a playful, accessible approach to quite an academic topic.”

Addressing the fact that the fashion industry is the second most polluting trade worldwide, Berlin-based ready-to-wear company crafting plastics! studiohelmed by Vlasta Kubušová and Miroslav Král, apply a similar ethos to their practice. Like Yates-Johnson, they consider the life cycle of their range whilst providing a look that reflects global style trends; their first collection comprises a range of sunglasses manufactured from a carbon-neutral, 100% biodegradable plastic. The eyewear offers a unique, aesethetic that is fully compostable. Furthermore, a returns policy enables customers to send items back after use to be reshaped into new creations. Till explains how both manufacturers and consumers are learning to embrace this new commercial model: “The connotations of “recycled” and “waste” as negatives are starting to dissipate. People want to know what has gone into something. The story of by-products is a positive thing now – consumers are looking for a sense of morality and a greater idea of narrative. Brands are starting to see that more and more.”

A buyer led dialogue is becoming increasingly prevalent, with an amplified interest in bespoke pieces rivaling established methods of mass production. For example, Unmade, a fashion technology business featured in the latest edition of Aesthetica, offers customisation through e-commerce interfaces, allowing the end-user to craft a unique piece tailored to their specifications. Furthermore, established global businesses such as Lush encourage the return and reformulation of their signature black pots and bottle caps, rewarding contributors with handmade products. Initiatives such as these offer an incentive and highlight a wider consciousness of the problems at hand, whilst forming part of a larger campaign to change the way plastic is processed. As Till notes: “Pressure comes top down from a legislative approach and bottom up from a consumer approach.”

This heightened consciousness manifests not only commercially, but also conceptually within the world of fine art. Polish freelance photographer and visual artist Marta Mak is one such example, who creates unique portraits of everyday objects, highlighting the worth of throwaway packaging through spraying them gold. By giving these items an impression of increased economic and social worth, Mak repositions the idea of rubbish and draws attention to issues of mass consumption, bringing wider environmental issues into the gallery space. Items highlighted include cartons, egg boxes, tins and bottles, and form part of Zeitgeist, an upcoming exhibition at Ffotogallery, Cardiff, foregrounding emerging artists. The inclusion of Mak’s series indicates how public institutions are thinking more broadly about these questions, marking a wider movement that extends beyond global brands and individual practitioners into the cultural landscape. David Drake, director of Ffotogallery, notes in the last words of Aesthetica issue 81: “Value is a piece that explores how, like alchemy, we can create new value out of packaging, transforming waste into a social resource.”

A universal shift in attitude towards plastic is a necessary and attractive prospect. Thames and Hudson’s new publication is an important contributor to this narrative, and as the message becomes embedded through brands, the arts, design education and via series such as BBC’s Blue Planet, a global conversation opens about this pervasive element of daily life. As Till clarifies: “Plastic has amazing properties and it can be easily broken down and kept in a circular cycle. We just need to understand better what its being used for and what it’s being combined with. Hopefully that will start to change as awareness grows.”

Radical Matter is available now. Caroline Till will be speaking at the #FutureNow Symposium 2018.

1. Will Yates-Johnson, S-M-A-S-H-E-R. Photography by Paul Plews
2. From Value © Marta Mak.