The world is drowning in plastic: what should product designers do?

It’s no hidden fact that the world is littered in plastic. From New York’s Wall Street to the slums of New Delhi, beaches and oceans, where ever you look it seems there is unwanted plastic waste. In January of 2018 I headed to Bali for a surf trip. Every day around the resorts if you woke up early enough you got to witness the new layer of washed up trash lining the beach before workers quickly removed the rubbish bounty before the tourists arrived. Even more depressing was the layers of suspended plastic hovering in the clear oceans as we scuba dive around Nusa Lembongan. Beautiful Manta Rays swam gracefully amongst chip packets, drink bottles, bread bags, bottle caps and other miscellaneous food packaging.

I have often wrestled with the fact that my job involves me designing new plastic products that will no doubt be discarded in a similar way before finding their way into our precious eco system. So what can be done about it?

I think first a personal approach to reducing plastic consumption is a must; being more conscious with what we purchase and where we discard the waste. This would have a huge impact alone if the worlds people as a collective would be more proactive.

BUT beyond this as a designer how can I be a part of the clean-up instead of only adding to the problem. At times I feel like the only useful thing to do is quit my job and do something different, but, there will still be new products reaching the market every day. There will be another product designer willing to make that compromise.

Though my mind is still wrestling very much with this predicament I have concluded that while I am doing my job I can have a greater effect on the decisions made by a client around how a product is made, with what materials and educate them as to the long term effects of the decisions we make now. In some cases it maybe a hard discussion to question the validity of a product, is it really necessary? Is this a positive contribution to the planet or simply a quick fix to make a dollar? Or on a practical level we can engineer a product to be more suited to recycling. For example, over-moulding virtually renders a plastic product unrecyclable. So we ask ourselves can this be done without over moulding. Is there a better way to construct this product so that we can guarantee each part can be broken down into its separate constituents?

Without an influence directly involved in the design process who is concerned about plastic waste the likely hood is that the industry will continue to be driven by a profit centric philosophy at the expense of our planet and its inhabitant’s. I may not always be able to have an effect on the final outcome…after all I am but a small cog in a large factory. BUT, I believe I would be better to try and help manufacturers minimise the issue than run from it in hopes that it will get better somehow.

This is a collective effort that needs to take place. How can we do our bit to sort out the mess we’ve made?