Plastics, Sustainability, and the Future of Design

By Jessica Antony  –  September 25th, 2019


The issue of sustainability in our use of plastic is not new but has certainly come to the forefront of global environmental conversations recently. The state of plastic waste in North America can no longer be ignored, particularly as China – who was the largest recipient of our exported recycling – recently shut its doors to much of our old candy wrappers, coffee cup lids, and berry containers. With the push to find new and innovative ways to deal with the plastic recycling building up in Canadian and American recycling centres that has nowhere to go, it’s more important than ever to question what effect our purchases and design decisions have on our planet. The first step to making change, though, is understanding how we got here.

Our History of Plastic Use

North Americans have been producing plastic since 1950, but since its inception the yearly production of plastic has increased by nearly 200 times – from 2 million tonnes per year in 1950 to 381 million tonnes in 2015. By 2015, more than one tonne of plastic had been produced for every person alive. Of all the plastic produced over the span of those 65 years, over half ended up in a landfill and only about 7% was recycled. In 2010, not only did plastic waste exceed plastic production by 5 million tonnes, but 8 million tonnes of plastic waste ended up in the ocean. Part of this is due to the fact that North America sends its plastic overseas to be broken down into pellets to then be reused in other capacities – and much of the time the plastic we send isn’t actually recyclable at all.

China was taking more than half of our plastic to process for recycling, developing “a vast industry of harvesting and reusing the most valuable plastics to make products that could be sold back to the western world.” But much of what they took in couldn’t actually be recycled because it was either spoiled with food and dirt or was made of a non-recyclable plastic. This plastic waste would then end up incinerated or in a landfill. So, when they shut their doors in 2017 due to health and environmental concerns, North America scrambled to find other countries to buy our plastic. For some recycling plants, this meant closing their doors or refusing to take less valuable plastics. For others, it means much of our plastic is sold to countries who already mismanage their own waste – either due to a lack of infrastructure or a lack of regulation. Turkey, for example, more than doubled their intake of plastics from across the globe, from 159,000 to 439,000 tonnes in two years. This puts a huge strain on already struggling nations to effectively manage the waste produced around the world. While countries with the highest GDPs are those who recycle at the highest rates, it’s countries with the lowest GDPs who are then tasked with dealing with our plastics. With China banning the intake of plastic from other countries, an “uncomfortable truth” was revealed: much of what we thought was recyclable is not. In fact, research shows that only 9% of all plastic produced has ever been recycled.


Where do we go From Here

As the reality of our recycling habits is made clear, the solution lies beyond our blue bins. British Columbia, for example, instigated a program in 2014 called “extended producer responsibility” (or EPR), which tasks the producers of plastic packaging with paying for its recycling. The goal of the EPR model is “for producers who currently make packaging that can’t be recycled to change its design into something that is.” Responsible regulations like this, if they were implemented across the country, are a step in the right direction. Packaging design should be more than an afterthought or a product of the most cost-effective way to get our products into the hands of consumers. And design on the whole can be used as a tool for change – particularly in the ways in which we approach the creation of new objects.

So too can being mindful of the materials used to make the products we purchase. Consumers have the power to increase demand for sustainable materials by supporting companies that incorporate sustainability into their design approach and practices. At EQ3 we strive to make conscientious decisions about our approach to design, the materials we use, and the designers and vendors we collaborate with. We know we have work to do in this area, but we are committed to making mindful, purposeful change. Part of this comes from our collaboration with companies and designers who are leading the way in their approach to design and who are also committed to making change in their practices. Part of this comes from our collaboration with companies and designers (such as Loll Designs, Tala, and Humanscale) who are leading the way in their approach to design and who are also committed to making change in their practices.

The following selection of forward thinkers are making strides in the realm of environmental sustainability and we think they should be supported and emulated.

Based in Green Island, NY, Ecovative Design uses mycelium – the root structure of mushrooms – to create high-performance mycelium foam, which can then be used in everything from running shoes to leather handbag alternatives to insulated outerwear. Their engineered mycelium foam is breathable, heat resistant, and supportive. Because it’s made from plant matter, mycelium materials will biodegrade over time, as opposed to the plastic that continues to plague our planet. They can produce support foam and midsoles for running shoes that are equally as comfortable and high performing as the petroleum-based alternative, however, rather than sitting in a landfill, their option will biodegrade after the shoe’s life cycle.

An outdoor furniture company based in Duluth, MN, Loll Designs makes use of post-consumer plastic – that is, plastic that has been either diverted from or recovered from a landfill, like milk jugs – to make recycled furniture. Each Adirondack chair that they produce is made from approximately 400 recycled milk jugs. Not only is the furniture they produce recyclable itself, but Loll’s business model is centered around producing as little waste as possible. They capture the heat generated in their manufacturing to heat their facilities, they partake in annual creek clean-ups and local efforts to keep their community clean, and they have an end-of-life program for their furniture so that it can be recycled properly when customers are done with it.

Tala produces sustainable LED lighting for both home and commercial applications. Their award-winning in-house research and development team and engineering lab select methods and materials based on their environmental impact and are committed to reducing their carbon footprint. They donate a portion of their proceeds to reforestation programmes, like The Heart of England Forest in the UK, the National Forest Foundation in the US, and WeForest, where they support the natural regeneration of forests and sustainable livelihoods of the people living in the Khasi Hills in India.

This New York-based company designs and manufactures ergonomic office furniture. Sustainability is at the heart of what they do, so they recently partnered with Bureo, an organization that works toward preventing ocean plastic pollution. From this partnership was born Smart Ocean, a line of office chairs made from recycled fishing nets pulled from the ocean. The nets are processed into plastic pellets, which are then used to manufacture Humanscale’s Smart chair – one that is engineered to move and adjust to your body as soon as you sit in it. Each chair is made from approximately two pounds of recycled fishing nets.

Danish designers Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros of Studio Klarenbeek & Dros were the recipients of the 2018 New Material Award for their development of an algae-based product to replace non-biodegradable plastics. They worked in collaboration with Atelier Luma, a French think tank focused on using design to create sustainable alternatives to issues around waste, health, food, and education. Studio Klarenbeek & Dros’ grows algae to then dry and process it to be 3D-printed into a variety of objects, such as bowls, vases, bottles, and other tableware. They see a future wherein this process is used to as a sustainable alternative for the plastics we currently use in our day-to-day life.

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