Plastic: Hero & Villain
What do Hannibal Lecter, Lex Luthor, Darth Vader and plastic share in common?
The answer is nestled in the title of this week’s blog - they are all modern-day villains! However, plastic is the only villain in our riddle which isn’t a work of fiction.
The problems caused by plastic use and misuse are very real. But, like all beloved baddies of literature and film our nemesis called plastic isn’t wholly evil, just a little misunderstood!
Misunderstandings are often solved by taking a step back, plastic is no exception. By stepping back into plastic’s past we learn that its first uses were wholly noble, even heroic. In the1800s everything from combs, piano keys, false teeth, buttons, pens and billiard balls were made using ivory. Mass manufacture of ivory items in the 1800s was caused by a European frenzy for elephant tusk products; at the peak of the trade 800–1000 tonnes of elephant ivory left Africa for Europe. The mass export of ivory destroyed elephant herds in central and eastern Africa and caused irrevocable damage to indigenous communities. Further, ivory products were expensive and inaccessible to many. However, in 1862 a man named Alexander Parkes created “a substance hard as horn, but as flexible as leather, capable of being cast or stamped, painted, dyed or carved”. The material — Parkesine, the first man-made plastic and ideal ivory substitute.
Parkesine had little commercial success but its creation opened the doors for John Wesley Hyatt to invent a plastic called Celluloid. Celluloid could mimic ivory, imitate the veining of marble and the translucency of semi-precious gems. But more importantly, unlike Parkesine itcould
By creating materials that transcend nature the ‘Plastic Age’ transformed reality. We live faster, longer and safer lives because of the material. Planes, trains and cars are safer, lighter, more powerful and more fuel efficient. Medical equipment is cheaper and easier to maintain. Home appliances are safe to handle — even with wet hands! And man-made plastics have opened up the doors for computers to compliment our lifestyle. Though plastic has made our lives more convenient its misuse and rampant disposal inconveniences nature. Plastic’s presence in our rivers and seas is looting our oceans of its marine life and robbing our Earth of its health. Every year marine environments are greeted with 8 -12 million tonnes of plastics and if current plastic disposal rates are sustained, by 2025 our oceans are expected to contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish.
Fortunately, the villainous acts of plastic are human-made, meaning they can be human-fixed! To ensure plastic remains above sea-level, together we must adapt the entire plastics value chain. Our plastic bags, boxes and cutlery are valuable resources that should remain on-land and in use. To ensure our plastic products remain on land and in use policy makers can create regulations which encourage sustainable consumption and reuse of plastics, designers can reframe how we value plastics by repurposing plastic waste into pencils, jumpers and furniture, and engineers can create new materials from recycled plastic stocks. However, the efforts of designers, engineers and policymakers will be moot if human behaviours aren’t refashioned in time. For this reason, Petit Pli has been designed with slow consumption in mind. By our clothes being able to grow, not only do they extend the use-life of plastics, they act on a psychological level — instilling sustainable behaviours in the next generation. Along with inspiring the next generation to consume sustainably Petit Pli’s designs reframe the value of plastic and make recycling a doddle; all our suits consist of a monofibre construction — making them significantly easier to recycle than blended fibres! Petit Pli hopes that in the future more designers will embrace circular design principles and humanity’s behaviour shifts to support sustainable object production and use.
Cloth: The Original Technology
Sound familiar? It should do. It’s the soundtrack of the 21st century, performed by an orchestra of our most beloved technologies — consumer electronics. These devices do more than pierce (and punctuate) sacred silences, they enable us to conduct our lives with greater efficiency. As a result, gadgets have become an integral part of our lives — leaving some of us believing that life cannot be lived without them!
Fitbits may help keep us fit, and iPhones keep us incredibly connected but neither provide warmth or shelter. However, there does exist a technology which is more pervasive than the consumer electronic, used more intensively and is one wereally
Our world is surrounded in cloth. We use it to frame windows, cushion floors and catch winds to foreign shores. Along with our world, cloth surrounds us! We fold ourselves into its creases during sleep and are swaddled in it like a spool at birth. Ahead of leaving our homes with brushed teeth, minty breath and wide eyes we put on at least two layers of the stuff — four if you’re living in the UK! Clothes are one of our most vital possessions and their role more fundamental than maintaining a social facade. Clothes guard us. They shield us from the perils of the natural world and allow us to enter environments our skin cannot provide protection for.
Our skin accounts for approximately 16% of our body weight. It shields our soft tissues from puncture and prevents infection. Along with being a physical barrier, our skin acts as an interface between our external environment and our internal hard-drive, the brain. When our skin senses changes in temperature and pressure our body listens. On cold winter nights, our skin signals for the hairs on its surface to stand up — creating an insulating layer. Most often this blanket of trapped air is not enough to keep our bodies running at a toasty 37℃. In such an event, our bodies react by telling us our best two options for keeping our internal systems firing at all cylinders:
1. We need to pick-up our pace
2. We need to run back inside and throw on a trusted scarf
Most of us would choose option 2. Option 2 satisfies long-term needs. And enables us toenjoywithout
Clothing has opened possibilities for humanity to explore beyond the terrestrial environment. Lab-blended fibres have allowed humans to survive crushing depths in the Pacific, sit atop Everest and make outer-space hospitable. They are the ultimate piece of wearable technology. Despite these feats and our basic need for clothes we have lost respect for them. We bury our clothes ahead of mending them — with serious environmental consequences. It is estimated that each year £140 million worth of clothing enters landfill and our unused clothing is worth approximately £30 billion.These numbers are shocking, but suggest opportunity — an opportunity to design clothes that won’t endanger our future. The average lifetime of an item of clothing in the UK is estimated as ~2.2 years. However, if clothing life was extended by nine months carbon and water footprints can be reduced by 20–30% each. With LittleHumans growing seven sizes in their first two years on Earth, the life of their clothing can be extended if we create clothes that grow with them! By doing so, not only do we stand to reduce our environmental impact we hope to inspire the next generation to value their second-skin, our original technology.