Creatives are devising innovative ways to address the plight of our environment.
An ‘accidental monument to modern society’ as one writer named it, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, discovered 20 years ago, is a vast, floating dumping ground where the planet’s plastic waste has gathered and is slowly degrading. This enormous gyre, of which there are four others, are, in layman’s terms, vortexes, where sea currents converge and therefore attract discarded plastics from the Pacific coasts of North America, Canada, Mexico and Southeast Asia. The consequences for maritime eco-systems are dire and getting worse. Plastic is breaking down into minute particles and gradually entering the food chain. And that’s bad news for all of us.
For several decades, scientists, environmentalists and oceanographers have deliberated over how to conquer this. Most involve a painfully slow and prohibitively expensive method of dredging plastic with trawlers, but the rate at which plastic gathers would ultimately far exceed the rate at which it could be collected.
Newer initiatives exist as alternatives, such as The Ocean Cleanup — an ambitious idea dreamed up in 2014 by 20-year-old Dutch former aerospace engineering student Boyan Slat. His system consists of a 100km floating barrier, which waits for ocean currents to concentrate the plastic within the barrier and then traps it, siphons it into a tower to then be removed for recycling. Slat predicts that if he is able to deploy his new technology, it would take just one decade to return the oceans to a passably clean state. Some environmentalists have flagged potentially negative consequences for marine life, but Slat’s research contradicts this and he remains determined to start by 2020.
Doug Woodring, a sustainability veteran who co-founded the Ocean Recovery Alliance, recently launched a free app called Global Alert, a map of “trash hotspots” in the world’s waters. “If people are on boats and they see areas of trash on the coastline or reefs, they can geo-tag it with photos on the app to notify charities and stakeholders. They don’t even have to get their hands dirty,” he says.
In New York, former brand strategist and designer Cyrill Gutsch, who founded Parley for the Oceans, is taking an entirely different tack. Launched in 2012 as a forum for leading thinkers to share their thoughts on major ocean threats and how to tackle them, it has since evolved into an active global network, which, among other activities, has been collaborating on design projects to raise awareness. One such action uses dredged plastic to create a fine clothing fibre, from which, in collaboration with musician Pharrell Williams and fashion brand G-Star, they created a clothing line. A project with Adidas has already yielded a line of running shoes incorporating ocean plastic upper detailing; a swimwear line made from up-cycled fishing nets is next.
“Our approach, the Parley AIR Strategy — Avoid, Intercept, Redesign — is based on the belief that plastic is a design flaw, and a massive, superstar of a design mess-up at that,” explains Gutsch. “We need to avoid plastic wherever possible and to intercept the waste that’s already out there. And to solve this for good, we need to redesign the material itself. Getting there will require creativity and collaboration. Returning up-cycled waste to the cycle as Parley Ocean Plastic is a step forward that allows us to transition away from the use of virgin plastic.”
Parley isn’t the only group working with recycled products. London-based designers Studio Swine — a husband-and wife team of Japanese architect Azusa Murakami and British artist Alexander Groves — were also compelled to act.
The pair took to the beaches of Cornwall, in southern England, built a device called a ‘nurdler’ to sort the plastic and then created a series of furnaces to melt discarded plastic into a new material from which they made stools. By 2014, they’d transferred their operation to a research ship for an expedition to the North Atlantic Gyre, close to Spain’s Canary Islands and The Azores.
“We trawled for plastic each day using small mantra trawl nets,” Murakami explains. “The plastic took on a precious value as it was so difficult to harvest from the sea, so we created a series of small objects that treated the material as a luxury resource, inspired by maritime crafts.” The five sculptural pieces they made are now held in international design museums.
In Singapore, architectural practice Spark, headed up by director Stephen Pimbley, has announced plans for a series of pod-like colourful elevated plastic beach huts made from recycled ocean plastic, which, if they’re made, will appear on the shoreline of Singapore’s East Coast Park.
Australian designer Brodie Neill is also exploring recycled ocean plastics as a new luxury material, which he calls ‘ocean terrazzo’ from which he’s made the Gyro table, shown in 2016 at the inaugural London Design Biennale. “I strongly believe that as designers, we should be creating a better way of life through creating socially responsible products, spaces and services with ever-improving functionality,” he says. Plastic fragments were collected, cleaned, sterilised and sorted by colour in the studio. Neill says: “We worked with material scientists to develop test tiles of the ocean terrazzo — plastic fragments used as aggregate material alongside a binder to create a composite, which was then inlaid in a kaleidoscopic diagram in hues of blue to represent the earth’s 36 longitudinal and latitudinal lines.”
On an architectural scale, Parley’s founder Gutsch connected with artist Doug Aitken for The Underwater Pavilions: three underwater, living sculptures, which behaved as portals into the marine realm that swimmers, snorkellers and divers could swim through. As it turned out, it became a playground for sea lions and sea slugs.
So far, the design projects have been mostly limited-edition works, so one wonders if is this a scalable material with potential for mass production? Gutsch says we’re asking the wrong question.
“It takes time to completely redesign a supply chain with new materials and methods that haven’t been seen before, but people need to understand that this problem is larger and more complex than recycling alone can solve. You need people to pay attention, to know what’s going on, before they can own their impact. Environmentalism has lived in this niche bubble for too long. The creative industries have been notably absent from the conversation, when in fact they are the ones who can drive the change at the scale and pace we need; they mold reality and set the trends. This isn’t about selling products; it’s about selling an idea. A product that’s limited edition and exclusive can be the most effective and efficient advertising for a good cause — especially when it’s one that affects us all.”