Tackling the world’s plastic problem

Last year, Sophie Thomas, co-founder of studio Thomas.Matthews, travelled to Kamilo Point in Hawaii to see at first-hand the extent to which plastic waste is polluting the world’s oceans. She recently presented a talk – and artwork – based on her findings and suggested that designers have an important role to play in instigating real change

In 2014, Thomas, who is also director of the Circular Economy programme at the Royal Society of Arts, visited the hard-to-reach Kamilo Point on the south coast of Hawaii Island. The area is known locally as ‘Trash Beach’ because of the sheer volume of the stuff that washes up there.

Kamilo Point beach in Hawaii
Kamilo Point beach in Hawaii

Back in the UK, Thomas decided to turn her experiences into a talk and an exhibition of work entitled Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean, which she presented at Pentagram’s London studio last week.

The project aims to raise awareness of the scale of this environmental problem and what needs to be done to confront it.

Tangled knot of various fishing nylons on the beach at Kamilo Point
Tangled knot of various fishing nylons on the beach at Kamilo Point

“The amount of plastic-to-sand ratio at Kamilo beach is shocking, even to me,” Thomas writes in the catalogue for the show, which will travel to Paris for COP21, the sustainable innovation forum, in December. “In my half hour walk along the coastline I picked up 18 toothbrushes alone.”

Toothbrushes collected by Sophie Thomas
Toothbrushes collected by Sophie Thomas

There are in fact, Thomas writes, an estimated 5.25 trillion micro plastic pieces in the world’s oceans, largely sitting on the sea floor; while the water-borne waste is dispersed across the globe via winds, tides and ocean currents.

These plastic particles form into huge ‘accumulation zones’, she says, known to oceanographers as ‘gyres’. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is, in effect, the largest landfill in the world collecting “some of the eight million metric tonnes of plastic that enters the sea each year”.

Box Study. Dyed sand and Kamilo Point beach flotsam
Box Study. Dyed sand and Kamilo Point beach flotsam

On Kamilo Point, Thomas recalls in the catalogue, the effects of this were all too clear: “Everywhere you looked plastic was present, deep in the fabric of the beach and seemingly almost impossible to extract.” And this is the crux of the problem: 90% of the world’s ocean-borne waste is plastic, while only 5% of plastic currently produced is recyclable.

Box Study. Dyed sand and Kamilo Point beach flotsam
Box Study. Dyed sand and Kamilo Point beach flotsam
Box Study. Dyed sand and Kamilo Point beach flotsam
Box Study. Dyed sand and Kamilo Point beach flotsam

In the publication, Thomas takes the example of a toothbrush – a perfectly ordinary, disposable product – and considers that while its design hasn’t changed all that much in 100 years, what it’s made from has.

Toothbrushes are no longer bone, but instead a composite material made from different plastics: “nylon, high density polyethylene and a rubber substitute called ‘kraton’, which has amazing resistance to heat and chemicals, just what you need in a toothbrush,” writes Thomas.

Box Study. Dyed sand and Kamilo Point beach flotsam
Box Study. Dyed sand and Kamilo Point beach flotsam

These plastics are impossible to separate and can’t be recycled together, so they go directly into our waste streams – in the US, 25,000 tonnes of them go to landfill every year. (Razors are also a problem, as she outlined in an interview with Design Week.)

“Unless steps are taken … by 2025 the ocean could contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of finfish,” Thomas writes.

Satl Dry Pak letterpress print (based on plastic bottle found on Kamilo Point beach)
Salt Dry Pak letterpress print (based on plastic bottle found on Kamilo Point beach)

So what’s the answer? “Marine litter is also one of the clearest symbols of a resource inefficient economy,” Thomas writes. “These objects that litter our beaches and impact our environment should be captured for their value before the reach the seas.”

Thomas argues that adopting a ‘circular economy’ approach is key to any change – something she advocates via her role as director of Circular Economy at the Royal Society of Arts. This direction, she explains, places emphasis on designing systems that prevent waste and encourage the recovery of valuable materials.

As a part of this, designers have vital role to play in combating the march of marine litter. Simplifying the use of plastics, she says, especially in packaging so that recycling can be streamlined would be the most effective solution.

Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean poster
Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean poster

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