Plastic: The Lightest Touch of All

Plastic: The Lightest Touch of All

Plastic: The Lightest Touch of All

Eliza McAlister | Design in Fashion & Textiles, Creative Intelligence & Innovation

Plastics have dominated the consumer marketplace since their commercial development in the 1930s and today the extensive use of plastics is well established in western civilisation. Plastics are ubiquitous in industry and have properties that make them desirable in the production of a range of products. While plastics have had a substantial impact on all areas of society they have also been detrimental to the environment.

One significant area of concern is the invisibility of plastics which have now become inconspicuous as everyday products. To raise awareness of how plastics touch all areas of society it is essential to increase empathy for the victims of plastic pollution, raise awareness and encourage consumers to influence governments and business.

Lifestyle and Economy

Being durable, lightweight, transparent and cost effective; many people believe plastics are essential in society. These properties also give insight into the reasons that plastics are one of today’s main resources in the economy. ‘Plastic’ is a name commonly misused to identify artificial materials, but this can cause confusion when deciphering what is a sustainable product. Plastics can come in several different forms and have several useful qualities. The seven different classifications of plastics are used in a range of products such as water bottles, food storage containers, vinyl flooring, plastic bags, toothbrushes, plastic cutlery and even car parts. Often the dangerous chemical processes used to manufacture these everyday products are ignored and there has been a disregard for their disposal. ‘We have produced nearly as much plastic in the last ten years as we have in all previous decades put together’. The production process has also provided significant damage to the environment. Successful campaigns to abolish plastic have previously been led by well-established environmental groups such as Health Care Without Harm, Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund. These campaigns focused on issues such as waste management and the reduction of environmental footprints as well as the use and disposal of plastic bags, particularly in regard to the damage they cause to sea life. They utilised various forms of media to inform the public of the problems, create empathy and encourage public pressure. The government and retailers were forced to listen to consumer’s concerns regarding plastic bags, and legislation forced retailers to ban the bag in several states. Within Australia the ACT, Northern Territory, South Australia and Tasmania have all banned the use of plastic bags. While campaigning through media has proven to be an effective strategy in the past, society today is heavily saturated with advertisements so other strategies must be developed to promote the importance of adopting a sustainable way of living. In Cameron Tonkinwise’s theory of human psychology he explains that humans have values which they use to live their lives and intrinsically people have good intentions. These values are pursuing immediate pleasure, wanting to feel challenged, securing authority or using empathy to help others. Therefore to target all consumers’ epistemologies and values ‘… sustainability is something that should be conveyed in different ways for different kinds of people.’. This strategy could therefore touch consumers’ conscience, steering their behaviour so that they want to change the unsustainable lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. To do this it is important to use various learning styles such as verbal, visual and physical to connect with the public. By creating empathy you can challenge consumers to shop sustainably. Today’s world is significantly economically driven and due to the inexpensive nature of plastics they do not attract attention so they have become invisible in consumers’ daily lives. Plastics are derived from the petrochemical industry and due to this, fuel consumption almost subsidises plastics. Creating sustainable awareness around plastics involves identifying which industries are utilising this inconspicuous material and keeping it invisible.

The invisibility of plastics

Plastics are visible in many different industries, particularly in the transportation, the construction and the packaging industry. While it is evident these industries use plastics and that they appear to be necessary for growth in the economy, it is industries such as the fashion and textile industry that utilise plastics for financial gain and consumer demand. The fashion industry is currently dominated by fast fashion competition which involves companies producing low quality garments with low prices. Fast fashion flourishes off the minimal knowledge consumers have of microfibres embedded into everyday garments. These garments make up the two thirds of the fashion industry that are produced with synthetic fibres. Similar to many other household plastics, polyester is one of the most used synthetic fibres in textiles and is also derived from petroleum. With the rise of consumer demand for inexpensive garments there is an increase in synthetic fibres and the use of polyester has almost doubled since the 1990s. Many textile manufacturing facilities are considered hazardous, as by-products like monomers and solvents are emitted into bodies of water from manufacturing plants. In 2011 shorelines around the world were examined and it was discovered that 85% of human made debris were microfibres. These fibres can bioaccumulate, therefore creating toxins in animals which are in turn passed onto humans who consume them. Due to a lack of knowledge and empathy, garments produced, worn and disposed of are poisoning the food chain and filling the earth with non-decomposable fibres. In terms of sustainability, in recent years designers have begun to integrate sustainable design practices into the design process. Designers such as those in Lauffenmühle, a German textile innovation company, heavily focus on the cradle to cradle design. This strategy involves identifying a product's usability and eliminating waste by creating a use for products through each stage of their lifecycle. To receive the cradle to cradle standard means that Lauffenmühle creates products that are ‘… safe for biological regeneration: neither the textile fibres nor the chemicals used … leave behind harmful residues after returning to the biological cycle …’. This system therefore uses continuous regeneration of all components within the products, creating a closed loop where post-consumer waste is recycled to make new products.

Strategies and business engagement

A strategy for engagement should be provocative if it is to draw attention to the lack of knowledge of plastic products and their detriments. This, combined with a positive reinforcement system, can benefit businesses that produce sustainable goods as it steers consumers towards their products while also benefiting the environment. “Rewarded behaviour gets repeated. Unrewarded behaviour falls by the wayside”. Rather than recycling or up-cycling, new strategies should remove and reduce plastic manufacturing. The public must engage with the problem so that plastic becomes undesirable. An effective strategy must force the consumer to consider their own behaviour and experience empathy with the animals harmed by the plastic, particularly in waterways. By doing this an interesting discussion can be generated that challenges the lifestyle choices ingrained in our culture. If you want more information about the background to this article, please visit our references page - Issue 6 References


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