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Responsible Plastics and the Circular Economy

As more companies and governments take a stand against plastic waste, the challenge now lies on designers to create alternative products for a more sustainable future.



February 19, 2019

Although plastic waste is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation, the world produces nearly 300 million tons of it each year. Only 9% of all plastic throughout history has ever been recycled and 50% of all current plastic products are single-use, meaning that they’re destined for garbage right from the start.

Plastic doesn’t need to be synonymous to garbage though. Its longevity, lightness, and affordability are what make it an ideal material to use in the first place. When used properly, plastic can contribute to more sustainable design. For example, the increased use of carbon fiber reinforced plastics within the aeronautics sector has led to massive gains in fuel efficiency. On the flip side, the same reasons why plastic is so favorable are why it’s being exploited too. Our culture’s obsessive use of plastics stems largely from convenience and affordability, but thankfully, this is mindset is beginning to shift. Many organizations and governments have acknowledged the environmental harm of single-use plastics and have committed to removing these products from their systems.

It’s exciting to see that this push is led from some of the largest contributors of waste, setting an example for many to follow. Starbucks and McDonald’s will both replace plastic straws in their establishments, Ikea will phase out single-use plastic products by 2020, and the EU plans to ban all throw away plastics in the region by 2021.

IDEO CEO Tim Brown calls the circular economy “one of the most important design challenges of our time.”

This global shift brings designers to the frontlines in order to develop alternative products and packaging to replace single-use plastics. Within the design world, many people are referring to this new approach as the circular economy. Rather than designing products with a beginning, middle and end, a circular system utilizes resources for as long as possible, then recycles products and materials to continue further use, which creates a closed and continuous cycle. IDEO CEO Tim Brown has gone so far as to call the transition to the circular economy as “one of the most important design challenges of our time.”

With growing gloom of climate change, frivolous plastic use is nothing short negligent and inconsiderate of generations to come. Fortunately, innovative and sustainability-minded designers see this as a challenge to find alternative- and beautiful- uses for plastic waste. From beautiful chairs made from discarded fish nets to sustainable Legos made from sugarcane, designers are proving that being green is the best way to be.

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