The world is your oyster *now including the oceans*

by Becky Miller & Eddie Hamilton

Since David Attenborough's seminal Blue Planet II, broadcast by the BBC in October 2017, the ocean and all it contains have received unprecedented media attention. Some watery inhabitants get raining votes of sympathy as we read about their impending extinction from overfishing and pollution, whilst other constituents are radically demonised and served with an immediate eviction notice. Here, I am of course talking about the new kids on the block, the not-so-welcome microplastic, villains of the ocean.

The media tsunami - triggered by provocative footage and the wisdom and seductive voice of Sir Attenborough - has resulted in a public outcry to remove plastic from wherever possible: our cosmetics, our water bottles, our clothes, and our supermarket aisles. Highly visual campaigns have been sweeping through social media since Christmas, and people have been quick to pledge their support with little red hearts, tiny thumbs-ups and the ubiquitous plasticfree hashtag.  

As we desperately attempt to shed our plastic selves, the solutions offered to fill the gaps are mainly plant-derived alternatives: natural fibres such as hemp, paper, and bamboo; or natural polymers - commercially known as bioplastics - typically made from corn or potato starch, algae or seaweed. Individuals and businesses alike have been quick to adopt these alternatives. At the RCA food outlets, disposable cutlery, coffee cups, and sandwich bags are now procured with good intentions for their biodegradable and fossil fuel-free virtues. But could these ‘solutions’ in fact be a red herring, distracting us from a problem that is more systemic and ingrained? Let’s zoom out a bit.


Replacing oil-derived traditional plastics, the natural alternatives come from plants that require land, water, and often the addition of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Given the continued growth of global population, there is the ethical question of how our limited resources are used. In the same way that it is vastly more efficient to grow fields of soya for human consumption rather than feed cattle soya for meat production, we could argue that growing plants to produce the disposable cutlery used to eat the soya or beef is even more absurd.

And I am particularly nervous about the promise of seagrass and seaweed. In recent years, research projects on these plants have claimed to invent eco-friendly materials that are derived from resources that are plentiful and untapped. They have received accolades from the press and investors for their promise as a quick fix. Agar Plasticity, by the Japanese design collective AMAM [1], is one such example. But do we really think that plundering another natural resource, extracting it from a fully functional ecosystem, is a good solution? Given that seagrass can absorb more CO2 per hectare than an equivalent area of rainforest, while also providing a good chunk of the ocean’s oxygen [2], we should be weary of such profitable opportunities. If global forests are anything to learn from, we will inevitably extract more from the wilderness than we can ever hope to replace.


After we’ve enjoyed the last bit of tasty tofu from our seagrass takeaway plate, it would be logical to assume that this natural polymer can simply be binned. It will find its way to a landfill and eventually return to earth - that’s what you thought right? The phrase ‘zero to landfill’ is not a lie, but it misses out the other half of the truth: ‘...100% incinerated’. In London and in most of the UK there is no more landfill;

We started using landfills - or systematically burying our problems - at the turn of the last century [3]. But now that we’ve run out of space, and realised it wasn’t such a bright idea anyway - plan B is to burn it. London is currently served by four incinerators which last year converted two million tonnes of ‘general waste’ into electricity, and aggregate for road building [4]. So in reality, the closest that friendly Vegware™ cutlery and coffee cups will ever get to the soil will be as cremated, pulverised specs of ash, lying beneath a new road.

But what about the ‘bioplastics’, I hear you say? Yes, they can be reprocessed in theory, but in practice they require different treatment to the current mainstream recyclable plastics (HDPE and PET) - and this infrastructure doesn’t exist yet. Compounding this is the fact that since January this year, China has refused to import the bulk of our recyclable waste, leaving the UK with an over-supply of traditional plastic waste and a lack of demand for recycled plastics, necessary to stimulate a thriving plastics industry.

The System

Putting this top and tail together around our disposable object culture reveals that we are simply retrofitting our linear system of consumption with ‘natural’ materials. It feels satisfying and it’s easy to make a quick buck from it, but the truth is that we are merely upgrading our old system with new bugs to solve later. Surely, it would be more effective to design and gradually implement a new operating system? The good news is that its been on the drawing board for a while now: the circular economy is a concept that sees all elements of the supply chain as resources. Nothing is considered waste. What is frustrating is that despite the best efforts of Michael Braungart, Ellen MacArthur and others, this model is in danger of collecting dust backstage, whilst the greenwashing Punch and Judy show continues to entertain audiences with a jamboree of biodegradable props.

Let’s not forget that we have spent the last eight decades concocting, producing and throwing away plastic, which is now dissolved in our oceans, our water supply, and buried in our soils. It’s not all going to disappear if we immediately ban plastics and switch to natural alternatives, even if this feels warm and fuzzy. The real challenge is to re-engineer all this surplus plastic that currently exists in a toxic format, bringing it back into useful, valuable, circular networks of use.

From a design perspective, plastic is virtually the most perfect material for protecting our food and goods - just bear with me here…. It’s abundant, cheap, remarkably strong, lightweight, can be manufactured into almost any shape and can be recycled up to 7 times. It vastly increases the shelf life of most foods when used in modified atmosphere packaging and has greatly reduced the carbon emissions in transport by lowering the weight of packaged goods. The main issue is that it is very, very durable - as we already know, it takes years to decompose. But this durability is only an issue because we are not using the material to its full potential. A yogurt pot that washed up on a beach in Devon, 40 years after getting binned, illustrates this point perfectly. Why dispose of something when it still has material value? The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has worked out that about 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth USD 80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy’ [5], highlighting how this issue isn’t material based, but systemic.  

What’s important to understand here is that the narrative around this issue is grossly outdated and dangerously oversimplified. We should stop talking about plastic as the problem and address the current system which is dumping plastic in our ocean or burning it. By framing the huge challenge our oceans face around a particular material, we end up demonising what should be a productive resource in a thriving, sustainable economy.

The world is your oyster - now including the oceans - go figure!

Written by Becky Miller (MA Service Design) & Eddie Hamilton (MA Design Products)



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