Year in Review 2018: Plastics Are Back

Our contributors comment on an event or a moment from the last year that demanded more of how we should practice, frame, and respond to design.
year review 2018 new plastics

A slew of recent work has examined the sustainable potential of plastics, long seen as emblematic of environmental degradation. London-based Charlotte Kidger’s Industrial Craft collection uses polyurethane-foam dust—a by-product of CNC manufacturing—to create new furniture. Courtesy Charlotte Kidger

Plastic is back, and this time it’s ethical. The polymers have become increasingly visible in designed collections in recent years, and in September, plastic was named “material of the year” at the London Design Fair.

But this isn’t the maligned plastic of old, weighed down by widely circulated images of mountains of used shopping bags and seagulls entangled in six-pack rings. The new plastic is recycled—dredged from the oceans and culled from industrial waste and garbage heaps.

And plastic is living up to its versatile reputation, creatively repurposed in forms as varied as British designer Charlotte Kidger’s colorful vessels and furniture made of polyurethane-foam dust; elegant knobs and handles fashioned from ocean plastic by Sydney’s Vert Design; distorted, melted stools produced from injection-molding waste by German practices Stabil and Spreng & Sonntag; and sneakers made from algae and plastic by Spanish brand Ecoalf.

In April, Milan gallerist Rossana Orlandi launched a drive to create “guiltless plastic,” aimed at destigmatizing the material. And several books published this year, including FranklinTill’s Radical Matter and Why Materials Matter by Seetal Solanki, celebrate humanity’s capacity to harness our material environment. Through this plastics revolution, we seem to no longer see the so-called natural as intrinsically superior to man-made.

It’s not a new idea, of course—science, technology, and a notion of progress were at the heart of the Modernist project. But these experiments in plastic form a sharp contrast to the woods, stones, and natural fibers that have dominated product design for so long. Could this portend a new look for the Anthropocene? The accompanying rise of bioplastics, derived from such sources as vegetable fats and oils, suggests that a synthetic aesthetic is becoming permanently embedded in our sphere of high design and visual comfort.

Of course, there’s some opposition to the idea: Istanbul Design Biennial curator Jan Boelen argued in September that this recycling “bullshit” is perpetuating our plastics dependency. But surely it’s only in repurposing what we’ve already thoughtlessly produced for so long—and in such large quantities—that we can truly atone for our ecological sins.

Debika Ray is a London-based journalist and editor. Previously a senior editor at Icon, Ray founded Clove, a magazine about South Asian culture, one year ago.

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Categories: Materials