Plastic Purgatory and Redemption by Design

By Esther Ellard

                                           Plastic Purgatory and Redemption by Design

                                           Article by Hannah Ellis


The pragmatic and accurately named Museum der Dinge (the Museum of Things) is probably what most people would expect an ever expanding collection of nondescript-but-omnipresent stuff to be. Hidden away in Kreuzberg, Berlin, the museum is a sort of cross between the immaculate curation of London’s Design Museum and the houses you see on reality tv shows about certifiably obsessive hoarders. The main exhibition space is essentially one long room extending back further than you can see, with glass-fronted cabinets lining the walls and queueing like dominoes down the centre, filled and overspilling with – well, things.

Some of the pieces on display at Museum der Dinge. Image – Armin Hermann.

It’s difficult to be more specific. Highlights include: a pretty complete set of Star Wars figurines, bodiless prosthetics produced to vastly different levels of sophistication, a surprisingly large amount of novelties fashioned to look like burgers, a less surprisingly large amount of novelties fashioned to look like boobs, and a collection of mannequin heads, glamorous-looking despite the minor inconvenience of disembodiment. According to the website there are 40,000 objects on display; most were made during the 20th or 21st century, all were mass produced.

The industrially-made bit is pretty important. The museum runs tandem to the the attached Werkbundarchiv, the collection of philosophies and outputs of the Deutscher Werkbund. Founded by Hermann Muthesius in 1907, the DWB (as they later became acronymed to) – a collection of artists, designers and architects which would famously include Behrens, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe – preoccupied themselves with the influence that craftsmanship and design could have over modern life. Mashing together principles from Morris’ Arts & Crafts movement with Germany’s sudden industrial expansion, the collective saw potential in using technology and materials as a way to democratise design, creating objects and architecture ‘that fulfilled the changing needs of society’. That, as their motto stated, could be anything: Vom Sofakissen zum Städtebau – from sofa cushions to city building.

The Museum der Dinge, though, focusses mainly on product culture; as an ethnographic review, the collection is telling to say the least. Following a loose chronology, early displays centre around usefulness – glassware and ceramics, metalware, tools, cutlery… Bakelite appears soon after, iconic hand-mirrors and telephones, plasticness steadily increasing throughout the leaner war years. Midcentury-ish everything changes; industry, steadying itself after wartime disruption and feverishly ambitious to boost economies, suddenly erupts with products, all technicolour and form pushed to the limit. Choice has arrived! Markets and industrial design run away with themselves, and thousands upon thousands of things are borne into existence – useful, useless, beautiful, ugly, well made, shoddy, kitch, po-faced – their commonality in their startling difference.

By the time you reach the cabinets filled with pieces from the 1980s/90s, you’d be forgiven for thinking the collection had descended into piles of junk shoved into display cases, doors quickly shut before the items inside could avalanche out. Everything is familiar, quotidian – intentionally so – and at the same time alien in its gallery context. The insidious creep of consumer culture is reflected back at you in your own possessions. The same ochery coloured Tupperware my grandmother once owned was there, just like the ones kept, still useful, in a cupboard at my parents’ house. So were the Polly Pockets I had growing up, a stack of brightly-coloured clamshell cases all in near mint condition. The top one had been left open, the eponymous Polly (only one centimetre tall and the perfect choking hazard) exploring inside. Their hard outer shells seem impervious to the twenty years that have passed. For a while they had been treasured. It’s uncomfortable to admit that mine were probably thrown away.

It turns out that 1907 was an important year for mass production. While Muthesius established the DWB in Munich, over in Yonkers, New York, chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland was discovering that, when coerced by heat and pressure, phenol and lung-scratching formaldehyde produced something new and other – sticky, formable that cooled and set. It was the first synthetic polymer (natural polymers like rubber and cellulose came earlier) and by 1910 Baekeland was producing polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride – aka Bakelite – commercially.

By 1922, it was being ‘aggressively marketed’ as the – quite wonderful sounding – ‘Material of a Thousand Uses’ and soon other long-chain compounds began to flood the market. Polymers of -amide, -styrene and -ethylene were followed by -propylene and -ethylene terephthalate. Some thermoset, others were thermoplastic (remould-able) and each had it’s own unique set of properties that meant that, by the 1960s, there were more like millions of uses for this new family of materials – plastics.

‘Plastic’ now covers a whole bunch of synthetic organic (carbon-based) polymers, as well as silicones (derived from silicon), too. Wikipedia lists ten ‘common’ plastics, familiar sounding ones like nylon and PET, used for commercial or engineering purposes, as well as a further fifteen with ‘specialist’ applications. More often than not they’re derived from petrochemicals so cheap to produce since the price of these non-renewables isn’t nearly as high as you might expect it to be. In their liquid-ish states each polymer is plastic, adjectivally, too; some are drawn into threads, others rollered into layers, some extruded or injection moulded into solid forms. They’re endlessly variable and absurdly convenient, both to industrial production and the modern lifestyle it shaped, one family of materials responsible for: LCDs, disposable nappies, wraps and films that prevent food waste, sterile medical equipment, wire insulation that prevents electrical shocks, carpets, microfibre duvets, melamine-coated furniture, heat resistant shells for hairdryers, toasters, kettles…



The original trefoil Bakelite trademark, first registered in 1908.

Giving form to the previously unimaginable, the jingly ‘fantastic plastic’ is pretty accurate when you consider that ‘fantastic’ comes from the Greek phantazein – ‘make visible’, and phantazesthai – ‘have visions, imagine’. Even in the early stages, Baekeland had conquered infinity and he knew it. A capital B sat above a lemniscate was registered in 1908 as Bakelite’s first trademark, an icon of endless potential. Plastics and industrial production were the perfect partnership, creating unknown desires and self-fulfilling cycles of variety and choice; it would be the start of the consumer culture on display at Museum der Dinge. Over the next hundred years, plastic would become totally ubiquitous, essential, until 300 million tons of the stuff were produced globally each year.

Infinity, though, is slightly more holistic than that, and the churn of production brings with it the less desirable but unavoidable matter of objects past the point of utility – ie., waste. It appears that Baekeland considered the ‘what comes next?’ of his new material about as much as Frankenstein did his monster because, apart from losing its sheen, Bakelite doesn’t really degrade. In fact, it basically lasts forever. Likewise other plastics. Born in laboratories and alien to nature, bacteria – the usual culprit for decomposition – can only do so much. Respirometry tests (measuring the amount of CO2 given off as bacteria munch their way through a material) suggest that natural decomposition might take 500–1,000 years for Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE). It’s a brilliant material to use for something that will outlive us all, but LDPE’s main use is carrier bags, presenting us with a snag of durability: when plastics surpass their usefulness, they sort of linger around in a state of eternal obsolescence, rather than simply ceasing to exist.

If that isn’t demoralising enough: plastics are extraordinarily adept at getting where they shouldn’t be. I’d imagine most readers have seen the particularly grizzly images of albatrosses found on the Hawaiian archipelago, bodies decomposing around the bottle lids and other plastic fragments that filled their bellies. Or the video of a turtle in New Zealand, bleeding and writhing as a straw is extracted from deep inside a nostril. Or heard that plastic rubbish has been found frozen into Arctic ice. Or that new types of rock – ‘plastiglomerates’ – have been discovered, as rogue plastic fuses with denser materials nearby.

It’s not my intention to preach about the environment, it’s simply to highlight the genuine conclusions of a material with a totally ineffective waste management system. Only about 10% of all plastics are actually recycled. It’s unbelievably difficult to recapture from the consumer and often contaminated by food and non-recyclables. The kicker: it’s often cheaper to produce virgin material than to sort and repurpose old, so for most manufacturers there isn’t even an economic argument for recycling.

Some people would argue, though, that even recycling is a lot like sticking a plaster over a gaping wound, because once plastic is created, that’s it – it exists for good. Repurposing it only stymies the rate of accumulation, it doesn’t reduce the excess. The only way to really get rid of plastic is by complete combustion, another way of saying burning it. It’s wildly toxic, though, leaving us with a choice of less bad options or abstinence.

Studio Swine’s gyrecraft pieces (North Pacific Gyre, 2015 shown here) use plastic collected  from the remote sea ‘garbage patches’ to creates ‘luxury’ pieces that critique the material in its pre- and post-ocean states.

Grocery bag spectres that float and twirl American Beauty-style or a public confused by resin codes and unsure of what packaging can and can’t be recycled, are only part of a larger problem. I’m curious, though, as to how ingrained our ideas about plastics might be.

Cheap and abundant, plastic never had the trappings of a material with real worth. There were no supply shortages, real or manipulated behind the scenes, that inflate the prices of things like precious metals. And it’s synthesised too, magicked out of nowhere, so that there are no obvious loss – or even impact – associated with it’s existence, at least not at the initial stages; no pockmarks from quarrying or miserable rooted stumps that are left as a reminder when producing wood, paper and card.

And the objects it helped create could easily be dismissed as replaceable, too. Take, for example, the ‘consumer durables’, products intended to last longer than three years, but not indefinitely, that make up the majority of the collection at the Museum der Dinge. Jostling for attention, each object represents the hundreds, thousands – maybe millions – of twins, exactly the same, literally cast from the same mould. As novelty and trends and choice snowballed, even these so-called durables – electronics, toys, appliances… – were intended to be replaced more and more frequently and, often, well before they had worn out. It appears that, with enough spending power, ‘replaceable’ and ‘disposable’ mean largely the same thing.

It would be easy to attribute blame at the endmost point, on the consumers still frantically consuming. I wonder, though, how much influence the average person actually has in regards ‘consumer choice’: what are the plastic-less alternatives to toothbrushes or vacuum cleaners or the built-in keyboard on laptops? Nicola Davis recently wrote a pretty comprehensive account of how difficult it is just to attempt to live plastic-free. Plastic is now pervasive to a point where trying to live without it is genuinely disruptive. (Also, in regards to toothbrushes: the non-plastic options – when you manage to find them – are made from pig hair. Consider if that’s something you really want to put in your mouth.) And of course, any notion of ‘choice’ is an absolute fallacy if you’re living below a certain disposable income.

It’s maybe interesting to revisit the Deutscher Werkbund. Having disbanded during the war, the DWB reconvened in the 1940s to assess their position and, with industrial production and exports seen as the way to forge a new national identity for West Germany, they saw a chance for designers to instil a moral code. Functionalist visions of good form and ‘truthful’ materials would, they hoped, create a kind of consumerism that was liberating rather than enslaving. Designers would use their skills to educate the masses, teaching the public how to consume conscientiously.

It was a dreamily utopian position. But I want to take a moment just to consider this idea of the ‘truth’ of materials and, more specifically, what the truth of plastic might be. In an interview with online design magazine Dezeen, Parley For the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch called plastic a ‘design failure’ and, later, a ‘drug’ that designers need weaning off of. From a lay perspective that seems a little harsh. It’s convenient, sure. But it isn’t plastic per se that’s the failure, and even then, it’s hard to say it’s exclusively the responsibility of design.

There’s a systemic failure; a waste management system that still struggles to keep pace with production and, from what I can tell, hasn’t attempted drastic change, or at least not in the UK. There’s also a human failure – on all sides – that leaves us unable to imagine the consequences of our actions. It’s especially true when those consequences are hidden from view (landfill), naturally conglomerate in the remotest areas of open ocean (see the Great Pacific garbage patch), or are deliberately shipped off and made the problem of other countries (as we do with China). And, of course, there’s a failure to find an adequate replacement, too. Bioplastics haven’t quite lived up to the fanfare just yet; biodegradable options might be little more than a myth. Can we confidently say that it’s only designers who ought to be solving these problems?

Image [Right] taken of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, an expanse of ocean filled with plastic (as well as other rubbish) that’s estimated to be about twice the size of the Phillipines. It’s so big, in fact, that the Plastic Oceans Foundation and LADBible (of all people!) have teamed up to ask the United Nations to recognise it as a country, with speculative currency, passports and stamps designed by Mario Kerkstra. [Left] 

I’m not suggesting that responsibility can be shifted from one place to another or that any party should hope, naively, that the issue will be solved by someone else. The point that I’m trying to make is that blame – if scapegoating is your thing – could lie anywhere in the complex tangle of interdependent relationships within the plastics industry.

Gutsch’s idea that designers have some kind of semi-parental responsibility over what they’ve helped create is a difficult one to shake, though; the continued, increasing and seemingly unquestioned use of plastic is a little harder to argue away. Swaying a client’s views and, more importantly, budget away from plastic isn’t always easy, and I’d imagine many designers are frustrated by this. But what I’m struggling to understand is why, even – no, especially – if this is the case, there is so little discussion about it. Whilst the mainstream press is horrified by plastic to the point of obsession, from what I can tell, it’s a subject that’s largely being ignored by the design industry media. Beyond the widely known writings of Victor Papanek and the ‘Cradle-to-Cradle’ philosophy of William McDonough, there are only a few features on ‘sustainable design’ projects (a phrase guaranteed to turn readers off) and quiet mid-article mentions about using recycled PET. What strikes me as even more bizarre is that it seems as though this is exactly the stage where hope might lie: the designer acting as intervention between client and consumer.


The Kungsbacka kitchen units were designed for IKEA by Swedish studio Form Us With Love, using reclaimed wood which was then coated with plastic made from recycled bottles. Speaking about the project, Form Us With Love CEO Jonas Pettersson said that ‘[a] plastic bottle is not waste; it is a resource.’ IKEA’s product developer Anna Granath also added that the range was intentionally designed to be accessible across all price points: ‘Overcoming the price was a milestone in the development. Sustainability should be for everyone, not only for those who can afford it.’ Image – Jonas Lindström

Right at the very beginning of his 1971 book, Design for the Real World, the aforementioned Papanek launched into a diatribe against his contemporaries: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them,” he said. “By creating whole species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breath, designers have become a dangerous breed.” It’s a book with extraordinary prescience, and Papanek skewers consumer culture with promethean insight. It isn’t, however, the most considered when it comes to inciting change.

He had a point, though, about ‘permanent garbage’. Even just examining the past three or four years, it’s hard to argue that the rate at which our possessions – the ones once considered ‘consumer durables’ – become outdated and impotent is accelerating quicker than ever before, particularly so with tech-based products. In fact, the only thing we can be absolutely certain of anymore is that today’s high technology will be redundant, probably sooner than we think. A solution has very little, I think, to do with morality or a slavish commitment to ‘sustainability’ (although why either of these things are so often pigeonholed or dismissed baffles me) and much more to do with pragmatism and common sense. Solving one problem at the demands of a client and knowingly creating a larger one in the process doesn’t really seem like problem-solving at all.

So maybe what is needed instead is a more holistic take on what it means to design. It starts with a frank conversation about mortality, that even the most brilliant or beautifully designed things will eventually come to the end of their lifespan. Is the catalyst as simple as a new debate, not as to whether ‘form’ or ‘function’ comes first or whether, in fact, they simply chase each other round in endless circles, but about whether ‘material follows function’? If material and functional timescales coincide: how does plastic actually fare?

At this point I have far more questions than answers. But what seems apparent is how much potential design has as an agent of change, simply by acknowledging the wider failures of a fantastic material, and accounting for them from the beginning. And, after all, isn’t that what good design is all about?

Article by Hannah Ellis 

Hannah Ellis is a designer, writer and educator based in London. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2016, the focus of her work has been on criticality, it’s necessity within the design industry, and it manifests itself in creative practice. Her work explores this in relation to both formal and informal education spaces – lectures, workshops, as well as publication and editorial design or written essays – and her writing has been published in international design magazines including Eye and Creative Review.

Hannah Ellis

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Posted By Esther Ellard