We Need To Re-mold the Perception of Plastic: It’s Down to Designers To Do It
by The Dieline on 01/25/2023 | 4 Minute Read
By: James Melia
Conversations around sustainability are high on the agenda, not just for brands and businesses but for the public too. Since the world has become increasingly conscious of its carbon and our climate footprint, the perception of plastic has become resoundingly negative. Most people understand the environmental necessity to change wasteful behaviors—consume less, reuse more, and recycle—but has plastic been miscast as sustainability’s no.1 villain?
Perhaps not. When it takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 years to fully decompose—if it does at all—then it's best to look at all of the sustainable and plastic-free material alternatives available to designers. But plastics can also play a role in generating more refillable or reusable solutions for brands.
We think it’s time to reassess the role plastics can play in sustainable consumption. Today, brands espouse green strategies by being “plastic-free” and using natural materials in products to broaden their appeal. However, hidden non-recyclable parts, poor construction techniques, and poor material choices can make products less sustainable. For example, if a product has gets made from more than one material glued together, it can be harder to recycle than something created from a single mono-plastic. At best, these brand initiatives are naïve or accidental oversights. At worst, they could be accused of virtue signaling and greenwashing.
Plastic’s durability often makes it the best option for the primary packaging of refillable products, as the container must last for dozens of refill cycles while being lightweight and compact for shipping economically. If you swapped plastic out for glass or wood, you might be avoiding fossil fuel-sourced materials, but the added size and weight might mean you're expending more carbon overall. Refillable business models only serve as environmentally-friendly alternatives if the carbon-saving benefits carry over for the product's life cycle and supply chain. That is why mono-plastic—as it's durable and easy to recycle—can sometimes be the optimal material choice.
We recently worked alongside the sustainable deodorant brand Fussy; the goal was to design a refillable deodorant with a screw base actuator to house compostable refills and reduce the amount of single-use plastic that ends up in our oceans. The casing was manufactured to be long-lasting, with increased wall thicknesses and a robust actuator mechanism. It’s made from recycled plastic, and because it consists of one material, it's also recyclable by itself.
“Eco-friendly” refills are becoming increasingly popular and have seeped into the packaging design for bigger luxury brands. The refillable skincare line SKKN by Kim Kardashian demonstrates the potential of this. However, in this case, each refill contains enough plastic to function as a standalone product. If the design had received thorough consideration and a valid life cycle assessment, the refill's unnecessary plastic would likely be reduced significantly. As positive as it is to see new brands making this step toward understanding the viability of refillable packaging systems, it highlights why proper R&D and finding the right design expertise are essential to getting it right the first time.
We also recently worked alongside hair styling brand Ruka to design the EdgeSlick styling comb for baby hairs and edges. Through our research, we noted the most popular DIY tool for styling edges is a toothbrush. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but with 1 billion toothbrushes thrown away each year, we wanted to ensure whatever we created didn’t contribute to the growing plastic waste issue. We decided to replicate the aspects of a toothbrush that worked, designing something reusable and sustainable through a refillable comb head system designed specifically for Ruka. We created two sides to the comb's head—one holding soft nylon bristles for swooping, shaping, and layering and the other with firmer bristles for combing and detangling. Most importantly, we ensured there was a concerted effort put into the research, meaning we knew the best material in terms of both durability and the circular economy was mono-plastic.
Many obstacles stand in the way of creating purposeful refillable products. To overcome them, designers and packaging professionals must include plenty of upfront strategy for any design projects, helping clients define the brief and consider the right business model and archetype for delivering a sustainable product offering.
Good design endures, so designing for sustainability is not always about natural choices and biodegradability. It can be about ensuring customers purchase something once and cherish that product for a long time. Misconceptions about plastics need to get addressed to reclaim their positive attributes as a sustainable material option. To help identify the overall impact designs and material choices have on sustainability, designers should encourage conversations around the circular economy from as early in the design stage as possible. Through this, it’s possible to shift perceptions on how we can utilize plastic materials to maximize sustainable objectives.
James Melia is founder and creative director of Blond, an award-winning London-based creative design studio with a track record of producing unique portable and sustainable alternatives to everyday items. His major projects include the Fold Wireless charging concept, Joseph Joseph loop water bottles, and designing the Fussy refillable deodorant for Fussy™ - which went on to gain investment from Dragons’ Den tycoons Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden. He has appeared in a number of leading design publications such as Design Week, DesignWanted, TrendHunterm andWallpaper.