Plastic Paradise

Only a change in mentality can save us from our reliance on plastic

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The world we live in today is shaped by one material, namely plastic. Plastic is everywhere; it’s in the clothes and shoes we are wearing, the chairs we sit on, the floors we stand on and the wheels we roll on.

Plastic was invented in 1907 as a cheap alternative to the expensive ivory. Since then, the cheap image of plastic has not changed, but it’s being used everywhere. It has proven its use in important applications such as medical healthcare, where its value is irreplaceable.

At the same time, plastic is a huge problem. It is a product of the petrochemical industry, which is responsible for over 80% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. We have all seen images of animals tangled in plastic, and we all know the plastic soup that is filling our oceans. Plastic is found in the blood of 90% of the world’s population, it is in our drinking water, and has even been found in 7 out of 10 placentas, causing all kinds of malformations to the unborn.

It’s time to end our plastic addiction and look at alternatives

Industrialization has brought us a lot of good things. Our prosperity grew, and in the western world almost everyone has everything. But now we are paying the price for this uncontrolled need for consumption, where quantity wins over quality. We live in a world where the most successful restaurant chain has no chefs working in the kitchen, where product life spans get shorter every day. If we want our children to grow up in a world where we can continue to live comfortably, we have to change our behavior now. It will not be easy, but it is possible.

Imagine the world before 1907. People were wearing clothes made of linen and wool, wearing leather shoes. They were sitting on wooden chairs, and they were cooking with metal pots. They were drinking from ceramic cups, and glasses made of real glass. Materials in those days aged well, lasting for generations. They came from a natural and renewable source, and they were made with attention and care. To me this sounds much more idyllic and rich compared to the world we live in now. I’m not saying we should go back to that period, but we should certainly learn from it.

For the seats at Schiphol Airport, the designer used coconut hair to avoid plastic.
Schiphol Airport seating designed by Richard Hutten. Photo courtesy Lensvelt Furniture

In my own practice as a designer, sustainability is at the top of my list with every project I do. I recently designed the seating for Schiphol Airport. For decades, plastic foam has been the only material used for the filling of upholstered seats. In my mission to make a more sustainable product, one of my objectives was to make the design plastic-free. Designing soft seating without plastic was the biggest challenge. To solve this problem, I looked at the way soft furniture was made before plastic was invented. I discovered that it was made of natural fibers such as horse hair and natural latex. For the seats at Schiphol, I used coconut hair, a material that until now has been considered as waste.

This solution has many advantages compared to plastic. First of all it is biodegradable, even compostable, and therefore it is also harmless at the end of its life. During the production the workers do not need to wear masks to protect themselves, since the material is completely harmless to their health. Passengers will also benefit, given that the materials breathes much better than plastic.

You may wonder why not all seats are made like this? The answer is as simple as it is sad: economics. The initial costs are indeed higher, if you compare it with a plastic seat. But if you look at the life span of the product, and the total cost of ownership, it turns out to be even cheaper than plastic since the material is much more durable. By setting the goal to make a plastic-free seat, the makers receive better working conditions; the users are more comfortable; the owners save money during the life cycle of the product; and the world is less polluted. A win-win situation. What we need is a change in mindset. We need a long term vision for the planet that our children will inherit.

A plastic-free world will only have winners. Climate crisis or not, the world is better off without plastic. When all the truly important things in life are plastic-free, who needs plastic anyway?

Main image: What are the alternatives for plastic objects for everyday use? Photo Jasmin Sessler/Unsplash

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