Anna Cummins has seen a lot of garbage. As the co-founder of 5 Gyres, a research organization studying ocean plastic pollution and fighting its further accumulation, she has sailed over 25,000 miles to document its effects on marine habitat and wildlife.
She has seen firsthand how plastic pollution is clogging our waterways, damaging marine ecosystems, and entering the marine food web. She knows how the plastic trash we generate on land flows into our oceans, breaking into smaller particles that become a hazard for marine wildlife, and ultimately for us.
In a recent interview with Green Technology Forum, I asked Anna what role she thinks designers can play in helping solve the plastic pollution problem.
I think it’s a critical role for a couple of reasons. For one, we’re talking about coming up with new materials—perhaps non-petroleum-based materials like bioplastics, PHA, PLA and other materials—that are truly biodegradable or compostable in a more cradle-to-cradle approach.
Then there’s the idea of designing for recycling—designing products that are easy to recycle. We also need to standardize the kinds of plastic that we’re using to make different products because, right now, recycling plastic is challenging and our rates of recovery are very low in this country. Designers can play a role in coming up with products that are easier to recycle so that we don’t have such a challenge.
Another thing that we’ve been looking at a lot is the role that redemption programs can play, whether it’s a bottle bill or, something we think would be really effective, extending the idea of a bottle bill to other products like clamshells and other containers, things that can truly be recycled.
So I think there are many, many important roles that designers can play, including integrating the concept of cradle-to-cradle design, because the whole reason we have this problem is that there’s very little value placed on the end life of most plastic products; they end up as litter or in a landfill. But if we design them to be easier to take apart and return to their component parts and then recycle, we won’t have this big waste problem.
One thing that we would love to advocate for in the coming years is the national bottle bill, because in states where you have a bottle bill you have much higher rates of recovery. If we could take that concept and extend it to other products, where we had a price per pound for any kind of plastic object, then people would have an incentive to pick them up off our streets or not leave them in the streets in the first place.
So these are some of the solutions we think about, because there is no single solution that’s going to solve this problem. Plastics are so ubiquitous right now in our society, and we’re so saturated in our throwaway convenience culture, that it’s going to take a number of solutions, from the policy and legislation perspective to the design and industrial perspective, as well as corporate responsibility and then of course the role that everyday consumers play.
Anna Cummins is co-founder, along with her husband, Marcus Erikson, of 5 Gyres.