Content type: Video excerpts from Seminar
Credits: The Plastic Justice Actions Online Seminar
Year: 2021

‘The microplastic menace is a maddening conundrum: The pollutant shows up everywhere, but science knows very little about it,’ wrote journalist Matt Simon in Wired, 2019. Part of the problem of this 'maddening conundrum' is that, despite their ubiquity, microplastics and nanoplastics remain invisible. Not being able to see them, smell them, feel them or taste them makes them hard to trace, understand or even imagine.

In the online seminar, Plastic Justice Actions (which marked the launch of KABK’s Non-Linear Narrative students’ involvement with the two-year-long, five-institution-wide Plastic Justice Network project), this dilemma was touched upon by many of the speakers. Collectively, they addressed how design might be able to help make microplastics more visible for both the public and for policymakers.

Many design projects aim to find technical solutions for cleaning up microplastic pollution, but these projects have, arguably, limited impact in changing how we produce and consume. What they can do, however, is generate, gather, sort, analyse, and interpret concrete, accessible data about how and what kinds of microplastics end up in our waterways and oceans. When amassed, this data can help to change government policies and public perception.

While we continue to struggle with what it is that design can do in the face of such an insidious wicked problem as microplastics (which permeates the environment and us), it is possible that design can create narratives that help bring the issue to the forefront of public consciousness, to make it relatable, personal and less abstract.

Below you can find some clips of speakers from the seminar who speculate on how design might engage with the conundrum of microplastics.

To watch the full seminar, please click here.

Excerpt 1: Introductory conversation

Alice Twemlow, Niels Schrader and Lauren Alexander discuss the potential usefulness of designers and artists working with and on the topic of microplastics.

Excerpt 2: The Plastic Soup Foundation

Madhuri Prabhakar, who works on the Beat the Microbead campaign at the Plastic Soup Foundation, discusses how designers can contribute to the fight against microplastics from the perspective of an NGO.

Excerpt 3: The Great Bubble Barrier

The Great Bubble Barrier is a young and fast-growing Dutch start-up located in the north of Amsterdam. The organisation has designed a curtain-of-air-bubbles system to intercept plastics in rivers and canals before it reaches the ocean and has installed barriers in Amsterdam (2019), Wervershoof (2019) and Ijssel (2017).

In this video, Philip Ehrhorn, the Chief Technology Officer and Co-founder of The Great Bubble Barrier, discusses how its bubble curtain is more than just a practical solution. He argues that its strategic placement and visibility is changing public perception and helping the public to better understand the particular challenge of microplastic pollution.

Excerpt 4: Upcycling the Oceans

Upcycling the Oceans is a project by the sustainable fashion brand and foundation Ecoalf. They work with fishermen to collect marine waste (since 2015, they have collected 600 tonnes), which they repurpose into fashion garments.

In this video, Irene Diez, the director of Fundación Ecoalf, discusses the limitations of simply cleaning plastic waste and her hopes that the project will eventually lead to changes in policy through increased visibility and the usefulness of the data that the foundation has collected.