Content type: Thesis and Design Research
Credit: Johanna Günzl (Alumnus of MA Industrial Design, KABK 2019, Winner of the Industrial Design Department Award 2019 and user experience researcher)
Year: 2019

‘Looking at microplastics as hyperobjects triggers us to think of them as a very complex, multidimensional problem that might need several solutions to attack them.’
Johanna Günzl

Introduction:
How can designers tackle the globally dispersed and abstract problem of microplastic pollution? Why do people avoid engaging with the topic of microplastics despite its huge consequences for our planet and ourselves? How do the aesthetics of the small colourful plastic pieces sit in contrast to their destructiveness? How and why are microplastics create and disseminated? These are some of the many research questions that designer and psychologist Johanna Günzle, asked in her MA thesis Hidden Kingdoms: Exploring the Uncharted Paths of the Hyperobject. To research her incredibly detailed and compehensive thesis Günzle used methods of archaeological collection, expert interviews, non-expert interviews, mapping, speculative storytelling which led to the creation of new categorization systems and frameworks for classifying and understanding microplatics. Key to the thesis and Günzl’s journey for understanding microplastics was applying and adapting the object-oriented theories of Tim Morton, in particular around ‘hyperobjects’ to microplastics.

Below are some excerpts of Günzle thesis. To read the full 112 page document please see this PDF

Theory and Background of Mircroplastics

In the first chapter of her thesis, Johanna Günzl outlines the theory and background of microplastics. She refer to this as a kind of FAQ on microplastics and gives the reader a foundation for understanding the context of her research.

Microplastics are plastic pieces of 5mm in diameter and smaller—some researchers speak of bigger, some of smaller sizes. They are largely found on beaches, surface water and the marine benthos (the bottom of the ocean sand layer) worldwide. Some microplastics have nano size and cannot be seen with the naked eye (Cole et al., 2011).

Nearly all plastic products can break down into microplastics usually due to heat and UV exposure, tearing and weathering when plastic trash is accumulated in the natural environment. We refer to these types of microplastics as secondary microplastics.

Other microplastics are directly produced on microplastic size (5mm or smaller) and are therefore called primary microplastics. Primary microplastics can often be found in cosmetic products as microbeads and some are used in the process of sandblasting where tiny plastic bullets are shot with high pressure onto an exterior to clean it (Andrady, 2011, Cole et al. 2011). But we also find primary microplastics in toys and play goods for children. Take this example from IKEA.


This is made from such small plastic pieces that as soon as it is released into the environment it already is microplastic pollution. There has never been any public debate on whether or not these minute primary microplastics should be
produced as products. A large source of secondary microplastics comes from car tires, paint, textiles,
single-use plastics and cigarette butts (Lindgreen & Graaff, 2017).

Microplastics are not exlusively—but mostly—found in natural environments e.g. in parks and on beaches, they have even been found on the remote lands of the Artic and Antarctica (Barnes et al., 2010, Lusher et al., 2015). Most of the plastic particles accumulate on the ocean’s surface and beneath it but many (like the ones from car tiers) also pollute the air. We find plastics in house-dust (Catarino et al., 2018) and as mention above, in our water system and in our food. Microplastics have been found in milk products, drinking water, beer, honey, sea salt, sugar and seafood (Kosuth, et al., 2018, Liebezeit & Liebezeit, 2013).

There are different paths that microplastics take to enter the ocean, which is the dead-end for the plastic pieces. Through unidirectional drainage systems, microplastics from cosmetics and air-blasting reach into the rivers and eventually end up in the seas.

Fishing, marine vessels and marine industries are responsible for another huge part of plastic pieces in the ocean. A high plastic rate is hereby estimated to come from the polyester fishing nets. Another notable source of microplastics is manufacturers of plastic products that accidentally spill granulates and small resin pellets into the water system during transport on land and seas. This is due to inappropriate use of plastic packaging materials, and direct outflow from processing plants (Cole et al). Many microplastics that accumulate in the streets of cities and through the wear-off of car-tires drift into rivers through weathering, serving as channels into the ocean. It is estimated that approximately 75 per cent of all plastics that wind up in the ocean originate on land and are transported via rivers. The worlds’ biggest microplastic carrying rivers bring as much as 200 million pieces each into the ocean every day (Feilberg&Salaverria, 2018). Other impactful microplastic contributors are beaches with their beach tourist who leave tons of plastic trash in form of packages, straws and plastic play goods behind. Beaches are highly exposed to UV-sunlight and heat and are therefore a factory for secondary microplastics. Bigger plastic debris quickly breaks down into smaller pieces by surface micro-cracking through UV-exposure. Interestingly, as soon as bigger plastic chunks reach the ocean they are mostly protected from UV-light breakdown due to the preservative cold of the water (Andrady, 2011).

There are no established solutions yet to clean microplastics from the natural environment. Most microplastics gather in the ocean and some of them are on the water surface, while some sink to the sea bed. A few bacteria have been found, like the rhodococcus ruber or deonella sakaiensis 201-F6 that were suggested may help solve the plastic crisis by digesting plastic waste using an enzyme splitting the plastics chemical bonds into smaller units that the bacteria can absorb. However, these bacteria function under very controlled laboratory circumstances only. It is estimated unlikely that they could do their job also in the natural environment (Flashman, 2018, Andrady, 2011).

Excerpts from Chapter 2: A Hyper Object Phenomenon

Plastics collected by johanna Günzl during her street surveys


In this chapter, I present a philosophical perspective on the topic by looking at microplastics as hyperobjects. I challenge the traditional definition of hyperobjects by philosopher Timothy Morton by suggesting angles for designers to work with.

A HYPEROBJECT DEFINITION

Timothy Morton introduced the term hyperobjects to help understand and ‘cope with something that is so big and so powerful that until now, we had no real word for it. [...] the concept gives us a single word to describe something on the tip of our tongues.’ Hyperobjects are man-made massively distributed objects of the Anthropocene, our current age where man-made dominates the nature-made. They directly lead to what he calls the end of the world. Although harshly criticised by his colleagues for the book's logic inconsistencies, the environmental philosopher presents some interesting ideas that well help better grasp the existence and occurrence of microplastics.

According to Morton, hyperobjects are all things that one can study and compute, but are not easy to see directly. Some examples of hyperobjects he mentions are Styrofoam cups, climate change, the sum nuclear materials on earth, or just the plutonium or uranium, but also the biosphere. Importantly, since hyperobjects are man-made, we humans are obliged to care about them. We are responsible for them ‘because we can think them’ (2015).

Morton defines certain shared characterises of hyperobjects:

  • They are objects in their own right.

  • They have a significant impact on human social and psychic space or, to describe it in another word, they are ‘non-local.’

  • They are large and massively distributed:

  • ‘They are not infinite, but they are so large that they humiliate and defeat not only our ability to count, but also our ability to build.’ (Morton, 2012)

  • ‘They refer to things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.’ (Morton, 2013)

  • Hyperobjects are harmful: ‘Hyperobjects are the true anarchists, the shock troops of ecological coexistence.’ (Morton, 2012). ‘Hyperobjects are directly responsible to what I call the end of the world.’ (Morton, 2013)

  • Hyperobjects can grow very old. “Even relatively short-lived hyperobjects ruthlessly demolish 200 years of comforting (for some) anthropocentric domination of time and space.” (Morton, 2012) They can in fact have very different temporalities than what we are used to. In a blog post, Morton suggests that they can have space-time ‘In a more figurative sense, hyperobjects last so long that they are foreshortened in time, squished so that we can‘t see them as a flat, linear object. Seven percent of global warming effects will be around 100,000 years from now. It‘s almost impossible to imagine this.’ (Morton, 2015)

  • They are viscous, which means that they stick to other objects.

  • They exhibit inter-objectivity. The hyperobject ‘consists of all kinds of other entities but is not reducible to them.’ (Morton, 2015) Hyperobjects are super high dimensional in the sense that ‘they are complex entities that you have to map in what they call a high- dimensional-phase space: a space that plots all the states of the system’ (Morton, 2015)

So, in order to understand the hyperobject, you need to look at different features of the phenomenon. E.g. if it snows, one cannot say that this is due to global warming unless you have not looked at the location, the quantities, the time. Snow in Greece in July might be more a sign of climate change than snow in Germany in December.

MICROPLASTICS AS HYPEROBJECTS

We can say that microplastics are hyperobjects, because many of the mentioned characteristics apply to them. They are man-made and wide-spread (many pieces are found even at remote places like the Arctic). Small pollutants and planktons physically stick to them showing their viscosity. They might stay in the environment for many centuries to come with probably daunting impacts on our environment and health.

Looking at microplastics as hyperobjects triggers us to think of them as a very complex, multidimensional problem that might need several solutions to attack them. Just as introducing several strategies to counteract e.g. climate change, several strategies might be needed to fight the microplastic crisis.

IN ADDITION

Many authors have criticized Morton’s hyperobject theory for its logical inconsistencies. It is for example questionable how hyperobjects can be coined so harmful and man-made while he mentions in other articles that the biospheres and planets are also hyperobjects. These examples hinder the definitions clarity and make the term, to some extent, impractical to work with. On the other hand, by challenging the definition and taking the term with some characteristics as inspiration, we can explore the roll of designers and policymakers in designing for, with or against hyperobjects.

In his description of hyperobjects, Morton seems to narrow hyperobjects down to a dark future forecast that will inevitably end everything that the world used to be, allowing no room for personal, societal or ecological improvements or solutions.

Hereby, I suggest to add certain characteristics:

  • If hyperobjects are objects in their own right, product and object designers should be concerned with them in one or the other way. I am suggesting a positive attitude towards hyperobjects that helps research them better.

  • The super dimensionality of the hyperobjects can be used as guidelines to map out what a specific hyperobject is, how, when and why it appears. Modern science helps us in better understanding the complexity of hyperobjects as we can better measure natural occurrences and calculate correlations between them (This is something that Morton also suggests).

In that sense, hyperobjects show us the logic of the world and their own logic in relation to the world. By studying them, we might understand how the world works and how they work. If we understand how they occur, we might, in return, understand how they can vanish again. Hints can be found by observing them over a period of time, or, as I suggest, by looking at them from different angles. Every occurrence of the hyperobject serves as data that helps better grasp its existence, even though this does not directly help to understand the hyperobject in its entirety. [...]

Excerpts from Chapter 3: A description of Method

‘As indicated, microplastics are strictly speaking only those plastic pieces smaller than 5 mm in diameter. Plastic pieces with exactly 5 mm in diameter are called mesoplastics and all bigger plastic pieces are macroplastics. However, if we look at those pieces, we see that some smaller ones can be easily traced back to the original products they come from (e.g. the plastic pearls or soft-air monition) and bigger pieces are more obscure in hinting to an origin.’


Introduction:
Microplastics are not just tiny, annoying plastic pieces or a microscopic threat to our seafood. The pieces that we find in our surrounding used to be parts of a bigger plastic object. From the perspective of a product designer, it is interesting to see microplastics as data that hint at this product, which might not be designed to prevent microplastic pollution. In this chapter, I am explaining this new way of looking at minute plastic trash.

A MICROPLASTIC DISCOVERY

‘Have you ever seen a microplastic? Would you know how it looks like? They are so minute you hear, they are everywhere you hear, but would you recognize a microplastic if it crosses your way?’

At the beginning of my research, I received many sceptical questions about my quest. They made me very doubtful of my own choice for this topic and I imagined myself already shredding plastic toys and single-use cutlery to produce small plastic pieces myself in order to study them. It was then that I decided to go for a walk, searching the ground for microplastics. I was very surprised! After a good half an hour search, I had collected as much as 27 pieces of plastic (see images).

I quickly encountered a dilemma; I had not only collected microplastics of 5 mm and smaller, which is the official definition of microplastics (see chapter 1) but had also picked up bigger plastic pieces. Why should I have left those that are 6, 7 or 8 mm in diameter at the park site behind? Would they really behave differently in the way they spread or get stuck between cobblestones where they are even harder to remove? And in the end, all bigger plastic pieces turn into microplastic pieces the longer they are in nature and exposed to UV light and weathering. So, what makes a microplastic really a microplastic?


When evaluating my plastic piece collection, I noticed that for some pieces, I could tell from which kind of product they originated by looking at their colour, shape, or because I had found a similar bigger piece nearby that together formed a whole product, like e.g. a plastic screw or a plastic coffee stirrer. Others however were impossible to identify and I could not point out a specific product category as their source of origin.

I made a routine of walking the same route every day while searching for small plastic pieces. I started to notice patterns in the way certain pieces spread; for example, I found many soft air-gun monitions around a big market square and even if I had picked up almost all of them one day, the next day I found new ones again. I also found many colourful PET plastic pieces around ice cream parlours. It was obvious that consumers had just dropped the ice cream spoons after finishing their ice-cream and the spoons were trampled into pieces by pedestrians. Some shops seem to eradicate certain types of plastic. I noticed that those pieces that I could trace back to a certain source had a different value for my design process than those that were more anonymous.

A map of the area's in which Günzl was collecting "traceables" many of them could be linked to nearby businesses and activities

A MICROPLASTIC CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM

With these insights, I suggest a new classification for microplastics. Currently, microplastics are categorized according to their size. According to Andrady (2011) and others (e.g. Barnes et al, 2009, Betts, 2008), pieces of any type of plastics that are bigger than 5mm in diameter are called macroplastics, those that are exactly 5mm in diameter are called mesoplastics and those smaller than 5mm are called microplastics. At some point, they are so small that you could call them nanoplastics, but meso-, micro- and nanoplastics belong to the group of microplastics.

By looking at plastic pieces in terms of traceability, the pieces get the function of telling stories, which can help us better understand how and why they spread. As a result, we can make better prediction on how they can be prevented from spilling into the natural environment. In the image below, you see different plastic pieces that I found, sorted according to the traditional definition. You would expect that the smaller the pieces become, the fuzzier they become and harder to trace back. But this is actually not the case. Many very small pieces can still be identified as small plastic pearls, Styrofoam particles or bike light pieces, while some bigger ones are more obscure.

This classification system should also trigger us to not only think about microplastics in terms of useless, dangerous, minute plastic garbage, but to see them as data that help tackle the crisis itself as they hint back to their sources. We need to examine them thoroughly and read their stories to understand how to prevent them.

I propose three classes of microplastics: Traceables, Semi Traceables and Orphans

I propose three classes of microplastics: Traceables, Semi Traceables and Orphans. Traceability depends on the ease of collectability of the piece, the extent to which an original product can be recognized and on the context where a plastic piece is found. Depending on where a piece is found it, can be a Traceable, a Semi Traceable or an Orphan.

TRACEABLES

I use the term traceable microplastics to refer to those pieces of plastic that can be traced back to a specific source of origin. They tell the story of products and production, selling, consumption and disposal. Traceables are small but can still be bigger than 5mm in diameter, depending on their ability to spread easily or getting stuck between stones (so a 20mm piece of plastic foil might spread or hide as easily as a 1mm plastic pearl).

Ice-cream spoons are a good example of traceable microplastics and they tell several stories at the same time. They hint back to a certain kind of location that disseminates them. They show the habit of people to throw plastic pieces into nature as if they were from a biodegradable material. It tells us about our unawareness of our own impact in the microplastic crisis. And lastly, they point towards the product itself—ice-cream spoons—which might be quite a questionable product itself. Ice-cream should be the one food that does not need cutlery for.

I propose to use Traceables as a data source to better understand how we produce and consume those plastics that greatly end up in the natural and urban environment. By searching Traceables myself and ask others to do so, I aim to build a data map showing which products cause microplastics pollution and why. I call this research archaeological design research and explain it in chapter 4. From this research, I aim to deduct design guidelines on how to design for a microplastic conscious world. The essay that follows, is a scenario partially derived from the insights of this analysis.

SEMI TRACEABLES

I introduce the term Semi Traceables to describe those microplastics that can partially be traced back to their location of origin and can be anticipated to end up at a certain location. In contrast to Traceables, Semi Traceables cannot be traced back to a specific source like a product or a business that eradicates them. Semi Traceables can be found in household sewage systems and foremost in rivers. As rivers usually flow from one or several springs into the ocean, microplastics are fed into rivers along the rivers' journey, especially when passing more densely populated cities with factories and many households.

To track "Semitracalbes" Günzl collected microplatics from the River Rhine


Semi-Traceables tell the story of awareness and people’s individual relation towards the microplastic crisis. In people's perception, Semi-Traceables might be much more of a vague concept and harder to grasp than Traceables. Semi-Traceables are oftentimes too small to be seen, they accumulate at places where they did not originate from (thus people living there might not feel responsible for them) and they eventually end up in the ocean where they seem to vanish in the vastness of the water.

As Semi-Traceables might be perceived in a very abstract way, I suggest a contextual analysis at a place where a peek in river microplastic concentration is measured. There, a relational analysis between the River, inhabitants, the industry and microplastics will be conducted. This is done to better understand the status quo of the pollution and how a turn in this crisis could be stimulated by the people, the industry or the river itself. According to research by Mani et al (2015) it was found that the Rhine is one of the world's most polluted rivers. I therefore travelled to Rees, a small city at the Niederrhein in Germany where a maximum in microplastics was measured and to Duisburg, an industrial German city upstream of Rees where a part of the pollution was expected to come from. This contextual research is described in chapter 5.

The objects Günzl used for microplastic collection in the Rhine

ORPHANS

Orphan microplastics are those plastic pieces that cannot be traced back to a source of origin, nor can their route be retraced—it is unclear where they come from and where they might end up. One can find orphans on the beach or in the ocean, in our drinks and food. They are very minute and can only be analysed underneath the microscope, but some can even have macroplastic size. Orphans are the embodiment of many people’s microplastic perception: anonymous, invisible, everyone's and no-one's responsibility. They therefore tell the story of our global relation to this hyperobject crisis.

Designer ́s action space to influence hyperobjects
A designer ́s possible approaches for influencing/affecting hyperobjects