Plastic is flexible, water-resistant, lightweight, versatile and inexpensive. These attractive qualities have bought us to the current situation where plastics can be found across every inch of our planet. From daily encounters with individually shrink-wrapped vegetables in the supermarket to 10,994 metres below sea level in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, the problem of plastic is omnipresent in our consciousness and yet we continue to (somewhat guiltily) consume it. The UN estimates that over 300 million tons of plastic waste are produced every year, having a pernicious and increasingly visible effect on our planet. Indeed, we are now living in a new geological epoch: The Anthropocene, marking the time when our species has irreversibly altered the natural environment. The very geology of the planet has changed, with plastics and other manmade materials now a permanent part of the earth’s crust and structure.

While design-led initiatives to clean up plastic from beaches, oceans and other natural environments are increasingly common, they often give the illusion that the problem is under control. The disturbing reality is that microplastics permeate far beyond that which we can manage and localised design projects can only go so far. There is an urgent need for both policy change and behavioural change. With the EU recently announcing bans on plastics and microplastics, this shift is slowly gaining momentum, but the problem is complex and enormous there is still the need to move faster.

PLASTIC WASTE unpacks the global issue of plastic pollution from theoretical, practical and speculative approaches, considering multiple viewpoints to examine a major environmental problem of our time.