INTERVIEW

Project Ocean

London

3 August 2015

The first fully synthetic plastic, bakelite, was produced in 1907. Today, such plastics are ubiquitous.

But with this ubiquity comes problems. Around eight million tonnes of plastic are thought to enter the world's oceans as waste every year. The overall mass of this marine plastic now amounts to some five trillion pieces, with a landmass twice that of the USA. Scientists forecast that the cumulative quantity of mismanaged plastic water entering the ocean from land will, by 2025, total 155 million tonnes.

The issues raised by marine plastic – which collects in five ocean gyres (systems of circular ocean currents) and subsequently enters the food chain through fish and birds – are the subject of this year’s iteration of Project Ocean, an annual project by Selfridges department store in London to reflect on the health of the oceans.

Selfridges' project takes the form of an exhibition curated by Jane Withers. Withers focused on single-use plastic water bottles, 18 billion of which are consumed annually in the UK. Working in concert with the Zoological Society of London and the Marine Reserves Coalition, Selfridges has removed such bottles from sale in its stores.

Displaying work from design studios such as Arabeschi di Latte, Studio Swine and Andrew Friend, the exhibition aims to communicate the challenges of marine plastic, as well as suggesting potential treatments of the waste material. Studio Swine and Friend’s Gyrecraft, for instance, comprises a replica of a research ship on which the designers sailed in October 2014, trawling for marine plastic and converting it into craft items reflective of the five ocean gyres.

Elsewhere, Arabeschi di Latte worked with Withers to produce The Water Bar, a café space that proposes social rituals around the drinking of tap water, imagining a world in which the plastic water bottle has been eradicated. Lining the walls of the The Water Bar are alternative vessels – modern, traditional, decorative and functional – in which water might be transported should plastic bottles be abandoned.

In light of the exhibition, which is open until 3 September, Disegno took the opportunity to speak to Withers. In the resultant conversation, reproduced below, Withers discusses the scale of the problem of marine plastic, our attitude towards plastic, and the role that design might play in cleaning the oceans.


Ocean plastic seems to resonate with designers at present. It’s been featured in projects by small practices such as Studio Swine, but also large brands like G-Star Raw and Adidas. Why is there such a focus on it now? After all, the problem isn’t new.

I think it’s one of those things where awareness has been growing slowly and then reaches a tipping point. Given the scale of the issue, awareness is actually still very low, but I think we’re beginning to see the results emerging from some collaborations around it, which is fascinating. As well as those fashion collaborations you’ve mentioned, there is Interface, which has used fishing nets gathered from around the Philippines to produce carpet tiles. That's quite extraordinary in terms of moving from waste to value. I think marine plastic also feeds into wider issues and growing interest in the circular economy and so on.

Can you give me a sense of the scale of the problem?

There are so many statistics flying around. So, for example, we use 60,000 plastic bottles every three seconds in the world. We’re only just beginning to get our heads around the scale.

Is the communication of that problem the issue? The Ocean gyres are somewhat out of sight, out of mind.

We use plastic thoughtlessly. I don’t think we should give up using plastic, just that we should value it and use it thoughtfully. It’s an amazing material. We’ve managed to invent a material that can last 1,000 years and that’s ingenious. But we haven’t given proper thought to that durability. It’s crept up on us, as annually there’s a massive increase in the amount of plastic we use. I think that’s the interesting thing, to get people to think more about how they use it, what they use it for, and how they dispose of it. The growth of recycling is very positive, but it still only addresses such a small part of the problem. The Selfridges gesture with banning plastic bottles is a symbolic one, but it’s one people can relate to and spread to other areas of their plastic consumption.

What was your original brief from Selfridges?

The idea of the exhibition was to find a way to communicate the issues surrounding marine plastic pollution. Selfridges examined its plastic use and what we hit on was single-use, disposable plastic. We decided to make the water bottle the major focus. The brief itself was to create an exhibition that communicated the issues, but in a way that perhaps showed possible futures and alternatives. Make people feel that action is possible. Single-use plastic is something where people are in control to some extent and can modify their behaviour. Of course it's a teeny drop in the ocean, but cumulatively we can sway governments, corporations and so on. It has to work from the macro and the micro.

But do you think manufacturers are swayed by relatively small-scale communications projects like this? Obviously there are economic reasons as to why they use plastic bottles.

I suppose that Selfridges has a reasonable position for lobbying the brands, given that it stocks them. You can only hope that by stopping selling plastic water bottles it starts to make brands think. But who knows, it’s a slow process. You hope that some year it will seem as silly as smoking. It’s amazing how things happen in fits and starts, and then reach a point of no return. For instance, there’s at least an awareness about plastic bags now that wasn’t there a few years ago.

Can you flesh out the reasons for focusing on the bottle? Is it the sheer immediacy of it?

I think so. It's fascinating that for as long as man has been thirsty, he’s stored and carried water. This idea that you have to carry a plastic water bottle around with you is very recent, but many of us now use one or more every day. It was a good focus for us to demonstrate and then begin to show alternatives. In terms of your point about manufacturers, the real issue is that we need more viable alternatives. That has to be the next stage.

Those alternatives aren’t there at present?

I think it’s partly that there aren’t alternatives there and it’s partly the consumer mindset. Not many of us in the city are out of reach of water for very young. One thing that could make the difference is public water fountains and so on. It’s crazy if you think that they used to be a landmark in the city and they’re now all dry.

Isn't there a difficulty with any campaign that tells people they can’t or shouldn’t have what they’re used to having. Telling people they should cut down on plastic water bottles is a hard sell.

I think Selfridges are just saying that it's done that and it’s an example of leadership. You can follow or not. That’s why The Water Bar is about proposing an alternative. Showing a new social ritual for drinking tap water and encouraging people to think about that. It’s about proposing alternatives. I hope the tone is more discursive and suggestive.

The works shown are principally communication projects. Were you tempted to include people working with more practical solutions for marine plastic?

The solutions out there aren’t really there yet. This exhibition is about proposing alternatives and getting people to think. Selfridges isn’t a science museum, so we’re looking for a different kind of tone. My understanding is that there are a few practical projects around this that are in the early stages. While we should be optimistic about them, you can’t really pin your colours to one yet.

You’ve worked with water previously, notably in your Urban Plunge exhibition. What’s the attraction of looking at water from a design perspective?

I have a strange attraction to water and have always been very interested in it and the rich cultures and stories that surround it. But we’ve reduced water to this colourless, clean stuff that we expect to have on tap. That’s perhaps one of the problems: we need to connect with water. I thought it was interesting to look at how design can help engage with these issues. We’ve taken water for granted since industrialisation. We used to spend so much of our lives collecting and caring for it, making sure it was clean. But since industrialisation and water-on-tap, we just expect it to be there and take it for granted.