The Plastic Revolution

The Plastic Revolution

WORDS Jo Buitendach PHOTOS Supplied; Dave Southwood (Local Studio)

It’s everywhere, and it’s changed the way we live. We explore the good, the bad and the smart of this fascinating, ever-present material.

We take it for granted that plastic is used in the making of so much – from the obvious, like packaging, to its less-apparent use in textiles. Really, it’s difficult to imagine a time before the “plastic revolution”. Staggeringly, though, until 1862, when the first man-made plastic was invented and marketed as an alternative to popular ivory and horn products, our ancestors lived sans the stuff.

It wasn’t until 1907 that the first completely synthetic plastic, Bakelite, was produced. Its advent marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry. From the 1920s, it became a popular material in machine parts and household items. Today, Bakelite pieces – brightly coloured costume jewellery and vintage radios especially – are a highly sought-after collectable.

The Plastic Revolution
Bakelite and Tupperware were two standouts of the “plastic revolution”, with “Tupperware parties” – all the rage at the time – ensuring the products’ success. Today, Bakelite is a popular collectable.

World War II saw a huge number of plastic innovations, including polystyrene and nylon; most were used in the war effort. But it was in the post-war years that everyday plastic use really exploded. Manufacturers turned to mass-produced consumer items as an outlet for the materials they had developed during the war. Cheap and hardy, plastic slowly seeped its way into every aspect of our lives.

The Plastic Revolution
The Plastic Revolution
The Plastic Revolution
The iconic Tupperware Shape-O toy has kept millions of kids entertained since its introduction in 1965.

An example of this is Tupperware, invented by Earl Tupper in 1946. Touted as a “miracle product”, Tupper’s first bowl and tumbler, along with a unique home demonstration model, helped to ensure the products’ huge success.

The Ugly Side

Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues facing humans – it’s practically an epidemic. Today, single-use plastics account for 40% of all plastic produced, and can remain in the environment for hundreds of years after use.

According to the United Nations, “Plastic pollution soared from two-million tonnes in 1950 to 348-million tonnes in 2017. It is expected to double in capacity by 2040.” Air pollution resulting from burning plastic, greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production and the 11-million tonnes of plastic waste that end up in the ocean annually are also deeply worrying.

In March last year, the United Nations Environment Assembly made history by endorsing a historic resolution to end plastic pollution. Of it, Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said, “Today marks a triumph by planet Earth over single-use plastics. This is the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris Agreement. It is an insurance policy for this generation and future ones, so they may live with plastic and not be doomed by it.”

A 3D VR painting created for the Museum of Plastic 2121. A real-life mural version of this, painted by Cheeky Observer, can be found in Cape Town.

If pollution and the adverse effect of plastic worries you – and it should – then a “visit” to the Museum of Plastic 2121 is a must. The collaboration between art collectives and academics from the UK, Austria and South Africa is part of the British Council’s Creative Commissions programme. This virtual museum is based 99 years from now, in an imagined future, where things have worked out well for both plastic and humanity. Visitors can discover the story of plastic and its impact on the environment. The organisers also partnered with Cape Town street-art collective Baz-Art in late 2021, who in turn worked with artists and communities in the Mother City to create real- world murals alongside 3D VR paintings for the museum.

It’s All in The Design

The sky is the limit when working with this malleable material. Here are some of our top plastic design items.

The Plastic Revolution
Herman Miller x HAY’s new collaboration is an interpretation of mid-century Eames classics, and includes moulded plastic chairs.

An exciting new collaboration – Herman Miller x HAY – sees 21st-century interpretations of some much-loved mid-century Eames classics. As part of a commitment to reducing waste, the collection’s moulded plastic chairs contain 100% post-industrial recycled plastic, available in the HAY-designed six-colour palette.

Columbia’s Conceptos Plásticos produces an innovative 100% recycled plastic construction system, making both bricks and blocks that allow quick assembly of houses and schools for vulnerable people. The bricks’ insulating power minimises energy, heat and fire transmission, and the homes are easy to construct. Conceptos Plásticos also offers empowerment programmes for female household heads and young collectors.

Joburg architecture and urbanism practice Local Studio incorporates plastic in many of its designs, including the Hillbrow Counselling Centre, which uses a mottled polycarbonate to let light in. The Outreach Foundation Community Centre, once the unfinished rooftop of a community hall, uses corrugated plastic to establish itself as a new addition to the area.

Drawn to projects that have a direct interface with public spaces, Joburg architecture and urbanism practice Local Studio has incorporated plastic into several designs. These include the Outreach Foundation Community Centre (2015) and Hillbrow Counselling Centre (2017). The latter used a mottled polycarbonate, which allows light in while still offering privacy. The Outreach Foundation, formerly the unfinished rooftop of a community hall, houses a computer centre, dance studio, offices and meeting areas. The building’s clear corrugated polycarbonate aids in establishing this structure as a new addition to the city.

Fulham Heights, home to Local Studio’s offices, is clad with polycarbonate.

More recently, Local Studio included an eye-catching translucent polycarbonate at its own offices, Fulham Heights. The building – a conversion of an old corner shop – incorporates a three-storey structural steel frame, clad with the polycarbonate on the east and south elevations.

The Plastic Revolution
Kommetjie-based Janet Ormond creates artworks from plastic she collects off local beaches.

Kommetjie environmental artist Janet Ormond creates “small artworks made from a big problem”. “I began making art entirely from the plastic I collect off local beaches in 2018, to heighten awareness around the devastating impact that plastic pollution is having on our environment,” she says. Her whimsical pieces are fashioned from an endless variety of often unidentifiable types of plastic. Through her work as an “artivist”, she hopes to bring about personal reflection and compel behavioural changes to help solve the global pollution problem.

The Plastic Revolution
Plasticity handcrafts upcycled designs using discarded plastic.

Plasticity, a mother-and-daughter-run business in Graaff-Reinet, handcrafts upcycled designs using discarded plastic and organic hemp. The plastic is sourced locally, and the branded labels are made
by Boundless, a protective workplace for disabled individuals, based in the Eastern Cape. Plasticity offers a wide range of bags and purses, as well as planters.

House of Canvex converts rPET yarn into eye- catching – and environmentally friendly – textiles.

Finally, House of Canvex is the first manufacturer in the country to convert South African rPET yarn into environmentally friendly homeware textiles. rPET – or recycled polyethylene terephthalate – is a plastic used to make packaging such as bottles and food containers. The vision is to connect local textile designers and artists with decorators, furniture manufacturers and consumers.

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