In 1907, while developing an alternative to shellac, a natural resin secreted from the East Asian lac bug and used to insulate electrical cables in the early 20th century, Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland invented the world’s first mouldable synthetic polymer, called Bakelite. In the decades that followed, the creation of synthetic polymers revolutionised the design of everyday products, with industrial designers enthusiastically embracing a spectrum of new synthetic materials, signalling a period of unprecedented product innovation. The introduction of these synthetic polymers eventually made way for new plastic products including those designed for ‘single use’ such as clear plastic food wraps, bottles and containers.
Today, we recognise the impact that synthetic plastics and non-degradable materials have had on our natural environment. Many of these products end up as landfill or as marine debris – plastic waste that litters our oceans and shorelines and eventually enters the marine food chain as microplastics. Few could have predicted the widespread environmental consequences these materials would have. Researchers now expect that fossilised plastics will be visible on earth for millions of years, leaving a lasting imprint of human activity on the geological record.
The disciplines of materials science and technology, once solely the domain of chemists, scientists and engineers, now frequently cross paths with the applied arts. In response to growing environmental issues, materials are developed by a new generation of designers, aware of their ethical responsibilities and the long-term environmental impact of their practice. This cradle to cradle design approach is reflected by many leading European design schools, now looking at materiality in the context of global sustainability. For example, the MA Material Futures postgraduate course at Central Saint Martins in London, which advocates research-driven design and exposes students to ‘new materials, processes, technologies and design methodologies.’
As part of the upcoming exhibition Common Good, the Museum is creating a sustainable materials reference library to explore ways in which the discipline of design might contribute to the development of this expanding field of research. Acting as an ongoing educational resource for established and emerging designers, the archive will document innovative, sustainable materials as they are developed. The library currently contains new materials from the Asia-Pacific region including the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, China and Japan. While many of these materials offer alternatives to synthetic or human-made polymers, several projects also address the rapid growth in global production by re-purposing industrial, agricultural and consumer waste.
Among the projects featured are Colors of Egg, an ongoing research project by Jung-You Choi, a South Korean designer studying the composite qualities of eggshell waste from the food industry and Japanese collective AMAM who have been exploring the use of agar (a substance derived from algae) as an alternative to non-biodegradable plastic packaging. In China, Studio Swine have been researching the potential of human hair as a substitute to diminishing materials such as tropical wood.
The library also contains materials made from coffee bean husks, as well as nanocellulose in combination with flax, palm fibre and scrap wood. Also featured, a ground-breaking natural textile created from pineapple leaf fibre, a new material made from recycled ocean plastic and a material made from corn husks which provides acoustic and thermal insulation.
The Life Cycles materials library will be on display in the Common Good exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum from 2 March – 2 December 2018.
Written by Keinton Butler, Senior Curator