Choose a topic of special interest, and spend a semester conducting deep exploratory research on it. The following semester, transform this research into a self-directed, meaningful design project.
Out of a general interest in environmental sustainability came a focus on plastic pollution, and practical ways to help solve the problem. "This Will Outlive You" is a motion graphic intended to educate people on the issue of plastic pollution, and provide a number of easy-to-implement ways to reduce our plastic consumption.
What are the issues involved with environmental sustainability, and what can be done to help solve them?
I’ve always been passionate about and interested in nature, and taking care of the campus community garden for almost 2 years deepened my interest in sustainability. I knew that passion would sustain me through long process of this project.
Why Plastic Pollution?
After learning about sustainability and climate change in general, I realized that "sustainability" is a much bigger, and more complex, problem than I thought. Greenhouse gases and pollution are two of the biggest sustainability issues. Out of the two of them, I chose to attack plastic pollution—it’s visible, tangible, and something I could easily engage a large amount of people in.
Plastic is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine life without it—
but that’s exactly what we have to do, since every stage of plastic’s life cycle, from material and product production to consumption
and recycling causes harm to human lives and the environment.
The vast majority of plastic is used once and thrown away, never to biodegrade. While efforts to stem the tide of plastic pollution have often focused on recycling, there needs to be an equal emphasis on a significant reduction of plastic consumption.
Plastic pollution is just one symptom of our wider sustainability crisis, which stems from our weak relationship with nature and focus on convenience.
While large corporations and manufacturers are a huge part of the problem, the solution can start at the grassroots level, where consumers demand alternative solutions for plastic products.
The solution starts with all of us.
Considering the environmental impacts of plastic production and consumption, this project focuses on practical ways to reduce plastic consumption in our daily lives.
Learning about plastic pollution and the way our habits affect the environment will encourage people to consider the upstream and downstream effects of their purchases.
Finding alternatives to plastic products and packaging will empower people to make changes that benefit the environment.
The goal of this project is for people to start with small actions that will lead to bigger ones—like voting, activism, or writing to companies asking them to change—to help change the future of our environment for good.
Environmental Sustainability Key Points
Sustainability means “ensuring both human and ecological well-being, finding ways of organizing human activities so that societies, now and in the future, can provide for themselves whilst preserving ecosystems.”
Generally speaking, our environmental problems began during the 19th century, when the industrial revolution mobilized the machines of America and Europe into producing mass-market products.
The modern environmental movement got started in the 1960s and 70s.
Burning fossil fuels releases huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, which contributes to the greenhouse gas effect that warms our planet.
As the planet warms, weather patterns change, which alters ecosystems; animals and plants go extinct.
Humanity is not above other organisms in a food chain, we are in the middle of a complex food web.
Plastic Pollution Key Points
Plastic never biodegrades in the environment, it just breaks down into small pieces called “microplastics.”
Plastic can’t be infinitely recycled—it can only be downcycled.
Recycling is not the solution to plastic pollution; instead, we need to “turn off the tap” and stop using plastic in the first place.
Half of all plastic is designed to be used once, and half of all plastic created becomes trash in less than a year.
Plastic straws and bags are sometimes known as “gateway plastics,” because they introduce people to the idea of plastic pollution.
Plastics are derived from fossil fuels, which are a nonrenewable resource—we can’t keep using plastic forever.
Plastic is so ubiquitous that scientists have suggested that plastic could someday be used as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene Era.
Almost a million plastic bottles are sold every minute around the world.
Up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year; on average, US residents use one plastic bag per resident per day.
161 million tons of plastic packaging are produced every year.
By 2050, the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption, both in the raw material for plastic and the production of energy for the manufacturing of it.
Nearly half of all plastic ever made has been made since the year 2000.
In 2017, 35.4 million tons of plastic were generated.
Today, we produce approximately 300 million metric tons of plastic waste every year, almost the weight of the entire human population.
By 2050, there will be 12 million metric tons of plastic in landfills (which is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building)!
Throughout my research, I was inspired by the zero-waste living movement. Their approach seemed practical and positive.
Zero-waste living is a “consumer-led, grassroots group of individuals and businesses coming for the convenience economy,” who aim to produce little to no waste in their daily lives.
Zero-waste practices include: buying items in bulk, using their own containers to use less packaging; buying food from a farmer’s market; or choosing to buy products made of materials that can be recycled, re-used, or composted at the end of their lifespan .
The zero-waste mindset encourages people to think about what they’re going to do with something once they’re done with it.
Zero-waste living focuses on reducing and reusing before recycling.
After learning about practical ways to reduce our plastic pollution, I wrote two contrasting narratives of someone going grocery shopping. One described what it’s like shopping now, and one described what a more sustainable future could look like.
Comparative Analysis: Current
Most people grocery shop regularly, and much of this grocery routine is wrapped in plastic. Typically, it looks like this: you leave your house with your essentials—phone, keys, wallet, grocery list.
When you get to the store, you grab a cart and start shopping. Maybe you pick up a plastic clamshell with four muffins in it, because they were on sale. You need ground beef for tacos, so you pick up a pound of it, packaged on a neat little Styrofoam tray and shrink-wrapped in plastic. The tortillas came in a bag, too. You need some bread, so you grab a loaf from the bread aisle—oh, they’re on sale? Better get two. Two loaves, two plastic bags, two plastic tabs to keep the bags closed.
Your list says the next thing you need is paper napkins, so you buy 200 of them, each stack of 100 wrapped in a plastic casing, with another bag around them to keep them together. It goes on. Milk? Plastic jug. Frozen food? All kept in plastic bags. Chocolate bars, cereal, coffee beans, cheese: all of these use plastic as part of the packaging.
Your last stop is produce. You need apples, onions, potatoes, and bell peppers. Each one goes in its own flimsy plastic bag, tied with a twist tie. You forgot that you need rice, so you go back and get a 5-pound plastic bag of rice.
When you check out, the person at the register puts all your groceries in plastic bags, charging you 10 cents for each one. You don’t mind. 10 cents isn’t that much. You move the groceries to the car, drive home, and put them in the pantry or kitchen cupboards.
If you’re like most people, you either throw away the bags you used to transport them, or save them to be used as trash can liners. As you use your groceries this week, you put all the packaging in the trash, and don’t think about it again.
Comparative Analysis: Future
Let’s change it up a bit. You leave your house with your essentials—phone, keys, wallet, grocery list, sturdy tote bags, a couple of cotton bread bags, some glass jars, some cotton mesh produce bags. When you get to the store, you grab a cart, plop your containers in the toddler seat, and start shopping. You go to the bakery to buy your bread, which goes in a cotton bread bag. The bakery is having a sale on muffins, so you ask for four of them in your other bread bag, and pull the drawstring tight. You buy the ground beef for tacos at the butcher’s counter, where she wraps it in paper and weighs it for you. You already bought tortillas at the local Mexican restaurant on the way to the store, and put them in your own bag.
You walk right past the paper napkins—you already have a set of soft linen ones at home, which you wash and use repeatedly, and they only get softer with each wash. You need milk, so you buy two glass bottles of it. Frozen food is sold in cardboard and glass. Chocolate bars and cheese are wrapped in paper.
Cereal, coffee beans, and rice are all sold in the bulk section, where you can buy as much or as little as you need and not waste any. Your glass jars have their tare weight written on them from the last time you were here, so you fill them with what you need, label them in a grease pencil hanging from the side of the bin, and go. Your last stop is produce. You need apples, onions, potatoes, and bell peppers. You only brought three bags, so you place the potatoes in the cart by themselves. You were going to wash and peel them before cooking anyways.
When you check out, the person at the register puts all your groceries in the bags you brought, and you move the groceries to the car, drive home, and put them in the pantry or kitchen cupboards. You put the tote bags back in the car or by the front door to be used next time. As you use your groceries this week, you wash their containers or bags so they can be used again. The glass milk bottles can be returned to the store, where they’ll be sent back to the manufacturer, sanitized, and used again. The paper, cardboard, and glass from the other packaging gets rinsed out and recycled, and you don’t think of it again—but it enjoys a whole new life instead of ending up in a landfill.
Early on in this project, I was still exploring options for what shape this project could take. I wrote down some notes on what my thoughts were on a few different types of projects, and ultimately settled on a motion graphic.
Could use plastic bottles/other trash to show quantity
Could maybe line up plastic bottle next to what it can be recycled into, then a glass bottle next to other recycled-glass items, then paper, etc.
Website/Social Media Campaign:
Could include motion graphics and infographics
Could create a fictional organization
More real-world, could reach a larger audience
Easy for viewer to understand/digest
I can choose the order in which information is presented
Easy to create obvious narrative and logical flow
Could be part of a larger campaign
I tried setting up the narration in a few different ways on the story arc diagram, to see which one would work the best. Below are some of the explorations, along with the final direction.
Inform audience about what happens with plastic before they use it, and after.
Provide concrete, tangible, accessible solutions for everyday life.
Keep the design accessible, and friendly, but with a sense of urgency.
Recognize Current Efforts
Acknowledge what people may already know or be doing about plastic pollution.
Encourage the audience to take the next step—today, we swap a toothbrush. Tomorrow, we vote.
There were many moments throughout the research process for this project that really surprised me: finding out that plastic doesn’t biodegrade, learning that recycling plastic doesn’t really work that well, reading that only a small percentage actually gets recycled, seeing the shocking statistics of just how much plastic there is in the world, and so many others. What surprised me above all, however, was that these facts are known already. There has been a lot of research done on the problem of plastic pollution. We know it’s a huge problem. So why were these things news to me? Why aren’t they common knowledge?
As I was researching plastic, I was on a journey to become more sustainable in my daily life. I went from realizing that multiple types of plastic can be recycled, to realizing that plastic doesn’t really get recycled. I went from feeling guilty that my small changes weren’t enough, to realizing that a lot more needs to change. Sustainable choices are often expensive, difficult, or time-consuming, and thus aren’t always accessible for everyone. Whole companies and industries need to change in order to make the way we live more sustainable.
I’ve seen many environmental activism posters, videos, and campaigns. I always appreciate the piece and the message it’s sending, but the second I look away, I forget about it. I wondered: how could I make my project stick with the audience after they were done viewing it? Could I get them past the point of, “yeah, I already know that plastic is a problem, but it’s nothing to do with me,” and get them to absorb my message?
As I was watching other videos on plastic pollution, I noticed that while they all do a great job explaining the problem, few have concrete solutions. Plastic pollution is a big problem, and there are many solutions—it’s easy to get lost. When I was feeling lost or uninspired, I turned to zero-waste bloggers, who live what they preach, and want to bring others into the fold. I based my motion graphic off of this educational, encouraging, positive experience I had when learning about zero-waste living.
I’m proud of how my project came out. When I wondered, “why aren’t these things common knowledge?” I decided to make them common knowledge through my project. I think I’ve managed to do just that, and make a beautiful portfolio piece along the way.