Designers today face a dilemma: Why create more stuff when our landfills are overflowing with ephemeral products and our oceans are awash in plastic? Thankfully, designers are also in the business of finding solutions. Yves Béhar, who’s based in San Francisco, launched his career 20 years ago with a proposal for a futuristic eco-shoe that would last a lifetime and perform better as it aged. Nine years ago he helped found the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which advocates for closed-loop industrial processes that don’t pollute at all. Today he’s focused on ocean cleanup and exploration, and has just proposed a design for Proteus, a sleek and versatile underwater research station that is the brainchild of oceanographer and aquanaut Fabien Cousteau. Meanwhile, Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans—the organization dedicated to preserving the oceans and eliminating plastic from the planet— had his ecological epiphany in 2012, after an encounter with Captain Paul Watson of the television series Whale Wars. The fastest way forward, argues Gutsch, who has collaborated with several fashion companies and later this year will partner with American Express on a card made out of Parley Ocean Plastic—is to make nontoxic and nonpolluting materials more glamorous and exciting.
Cyrill, what are you doing for the oceans?
Cyrill Gutsch: When we started Parley, we looked at all these environmental issues that the oceans are facing, and the low-hanging fruit was plastic. It’s a very toxic material. But we decided back then not to go down the road of blame and shame and apocalyptic scenarios. We decided that we were going to declare up-cycled marine plastic waste a new luxury and treat it as a very valuable resource. We’re going to go out there, and we’re going to collect it from the ends of the world, and we’re going to turn it into high-performance fibers and fabrics for athletic shoes, athletic products, fashion products. We called it Ocean Plastic, and it became a success. But it was only meant to be a catalyst really, to kind of drive attention to the overall issue around plastic in the oceans. And, to be honest, also to end plastic in itself. Because plastic, in our eyes, is a design failure.
Yves, do you think plastic is a design failure?
Yves Béhar: No, absolutely not. I think plastic is an absolutely essential material. If you’ve been to the hospital, or if you ever have designed anything, you realize that it is an essential material. The problem is how the life cycle of plastic is not considered. It should never end up in our oceans, it should never end up being burned, it should never end up polluting. And there are ways to do that.
CG: Can I say something to that? When I started, I felt there shouldn’t be an end of life for plastic. There should always be the ability to recycle and reuse it. That was the idea behind Ocean Plastic, to be honest. But then, in this whole process of work- ing with the science community, we realized that plastic is not only a problem if it’s being discarded in the wrong way. It’s a problem the moment you make it, because plastic sheds microparticles all the way along, and these microparticles enter our bodies and our waterways. So recycling is not the solution. The solution is to go back to the drawing board and develop new materials that actually fall apart, that behave like the best packaging that we are seeing in nature—a coconut, the skin of a grape, of a banana, of an orange.
Yves, you’re in the trenches designing for industry. What is the responsibility of people like you?
YB: As Cyrill said, one of the biggest challenges is making the market for these new materials. The consumer won’t move to plastic alternatives until designers create attractive practical solutions that are better than what’s out there at a similar price point. The ideal would be a new material that performs like plastic, but degrades harmlessly in the ocean.
What does the path forward look like to you?
YB: The world is made of lots of different hardworking, talented, and dedicated people, and we need all of them working in concert. Some people are good at the desirability. Some people are good at policy. Some people are good at creating awareness. But ultimately that awareness comes from the science and research that demonstrates what is really going on underwater. So we need the whole world, and we need Proteus. Elon Musk and NASA and science fiction in general are very good promoters of space and space exploration. But we have very little to hang our hats on when it comes to imagining what it means to live underwater, to study underwater, to do science underwater. There’s nothing that creates interest like giving people a way to dream about living in the oceans. I’ve been dreaming about living underwater ever since I read Jules Verne as a boy.
Cyrill, do you want to go to Proteus?
CG: Oh yes! We need to have as many people splash into the water as we can so they fall in love, because once you’re down there and you see animals, you interact with them, and you see how majestic they are and how advanced, you don’t want to see them dead. We need to share the magic that is down there, and do everything we can to support it because it’s what is allowing us to be here—it’s the life-support system of planet Earth.
YB: I grew up on a lake in Switzerland, but I spent my summers in Turkey, on the Marmara Sea. And the lake that I grew up next to, Lac Léman, was deemed dead in the ’80s, and then came back to life in the ’90s. And I saw the same thing happen to the Marmara Sea. So those two formative experiences have shown me that we can go from dying to thriving by changing our impact on those bodies of water.
CG: There is a totally new awareness growing in the new generation. If you talk to 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds today, they don’t want to support a brand that is destroying the planet. I promise that every big brand that is not switching to eco-innovation, that is not switching to new materials, will disappear. And, therefore, we are at a very interesting spot. We are at the beginning of the biggest revolution that we have ever seen in our industry. It’s an exciting time, and there is not a lot of time left.