Our Plastics Problem

How do we begin to examine and deconstruct our relationship with plastic? Since its discovery, designers, inventors and engineers alike have exploited its cheap cost, durability, and flexibility of use. It was not until recently that we recognized problems with this material, especially regarding plastic waste. Yet we still continue to use and throw out plastics on a daily basis, largely because of our consumptive lifestyle. The Ditch the Bottle project is an example of design activism that comes at a time when our relationship with consumption practices and plastics has reached a peak. It looks to address one of our most wasteful habits—drinking water from single use containers. As a type of guerrilla social activism, I seek to inform and engage the public regarding this issue, creating a system of do-it-yourself activism.

Today, we are living in what Julier calls “a world in turmoil” [5]. Many social, political, and economic issues plague our society and yet, Julier notes, “the structures and processes of neoliberalism that have come to dominate the majority of our planet […] seem to rumble on” [5]. He criticizes our current design culture, with its focus on commercialisation, capitalism and consumption driven primarily by the rise of neoliberalism. This focus has lead to an uncritical use of plastic by designers.

  • Ditch the Bottle stickers, each displaying a specific fact about plastic bottles, can be downloaded and printed off from its corresponding website.

We have a wicked problem with plastics—they take thousands of years to biodegrade, and we produce too much of it as waste. Plastics are filling up the landfills and polluting our oceans, and many contain harmful toxins. A clear indication of the state of our plastics crisis is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the Pacific Ocean roughly 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles) in size that is filled with plastic debris [4]. Millions of birds and sea mammals swallow the plastic items thinking they are food, with many consequently dying from choking or intestinal blockage. These plastics in the ocean also have an indirect effect on humans as they break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These tiny particles contain toxins that bio-accumulate up the food chain, eventually ending up in the seafood that we ingest [8].

More specifically with regard to bottled water, research on this topic has found samples containing traces of contaminants such as arsenic, bromide, bacteria and lead, with 27 out of 49 bottled water products available in Canada recalled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency since 2000 [2]. Bottled water is not subject to the same strict guidelines as tap water, which is regulated by Health Canada [9]. In addition, bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year worldwide [1], with more than 75% of plastic water bottles not recycled [3]. Undoubtedly, the practice of bottled water is damaging on many levels to humans, animals, and the environment at large.

The Role of the Designer

The issue at hand is clear. The problem space calls for intervention, in which design activism can play a role. Due to designers’ increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo, design activism has “emerged as a movement, partly in response to the recent crises of neoliberalism” [6]. One basis for this activism can be found in the concept of design authorship – having designers take responsibility for their work, and especially for its content, rather than existing within the “typical client-designer relationship” where designers are told what to do [7]. McCarthy argues that “design needs content, and design needs users (readers, a market, an audience, etc.), but the message content […] can equally come from the designer herself” [7]. As designers, we need not take a passive role in our consumption-driven world; we can actively create content and take ownership of our work.


As a communication designer, I want to influence consumers to rethink the single use water bottle. I especially want to reach them at the point of sale, before they make the decision to buy bottled water. I also want this project to be spread freely by other people. I decided to use stickers because they are easy to disseminate, and anyone can print them out. I created 10 stickers, each displaying a fact about plastic bottles in the shape and size of an actual bottle (see figure 1). There is a (mock) website at the bottom of these stickers, which people can visit for more information and to get involved by creating and printing their own stickers (see figure 1). These stickers can be handed out at events, spread through social media and word-of-mouth, and noticed wherever they are placed. The project uses a black and white palette to keep the aesthetic minimal, with pops of red to give it a sense of urgency and to contrast with the abundance of blue in current bottled water packaging. The text is in a bold, black, sans-serif font on a white background to create further contrast and to attract a younger demographic. The minimalism in the design is also intended to differentiate the stickers from colourful bottled water packaging.

As designers, we need not only take a passive role in our consumption-driven world, but rather actively create content and take ownership of our work.

In the last stage of my project, I went to stores and vending machines and placed my stickers where plastic bottles are sold, as seen in figure 1.

Although challenging the status quo, this project uses mainstream design tactics and principles in order to be easily understood. Julier argues that design activism is not a boycott, demonstration or protest—it is a “designerly” way of intervention, still situated within its specific context [5]. He says, “as intervention, it moves within the challenges of pre-existing circumstances, while also attempting to reorientate these” [5]. This project uses typical corporate standards, having a website, logo and social media presence, and employs design principles in its branding in order to appeal to its primary target audience, the 18-30 year old youth/young adult demographic.

Other Projects

Comparing the Ditch the Bottle project to Shepard Fairey’s Obey Giant graphic campaign, we can see that both criticize corporate control, while “employing the same strategies of global branding schemes” [7]. Fairey’s campaign was spread locally, and then eventually worldwide, by a public who took it upon themselves to post the image freely, sometimes illegally, and without central planning [7]. Similarly, the Ditch the Bottle project engages the public and gives them the option of spreading the message themselves. As such, the visuals must look appealing, “manipulat[e] the environment graphically, [and] harness the modes and media of visual communication” [7].

Similar phenomena have appeared globally, such as the Arabic pamphlet “How to Revolt Intelligently,” circulated during the 2011 Egyptian protests [6]. These pamphlets were created by the designer Ganzeer as a response to the uprisings, and were put online to be freely downloaded by the public. Subsequently, they were “widely shared via electronic social networks and designers’ blogs” [6]. In both examples, the designer took an authorship role—they took ownership and responsibility over their work, motivated by a concern over issues that impacted their society. However, it is not completely up to the designer to control where campaigns go. Projects can acquire “their own cultural identities separate from that of their creators, while also allowing for intellectual attribution beyond the designer-authors” [6].

These projects are emblematic of the complex relationship between “author (artist, designer, photographer), idea, image, message, and audience” [7]. It is a relationship that can transform and evolve, something the Ditch the Bottle project aims to do by giving much of the responsibility to the public. As a designer-author, I provide the information, resources, and materials to encourage social dissent through community involvement, but it is ultimately up to the public to disseminate the material.


Single use bottled water has effectively turned one of the most fundamental human rights—access to clean, fresh water—into a commodity purchase. It is a hugely wasteful habit in which we throw away a bottle every time we finish, leaving it to pollute our land and poison our oceans. As a form of design activism, with an emphasis on design authorship, the Ditch the Bottle project seeks to bring these issues to light by informing and engaging the public, and also by encouraging them to take responsibility. Designers should not be limited only to producing content that is commissioned—rather, the content can come from designers themselves. It is crucial, with the current social, political, and economic state of the world, that we act on issues that have an impact on us. Design has the potential to both initiate and facilitate these movements.


  • [1] Baskind, C. (2010, March 15). 5 reasons not to drink bottled water. Retrieved from http://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/stories/5-reasons-not-to-drink-bottled-water
  • [2] Bottled water facts. 2014. Retrieved from http://www.yorku.ca/susweb/resources/documents/Bottled_water_factsMar2014.pdf
  • [3] Facts on plastic bottles and bottled water. 2011. Retrieved from http://www.bottlesupglass.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Facts-About-Plastic-Bottles-and-Bottled-Water.pdf
  • [4] Great Pacific garbage patch: Pacific trash vortex. (2010). Retrieved from http://education.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
  • [5] Julier, G. From design culture to design activism. Design and culture , 5(2), 215-236. 2013.
  • [6] Julier, G., & Kaygan, H. Global design activism survey. Design and culture , 5(2), 37-52. 2013.
  • [7] McCarthy, S. Designer as author activist: A model for engagement. Design research society conference proceedings . Bangkok: Thailand, 2012. 1614-1623.
  • [8] Seltenrich, N. EHP – New link in the food chain? Marine plastic pollution and seafood safety. 2015. Retrieved from http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/123-a34/
  • [9] Stastna, K. Bottle vs. tap: 7 things to know about drinking water. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/ bottle-vs-tap-7-things-to-know-about-drinking-water-1.2774182