Case Study: Plasticful Foods
An interdisciplinary speculative project developed for the University of Amsterdam and Hogeschool Amsterdam’s “New Waste Vision”.
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**Warning**: Always consume Plasticful Foods in conjunction with Plasteeze.
Plasticful Foods is a Speculative Design project developed by a young, international and interdisciplinary team, for the University of Amsterdam (UvA), and Hogeschool Amsterdam’s (HvA) “New Waste Vision”. The UvA and HvA have committed to making their waste management processes completely circular by 2024. They hope to be an example to the Municipality of Amsterdam for how sustainable circular processes could be successfully implemented on a large scale. To enable the university’s waste management system to be more sustainable, however, the behaviours of the students and staff will also have to change to support the new system.
Waste management is a significant contributor to the global environmental crisis. If we could make our waste management processes more sustainable, or even circular, then we could radically reduce our impact on the environment. Through our research we discovered that the main issue regarding unsustainable waste management behaviours was that people didn’t realise, or didn’t think about, the environmental effects of their waste. As such, there was too much psychological distance between people’s everyday behaviours, and the larger problem of waste management. This psychological distance abstracted people from the problem and therefore they were not aware of or not willing to act upon it. The Plasticful project was therefore developed in order to make the problem of waste management less abstract and more personal to the everyday user.
Psychological detachment has been encouraged by the current social system, and the system of waste management itself. Even the language we use around waste confirms this. For example, when you are finished with something, you throw it “away”. But where is “away”? You are just throwing it back into the built environment, to be dealt with by someone or something else. This distances you from the process, yet, your waste does not “disappear” when you throw it “away”, although it may seem like it. All of that waste goes somewhere, and it is having major effects on our environment. Even the term “waste” is counter-productive, as the majority of residual materials which we dispose of are still useful or re-usable in some way, and are therefore not “waste” but “resources”. As such, we believe the very idea of waste needs to be interrogated.
Humanity has been irresponsibly disposing of valuable “waste” resources for too long. A lot of waste around the world is not managed sufficiently, and therefore it slips through the cracks of our waste systems and pollutes the environment. This affects the health of our environment, flora and fauna, and even ourselves.
- So how can we make the invisible visible?
- How can we make the abstract concrete?
- How can we make the global issue of waste management personal to individuals?
We decided to harness the power of Speculative Design to disrupt our audience’s perception of waste and waste management.
Defining the Scope
In order to tackle the complex global problem of waste management, we had to narrow our scope, so that we could design a poignant and engrossing conversation. We decided to focus upon the plastic waste stream for two reasons:
- Plastic is the most mismanaged and environmentally harmful waste stream, yet our global production of plastic has increased exponentially since 1950 (Ritchie, 2018).
- Global plastic contamination has already reached a crisis point – scientists have discovered microplastic in the world’s most remote locations – frozen into Arctic ice, in the depths of the ocean Mariana Trench (Gibbens, 2019; Katz, 2019) – and in the faeces of both animals and humans worldwide (Parker, 2018).
We also wanted to make our intervention relatable to people from all demographics, so that no one was excluded from the conversation. Then we discovered the 2019 report from WWF International, No Plastic In Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion From Nature To People, which held some shocking revelations. According to the report, most of humanity is already consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic every week! (de Wit & Bigaud, 2019).
As the consumption of food is an everyday necessity for all, and because the process of eating is intimate and personal, we envisioned that people would be shocked, disgusted and therefore disrupted by the idea of eating plastic. Furthermore, most people are not aware that they are already eating plastic on a daily basis.
After some further research, we also found that scientists have recently developed an enzyme which breaks down PET plastic (Helmholtz-Zentrum, 2019). This enzyme “digests” PET plastic, breaking it down into components, which enables a sustainable recycling process for the plastic. Only enzymes specifically for PET plastic have been decoded so far, however scientists are working on enzymes which will be able to break down other types of plastics in the near future as well.
Conceptualising Plasticful Foods
The main aim of our project was to disrupt our audience’s normalised thought patterns around waste, so they would be uncomfortable enough to seek a solution. Therefore we needed a simple concept which was easy to disseminate and would motivate people to act. However, we wanted to avoid the trend within sustainable conversations, which relies on guilt and negative message frames to motivate the audience.
So we developed Plasticful Foods – by combining facts and data from the real world, with humour and real-life marketing strategies.
“The Plasticful project has taken facts from the present day, and projected them into a possible future, to invite audiences to imagine that Plasticful Food may be a viable waste management practice within the coming decade. As we are already consuming large amounts of microplastic incidentally, and waste management procedures are not changing rapidly enough to contain the problem of global plastic pollution, eating our plastic waste may be our only option for plastic containment in the near future. Is this a future you would like? Or would you act to avoid this future?” (Excerpt from plasticfulfoods.com).
With the help of our fictional “Plasteeze” product (modelled on Lacteeze) which speculatively contains the plastic digesting enzyme, people would be able to eat foods made from recycled plastic. However, there is no nutritional value in plastic, so our products would need to be part food and part plastic so that consumers would be motivated to eat them.
We decided to create Plasticful Chips, Plasticful Burgers, and Plasticful Tea. The products themselves were 3D printed, using PLA “bio” plastic. We wanted them to be obviously made from plastic, so we opted for bright blue (a colour which is not associated with food), and yellow, to match our branding colours. The products were then packaged with “real” food to create the final Plasticful range.
We present Plasticful Foods with an uncannily realistic marketing campaign to capture our audience’s attention. Our branding is brightly coloured, modern, and only includes the fictional story of the Plasticful products (as stated at the top of this article) to create intrigue. We want the audience to experience a moment of disbelief when they encounter our products. Users have to closely inspect the Plasticful Products to decide if the products are “real” or “fictional”. Every Plasticful package and display stand prominently includes a QR code which links to our website – plasticfulfoods.com.
Linking our physical prototypes to a digital intervention is important for several reasons. Firstly, it provides space for us to educate the audience on waste management, which was always a core aim of our project. It also provides space for us to expand upon the speculative narrative of the Plasticful products. But critically, it also provides a method for us to measure our impact within the university.
It is extremely difficult to measure behavioural changes in a large, diverse audience such as the UvA and HvA community. However, as disruption is the first step towards behavioural change, we could measure how many users had been confronted, confused, or intrigued enough to scan the QR code (included in all applications of our branding). We hypothesised that some users would be so disrupted by our Plasticful products that they would translate that feeling into action, if the action wasn’t too demanding. Therefore, if even a small percentage of the audience is curious enough to scan the QR code, then we will have succeeded in making them think about plastic in a novel way.
Our website is divided into two parts: The Problem – which elaborates on the Plasticful project as a speculative design, and provides information on global microplastic contamination; and The Solution – which collects useful and reliable information sources regarding waste management.
The content in the solution section links to trusted external resources, which thereby ensures the collected information is always up to date (rather than us having to regularly update information on the site). Throughout our research we had discovered a plethora of great tools, tips, and information regarding waste management in Amsterdam. However, these sources were disparate, so we gathered them into one convenient location for our users. We also divided these resources into “themes” of interaction, as we proved through our user tests that people prefer different methods of engagement with a topic.
The use of Google analytics allows us to track how users have entered the website (through the QR code, a link from an external site, or by directly searching for the site). We could also see how long a user had spent on each page, and if they had explored our educational resources by clicking through to the linked pages. Both were important metrics for us to analyse, and present to our project partners.
To prove our concept, we launched a test period within the UvA and HvA buildings which ran between 13th-24th January 2020. We created physical installations in two test locations within the university. The installations were display stands, which presented the Plasticful Foods range, our QR code, and some tit-bits of information about the project. These were placed in the cafeteria of the Amsterdam University Library building, and near the cafe on the ground floor of HvA’s Kohnstammhuis.
Our Google analytics results confirmed our hypothesis. Within this 7-day initial launch period we received positive results such as:
- 177 unique site visits to plasticfulfoods.com
- Total of 719 pages views
- Average amount of time spent on site 3:14mins (quite long comparative to other sites’ average visit lengths)
- A portion of users spent a prolonged time – over an hour in some cases – on the website. (Which they spent mainly reading through our “solution” links.)
- 66% of site visits came from scanning the QR codes found with our products/stands!
In addition to our website results, we observed our audience interacting with our physical installations as well. The majority of passing students and staff would look intently at our Plasticful stand as they walked past. Many users would go over to pick up our products and inspect them, read the packaging, and even play with the products. This was evidenced by many of our products being opened or broken – some products were even stolen off our stands! Of course this was annoying on one hand, but on the other it was a further indication of success, as we had created a speculative design which was so intriguing and/or realistic that members of our audience took the products with them.
Finally, we had sparked conversations within the university. This was confirmed when we were approached by the staff at the HvA’s magazine Hvana, who we had not previously contacted. They themselves had encountered our project within the university space, and were so interested that they conducted and published an interview with us.
Results and Further Applications
It is clear that the Plasticful Foods project achieved its original goal of prompting the target audience to re-think their waste, and look into sustainable waste management behaviours. This is apparent in our Google analytics, and also from the positive feedback we have received from all stakeholders, students, and staff. Further, from the recognition we have received from external entities such as Isola Design District who will be exhibiting our project at the Dutch Design week (October 2020) and the Milan Design Week (digitally from 6-21 June 2020, and physically in April 2021.) Our partners at the UvA and HvA have also proposed that we expand the dissemination of Plasticful Foods into all university locations for the long term. Yet this has been postponed due to the COVID-19 closure of the universities.
However, we also believe the project highlights how effective Speculative Design can be as a tool for sparking conversations regarding sustainability. Of course, this was clear to our fellow speculative designers. But this was a revelation to our project partners and the majority of our audience who had not previously come into contact with the field of Speculative Design (and who could be described as a “mainstream” audience).
As such, we see the Plasticful project as an example of a simple Speculative Design intervention, which has quickly and effectively raised a conversation regarding sustainability with a diverse audience. What would happen if the Municipality of Amsterdam placed Plasticful Food stands at strategic locations within the city, for example?
As mentioned previously, the topic of waste management specifically, and sustainability in general, is abstracted from people’s everyday actions. Of course lately, with extreme bushfire seasons, the global pandemic, and constant media discourse about the climate crisis, it is becoming harder for audiences to ignore. Yet discussions about sustainability are normally all “doom and gloom” and therefore they evoke negative feelings of guilt, powerlessness, and inevitability among audiences. As we discovered, negative emotions like this do not motivate people nor inspire action.
However, Speculative Design invites audiences into the conversation about an issue and how we can solve it. By valuing people’s thoughts and opinions, the structure of a speculative design can motivate people to be part of a solution. Curiosity is also a powerful motivator which can be used to inspire people to act, or even to simply discuss the topic with their family and friends. What other field is able to quickly and dynamically inspire personal critical reflection on a topic, or spark debate among peers?
As such, it seems that Speculative Design should be utilised more readily in our necessary global transition towards sustainable development.
- It has the power to highlight invisible or subconscious issues and behaviours.
- It has the power to make abstract issues concrete.
- And it has the power to make global problems personal for people from all walks of life.
Plasticful Foods is a single, simple example of this. We hope to see a vast increase of Speculative Design applications presented to diverse audiences in the near future.
- Gibbens, S. (2019, May 13) Plastic proliferates at the bottom of world’s deepest ocean trench. In National Geographic. Retrieved May 24, 2020 from
- Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie. (2019, April 12). ‘Molecular scissors’ for plastic waste: Enzyme MHETase decoded. In ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 1, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190412085241.htm
- Katz, C. (2019, October 30) Why does the Arctic have more plastic than most places on Earth? In National Geographic. Retrieved May 25, 2020 from www.nationalgeographic.com/remote-arctic-contains-more-plastic-than-most-places-on-earth/
- Parker, L. (2018, October 22) In a first, microplastics found in human poop. In National Geographic. Retrieved May 24, 2020 from www.nationalgeographic.com/news-plastics-microplastics-human-feces/
- Ritchie, H. (2018) FAQs on Plastics. In Our World In Data. Retrieved May 25, 2020 from https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics
- Stuij, K. (2020, January 22). Black Mirror op de HvA: eten we straks plastic om de wereld te redden? In Hvana. Retrived May 27, 2020 from https://hvana.nl/black-mirror-op-de-hva-eten-we-straks-plastic-om-de-wereld-te-redden
- de Wit, W. & Bigaud, N. (2019) No Plastic in Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion From Nature to People. In World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) Analysis 2019. Retrieved May 20, 2020 from https://plastic_ingestion_web_spreads.pdf
The Team Behind Plasticful Foods
- Alejandra Niño is a Colombian, with a background in circular economy strategies and an MA in business innovation. She is also a SCRUM Master and is passionate about creating sustainable impact within the business arena.
- Ellen McCarthy is an Australian innovation and sustainability designer and researcher. With a background in visual communication and an MA in Design Cultures, she is particularly interested in how design interventions can positively influence philosophies and behaviours. (ellenmcc.com)
- Federica Marrella is an Italian multidisciplinary designer with a background in design activism and an MA in industrial design. By implementing a human-centred approach, she critically questions and challenges the status quo to design for social sustainability. (federicagildamarrella.com)
- James Ric-Hansen is a South African, currently studying environmental science. He has a background in geographical information systems, mapping, and information technologies, and is passionate about implementing strategies for environmental sustainability.