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When Waste Becomes Art: Designer Claire Potter on raising awareness of marine plastic waste

By Claire Potter & Anita Constantine |

Claire Potter is a Brighton-based designer whose beautiful ‘Ghost Gear Chandelier’, made from discarded fishing gear, was a big hit at Clerkenwell Design Week in 2016. In this guest blog she tells Anita Constantine from Net-Works what inspires her work and how designers, and all of us, can play our part in tackling marine plastic waste.

Anita: Can you describe the work you do, both as a designer and as a teacher of design?

Claire: My design studio was founded in 2008, focusing on sustainable interior architecture, but our work is now incredibly multi-faceted. We are very much a circular economy design studio, both in the way we run our office and the work we do with clients. We still complete interior architecture projects, but also do site-specific pieces and events, product design, consultancy, research and campaign work. We use our design skills to enable ‘positive disruption’.

My teaching sprouts directly from my studio practice, especially the final year module I wrote and deliver to the Product Designers at the University of Sussex. ‘The Role of Design in the Circular Economy’ has been running since 2013, giving the student designers an insight into the complexities of working within the circular economy – and the incredible impact they can have.

Anita: Tell us about what first led you to focus on the issue of marine plastics?

Claire: When I was younger, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was obsessed with sharks, and spent every weekend at the seafront in Brighton. I eventually followed the art and design route rather than science, but the love of the ocean never left me. As I got older, it became more and more distressing seeing the proliferation of plastics on the beach. By then I had set up my design studio, and was already working in the sphere of sustainability. Marine plastic was a huge issue – and it was a design issue. Of course, it is a very complex and global issue, but design lies at the heart.

'Ghost Gear Chandelier' - Claire Potter Designs

Anita: How did this inspire your first collection?

Claire: We had been experimenting with ‘ghost gear’ – abandoned fishing gear that we had found on Brighton beach – and we came across a call for artists and designers to get involved in a project with the World Cetacean Alliance. They were looking for creatives who could make an item from ghost gear that could be used to raise awareness – showing the impacts that ghost gear has on marine life, and whales and dolphins in particular. We used the brightly coloured ghost gear we had found to create our Ghost Gear Chandelier, which we showed at our debut at Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW) in 2016.

Anita: The Ghost Gear Chandelier was a big hit. How did your 2017 CDW showcase evolve from this?

Claire: We were leading a beach clean in February 2017 for the Brighton and Hove Eco Supper Club under our volunteer Surfers Against Sewage Regional Rep duties. We came across a stretch of seafront covered in single use plastic bottles. We recovered 365 bottles in 20 minutes and pledged to take them back to the studio to create our exhibit for CDW17 – 30 individual ‘jellyfish lights’ that we grouped together into a piece called ‘The Smack’ – the collective term for jellyfish. It attracted a lot of attention and we are now working on creating limited edition runs that will be for sale through our studio. Each one will be linked to a beach clean date and geographical location – using whatever plastic bottles present themselves on the day. We have also had discussions on how the process could be used in an educational sense.

'The Smack' - Claire Potter Designs

Anita: What other examples are you seeing of great design re-imagining plastic waste?

Claire: There has certainly been a huge push in designers using plastic waste over the last few years. Bureo do great work – educating and working with fishing communities in Chile to implement change. And the products they make from recycled fishing nets – skateboards and sunglasses – are fantastic, so people want to buy them. We are firm believers that you can do all elements – be good, do good, look good.

I have also done some work with the cosmetics brand Lush. Their Knot Wraps not only help to eliminate single-use packaging by acting as a reusable fabric scarf, but they have also introduced a range that uses GreenSpun fabric, made from recovered PET bottles.

Anita: What role should the design community be playing in tackling this issue?

Whether we like it or not, designers have a huge responsibility. Through her research with the RSA’s Great Recovery Project, designer Sophie Thomas stated that ‘80% of a product’s environmental impact is decided at the design stage’. As designers, we are at the forefront of deciding what products to make, how to make them, what to make them from and even whether they can be repaired or recovered. We help to shape what people want – and we should not be creating stuff that is unconsidered in any sense.

Marine litter experiment & ghost gear jewellery - Claire Potter Designs

Anita: How did you hear about Net-Works and how does it relate to your work?

We heard about Net-Works through both our marine litter research and our interior architecture project specification. As part of our ongoing research we were actively seeking others who were using recovered marine litter as ‘food stock’ for creating new products. This was coupled with our continuing searches for products that we can specify in our interior architecture projects that are designed with circularity in mind and look great too. The Interface carpet ranges that are made using recycled yarn from Net-Works certainly do this!

Anita: What do you like about Net-Works and what impact do you think it’s having?

The community aspect is incredibly inspiring and I think it is critical in the success and sustainability of the project. Empowering the communities to recover the nets and earn from selling them creates positive change throughout. These initiatives have impact across the spectrum of the community and environment and foster positive behaviour change across generations. If projects such as Net-works are replicated elsewhere and tailored not only to the materials that can be collected but critically, the communities that can be positively assisted, then real change happens.

Net-Works community members in the Philippines with Interface carpet tile, made with recycled fishing net yarn

Anita: Tell us about your volunteer work with Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).

I am one of three volunteer Regional Reps in Brighton, and it is our role to engage the wider community in the incredible conversation work that SAS does. We lead beach cleans, do educational talks, run events and generally raise the profile of the charity. The current campaign is ‘Wasteland’ and ‘Plastic Free Coastlines’ which aims to highlight the huge issues we have globally with marine plastic, and critically, what steps we can all take to eliminate single-use plastic from our lives. The campaign website has a whole load of tips and starting points for people to get involved.

Alongside this, my design studio has founded a new campaign called ‘Plastic Free Pledge’ in Brighton, which is working towards the elimination of single-use plastic in the city.

Claire Potter with fellow Brighton Surfers Against Sewage regional reps Andrew Coleman and Nick Sturman and former Mayor Pete West

Anita: What makes you most concerned about the issue of plastic waste and what makes you feel optimistic?

Claire: The sheer amount of plastic already in our ocean, and the amount that enters it on a daily basis is truly staggering – making you feel incredibly helpless. If the equivalent of one garbage truck’s worth of plastic is being dumped in our ocean each minute, then doing beach cleans, doing talks and lectures and creating items from the recovered materials can feel like small actions. However, these actions can grow – and this is where I feel the most optimistic. Many people have said how they are really looking at how they use plastic as a consequence of coming on a beach clean, seeing our pieces, coming to a talk or watching a video or TV show on the topic. This spreads – and this gives me hope. 

Anita: What are your tips for individuals or communities who want to help tackle this issue?

Claire: Figure out what is the most pressing issue that you can tackle first. The issues with marine plastic are so huge it can be daunting, so look at what may be a quick and easy gain. It may be arranging for plastic recycling on your beach front, or working with local businesses to do regular beach cleans. It may even be looking at your own lifestyle, figuring out how you can remove single-use plastic from your day to day life, then helping others to do the same. Every small action helps. The Surfers Against Sewage website has loads of great tips and support.

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