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  • Prof. Helen Storey

Plastic is precious

Over the past five years, Centre for Sustainable Fashion has looked a lot at the relationship between fashion, materials and sustainability. Through projects like Shared Talent India and Nike Mobilize Makers, we have challenged existing assumptions around the environmental impact of materials and asked designers, makers and consumers to challenge them too. In this latest project, Objects of Truth, CSF’s Professor Helen Storey seeks to share the science behind our everyday lives to challenge assumptions and encourage and support those who wish to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

For a decade, Professor Helen Storey and Professor Tony Ryan have worked together in projects like Wonderland and Catalytic Clothing to break down the barriers between fashion and science and their latest venture, Plastic is Precious: It’s Buried Sunshine (part of the Objects of Truth project) is a collaboration between The University of Sheffield, London College of Fashion, Bill Amberg Studio and Meadowhall Shopping Centre, set to challenge the way we think about the everyday plastic carrier bag.

We hear a lot about plastic versus paper versus the relatively new eco-bag (usually canvas or cotton), and there is no doubt that of the three, plastic has been landed with worst reputation. But have we been too quick to judge? We are so used to seeing negative messages around the use of plastic bags and encouraged to buy and use cotton or canvas eco-bags, but science tells us that plastic bags are actually more environmentally friendly than paper bags and many eco-bags. One of the UK’s biggest environmental challenges today is waste, our landfills are filling up fast and whilst we have looked extensively at the problem of throw away fashion, we must also look at what this fast fashion is served in. The most popular material found in landfills is paper, plastic bags generate 80% less solid waste than paper bags and use 40% less energy to produce, so it already seems plastic has been unjustly persecuted.

The eco-bag (aka reusable bag/ bag for life/ green bag) was introduced to the world in the late nineties as the sustainable alternative to plastic, but as millions are exported from China each year it is perhaps time to reevaluate. Science now tells us that plastic bags take 99% less energy to create than canvas bags, and whilst they may be more durable the eco-bag needs to be re-used at least 171 times in order to offset the energy and resources used to produce it. In theory 171 uses sounds pretty reasonable, that is just once a week for a little over three years, however, if you are like many of us and have been shamed into purchasing a second, third, fourth (or more) eco bag at the checkout of any grocery store, then it is easy to believe that many of these eco-bags fail to fulfil their promise and go from taking up precious space in our cupboards to taking up really precious space in our landfills.

The idea behind the Objects of Truth is not to encourage people to come home from the supermarket with a pile of new plastic bags but to provoke us to think about what, how and why we use our every day bags.  The ‘Plastic is Precious’ exhibition will take place at Meadowhall Shopping Centre between 13 October and 4 November displaying limited edition bags designed by Bill Amberg. Students from The University of Sheffield will also be hosting a bag amnesty, encouraging shoppers to exchange their current plastic bags for ones similar to the Bill Amberg designs, printed with slogans campaigning the value of contemporary plastic so that we all will ‘rethink’ and ‘reuse’ our plastic bags.


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