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Tal Erez for Het Nieuwe Instituut

Plastic is everywhere. It is the varnish on our table, in the paint on our walls. It is in our cloths and in our phones, in the packaging of our food, in our cars, our shoes, our wallets, our toys. Plastic has become such an intrinsic part of our lives, that this material, born outside of nature and aimed to replace it, has now made its footprint back in nature as a new type of geological form was recently discovered in Hawaii, one we can name as the first plastic fossil.

And herein lies the problem. In the course of a century, plastic was transformed from a democratic promise of progress, to an icon for the perils of capitalism. We have come to know it as the face of mass consumerism, mass production and as the symbol of industrialization’s footprint on the planet. In many ways, plastic is the material of the past, as the search goes on for more sustainable solutions.

However, 3D printing offers a different role for plastic, one that might still turn it to a material of the future. While more and more materials can be printed, plastic is definitely the core of 3D printing, and most especially in the promise of home printing. Home printing may yet transform plastic’s role - from an ecological threat to an ecological promise*; from mass production to singular production; and from blind mass consumerism, to a new tool for democratic, political and social change.

Whether plastic takes on this new role is still undecided. We are in a unique point where a new industry’s standards are still forming. Communicational, legal, social and economic battles are being waged, pulled and pushed with makers, activists and radical thinkers on one hand, and businessmen, politicians, lobbyists and PR men on the other. They fight to determine whether plastic and 3d printing will take this new democratic and sustainable future, or be used as yet another tool for commercialization towards a path to known to us.

Designers, architects and other creatives have a unique opportunity to prove their ability to promote a true widespread change. Rather than wait and see which direction the industry will take only to follow suite, they can actively work today to define where they believe the 3d printing industry should be. They can define the boundaries and possibilities that will promote plastic’s new future, as a material of endless possibilities, of great democratic powers, and as a re-usable model of sensible consumption.

It is time for designers to take arms and fight for plastic. 
It is time for designers to define the possibilities the future should hold.

*CLARIFICATION - ECOLOGICAL PROMISE

The idea of sustainability is much bigger than the use of “green” materials. Many times, changing the material with disregard to the cycle of use is doing more harm than good - wood is a natural material yet deforestation is said to create massive climate changes. or a more concrete example - the move from the plastic bag to the paper bag.

So the ecological question is not what we consume so much as how we consume - in that respect (parallel to the development of “green” plastics), 3D printing offers the potential of a dramatic shift:

  1. Local production bypasses the huge ecological footprint of transport costs from far east factories.
  2. Singular production bypasses the excess of production, where products are mass produced but do not sell as successfully as expected.
  3. Already today, home printers use mostly bioplastic (PLA). Reuse of material, even once, cuts the plastic waste dramatically. if the industry is marked to develop in that direction, reuse will become much more efficient as well as the material being used (bio plastic has its many problems too)
  4. More than everything, an ecological transformation changes the methods of consumption, as we become aware of how much we consume, and what we make. When we become part of the design and making, We also form an emotional link with objects, that make us less likely to replace them so quickly.

In a way, this is in the heat of the conflict we are trying to highlight here - is this the future, or the traditional central production with materials we know less and less about except for the way they are branded.

How?

As part of this inherent belief in designers’ power to take part in the forming of this future, we believe projects which offer detailed strategies, models and objects that tackle three main questions which stand at the core of this project, could work as a starting point for designers who wish to define this future, and we will be happy to assist with questions, guildelines and with the research done for you to pursue these questions:

a.

3D printing is conflicted by a commercial need to ensure its maximum profitability, and social agendas aimed at openness, democratization and bypassing capitalist structures.
How can we positively project and construct a new socio-political environment, using plastic and 3D printing, which empowers users and rethinks traditional links between big business and consumers? How does this necome a sustainable model of consumption?
for example:
* What plastic products can offer openness on one hand while ensuring some sort of compensation for their designers?
* What models can rethink traditional structures of profitability excess production and consumption and offer a viable alternative to it?
* Which products can encourage the use of home plastic recycling?
* Can we offer new materials and technologies which can extend the use of re-usable plastic?

b.

Home 3D printing is creating a legislative and enforcement problem as home production is almost impossible to regulate. However, centering production in service centers may not fulfill the potential of user empowerment and will deflate this industry from its revolutionary social potential.
How should we structure the legal and regulatory relationship between power and citizen in a future in which home production is dominant, and what would be the role of materials in such regulation.
for example:
* How can we use materials to regulate what is being produced at home?
* Can we offer a new ethical manifest for home 3d printing?
* Can we suggest platforms that offer alternatives to traditional regulation?
* How can we strategize a structure for home production in relation to community?

c.

Knowledge, interfaces and tools stand at the base of user empowerment in an effort to create active users. However, amateurs, designers and creatives are not fluent in materials and other technical knowledge relating to printing and plastic, and businesses are taking advantage of that fact to push towards passive consumption.
What tools and mechanisms and what information about materials are needed for an empowered user, and how should they be communicated and designed.
For example:
* What do designers really need to know about plastic and how should it be communicated?
* How can translate knowledge currently being discussed in maker communities to an approachable source for the average amateur?
* How can products make users more knowledgeable and encourage their participation and sharing?