Smart Plastics / Think Plastic

Since 2016, AAS have supported two key projects that specifically address sustainability and environmental responsibility in materials choice for makers:

  • Smart Plastics – group research and dissemination activity related to a three year project to explore biodegradable and plant-based plastics, funded by Interface
  • Think Plastic: Materials and Making – exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh of work resulting from research and practice-based findings of the Smart Plastics group, plus public engagement and further dissemination activity, including the ‘Data for Green Making’ lab and workshop in partnership with Creative Informatics

This series of practice-embedded activities employs cross-sectoral knowledge exchange, collaborative working and maker peer-to-peer support to cascade new ideas and share best studio practice.

Environmentally responsible sourcing of materials is a growing issue with increasing urgency for many professional makers. Keen to address sustainability in all aspects of their practice, makers often find it difficult to access the information they need to make informed decisions. While the majority of makers hand make at a small scale, and individually can only have limited impact on the environment and their carbon reduction, it is in the spirit of collective responsibility that many makers are committed to changing their behaviours while raising consumer awareness and encouraging the public to adapt their buying habits.

This activity has informed a third current project, Closing the Loop, a new maker-led research group to explore gaps in current materials knowledge and application of sustainability tools and practices in the studio, in partnership with Creative Informatics.

Smart Plastics

Working with Interface, an organisation that facilitates collaborative working between academia and business, AAS brought together a group of makers and scientists to work collaboratively for sustainable materials-based exploration, specifically plant-based plastics, in small-scale studio practice. Individual businesses can apply, through Interface, for a Scottish Funding Council (SFC) Innovation Voucher which pays for £5,000 worth of academic time to work towards solving a specific business problem, in this case finding sustainable and workable plant-based plastics. By working collaboratively to pool their vouchers, the Smart Plastics group were able to access a larger pot of money to support a more significant piece of research: £15,000 in the first stage, with an additional £10,000 in the second stage.

Motivated to minimise their carbon footprint, reduce the energy used in the ceramic making process and to use recyclable or biodegradable materials, ceramic artists Carol Sinclair and Lorna Fraser experimented with industrially produced PolyLactic Acid (PLA) and Polycaprolactone (PCL) as well as new polymers created specifically for the project by chemists at the Green Materials Laboratory (formerly the University of Edinburgh, now University of Manchester).

The knowledge exchange facilitated through this project also informed and inspired the chemists taking part. Professor Michael Shaver (Green Materials Laboratory) was inspired by the aims of the artists with regard to their work, and saw the potential for cross-fertilisation and application of the craft makers’ techniques and discoveries to other industries, for example where porcelain is used in medical devices.

AAS undertook a series of dissemination events to share the project’s findings and outcomes, and to encourage other collaborative groups to form for research and development purposes.

In February and July 2019, in association with Interface, AAS delivered two ‘Inspiring Innovative Sustainable Materials’ workshops in Dundee and Inverness to inform and inspire new ways of approaching material use for makers. Speakers included:

  • Professor Sandra Wilson (contemporary jeweller, silversmith, researcher and educator at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design) discussing her research with the Love Chemistry group at the University of Edinburgh into recovering precious metals such as gold and copper from electronic waste for use in her jewellery practice.
  • Dr Sam Vettese (Maker, Reader in Applied Art and Design at Edinburgh Napier University) talked about the use of waste fibres being combined with PLA plastic to create a new mixed material for 3D printing and laser cutting.
  • Cellucomp, a Fife-based producer of innovative materials made from the waste of root vegetables.
  • Ceramicist Lorna Fraser discussed the Smart Plastics group project and how she assessed the sustainability and environmental impact of her practice.
Jewellery by Professor Sandra Wilson


AAS initiated the Smart Plastics project as a way of encouraging and testing collaborative working to support small-scale, solo practitioner craft businesses to work together to undertake research that would simply be too difficult to do on their own. Pooling SFC Innovation Vouchers in this way was a new way of working for Interface (it was the first ever project to pool Innovation Vouchers to support a multi-party collaboration) and led to the project being awarded additional funding to extend the research period and activity.

Makers situated their practice within research and development, and embedded research and development within their practice. Participating maker-researchers benefitted from:

  • Collaborative working to support research and risk taking, makers exchanged their practical experiences of working with the new materials to save each other time
  • Accountability to others in the group aided progress and sense of shared progress
  • Building cross-sectoral networks
  • Acquisition of new skills and understanding of new materials
  • Increased adoption of more sustainable studio practices
  • Greater clarity over terminology
  • Increased ability to know where information is missing or incomplete
  • Stronger voice to challenge malpractice or lack of information/awareness in supply chain

Participating scientist-researchers benefitted from:

  • New ways of sharing research and reaching audiences
  • Better understanding of the role and value of making

There are opportunities for AAS to re-engage with Interface to encourage other groups of makers to undertake materials based investigations and explore nature-based solutions to the climate emergency.

Think Plastic: Materials and Making

In January 2020 the work of the Smart Plastics group culminated in the Think Plastic: Materials and Making exhibition at the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh (open until 1 November 2020). Makers Lorna Fraser, Carol Sinclair, jeweller Carla Edwards and tapestry weaver Fiona Hutchison presented work which demonstrated ways in which plastic can be recycled, reused and repurposed to reduce waste. The public were invited to consider their own relationship with plastic, value it as a precious resource rather than something to be thrown away, and make a pledge to rethink the sustainability of their own habits.

‘Tipping Point’ by Carol Sinclair exhibited at Think Plastic, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (2019/2020), photographer Carol Sinclair

Working in partnership with Creative Informatics (CI), a research programme run together by the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University, Creative Edinburgh and Codebase to consider the role of data in creative practice, AAS supported two events in association with the Think Plastic exhibition.

  1. Creative Lab #10 ‘Data for Green Making’ – three makers presented use of data in their creative practice, spanning design inspiration and materials exploration.
  2. CI Studio #5 ‘Tools for Greener Making’ – brought together individuals and organisations working across the creative sector to identify digital and physical tools to extract data and inform better design and making practices. Topics included the Green Crafts Initiative, calculation of carbon footprint, circular economy models, and quadruple bottom line strategies.
Lorna Fraser’s Parasol Fungi made from recycled water bottles, exhibited at Think Plastic, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (2019/2020)


The exhibition prompted wider discussion of sustainable materials and their applications among the general public (including overseas visitors to Scotland).

Members of the public made pledges related to their personal use of plastics.

Programming around the exhibition ensured that knowledge acquired through Smart Plastics research was shared widely across the making community and the wider creative industries across Scotland.

Example of exhibition visitor pledge at the Think Plastic exhibition, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (2019/2020)