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Recycled Plastic Jewellery: What Is It And Why Is It Important?

This month is Plastic Free July, a global movement that helps millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution. We thought it was a perfect time to introduce you to the growing movement of recycled plastic jewellery in the UK. 

Jewellery made from ocean plastic is the very definition of one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. Or in this case ‘woman’, as we’ll be talking to contemporary Cornish jeweller Sarah Drew about her creative process. Recycled plastic jewellery is an important branch of jewellery design that’s likely to continue its impressive growth due to its environmental benefits, thanks to a select few makers who make magic from recycled ocean plastic in Cornwall.

Colourful statement necklace made from beach finds by Sarah Drew
recycled plastic rings

What is Recycled Plastic Jewellery?

Recycled plastic jewellery is made from plastic originally made for another use. Often discarded in landfill or found in our oceans and washed up on our beaches, plastic is being collected by jewellery designers who are giving it a second lease of life.

The styles of recycled jewellery vary widely, depending on the designer. Some are bold, statement pieces encouraging a discussion about plastic pollution, and others are more subtle, intricate. 

As the materials are collected and found, most recycled plastic jewellery is one-of-a-kind. There is no less skill involved, with many designers transferring traditional jewellery making methods to their recycled plastic jewellery. If anything, the challenge posed by making wearable items from existing materials and shapes requires more innovation and problem solving than traditional jewellery making.

The Environmental Impact of Plastic in the Oceans

Plastic is a synthetic material, which can take up to 500 years or more to biodegrade, even then it doesn’t fully decompose – but gets smaller and smaller. The environmental impact of plastic is now widely known, but its mass production and integration into our everyday lives makes it feel like a huge challenge to eliminate it.

ocean plastic pollution seen from underwater

Of the 6300 million tonnes of plastic waste generated globally between 1950-2015, only 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated, and the remaining 79% disposed of in the natural environment. Both land and sea are affected by plastic waste, and scientists estimate a gargantuan eight million tonnes of plastic amasses in the sea every year. 

Once it goes to landfill, some gets burnt and recycled, and the rest ends up in the ocean. The burning of it produces harmful chemicals which reduce air quality and contaminate nearby resources. The vast amount of plastic in our oceans damages and kills wildlife. Many creatures either ingest plastic, or become entangled. 

ocean plastic pollution seen from above water

Plastic has also been found to carry non-native creatures to geographical locations where they don’t belong, disrupting the ecosystem. Here in Cornwall, Surfers Against Sewage found that plastic pollution on our beaches, rivers and streets has risen dramatically in recent years. It is more important than ever to lower our plastic production and consumption and to make huge strides in reusing plastic.  

How Recycled Plastic Jewellery Can Help the Planet

Collecting plastic from nature removes it from a devastating cycle, in which it endlessly threatens marine life and contaminates our waters. Recycled sea plastic jewellery is an innovative way to reuse and recycle plastic, and one of the prettier initiatives! 

Additionally, a growth in the popularity of recycled plastic reduces a need for traditional jewellery methods, such as mining which excavates minerals from the earth. During the production of fine jewellery many hazardous and toxic chemicals are released, and can be life threatening, especially for workers treated unethically in developing nations. 

Making recycled plastic jewellery is an environmentally positive decision, so long as plastic hasn’t been made purely for this use.

The Process of Creating Recycled Sea Plastic Jewellery

Just like all creative disciplines, different makers have different processes. However, many recycled plastic jewellery designers will start by collecting sea plastic, no doubt they’ll all have their favourite spots to discover interesting pieces! It’ll then be cleaned thoroughly, and then the maker can begin their design process. 

Viki of Washed & Found hand collects plastic on her regular trips to Cornwall and North Devon, combining her adventures with swimming, surfing and paddle boarding with her family. Viki hand-sands each piece, and designs a composition, before casting her designs in a bio-resin which creates smooth shapes. Her colourful statement recycled sea plastic jewellery is sleek and bold, and a favourite in Inspire Makers.

Beach plastic in a hand
recycled plastic bracelets and necklaces in a bowl

Contemporary jewellery designer Sarah Drew spends plenty of time outdoors in Cornwall, where she collects beach plastic, sea glass, driftwood, ghost nets, twigs and rusty metal. Read on for our chat with Sarah Drew, where we learn how she makes such interesting, eye-catching jewellery from this found medley!

Why Recycled Plastic Jewellery is a Sustainable Fashion Choice

Fast fashion is an environmentally devastating industry, with textile production contributing more to climate change than international aviation and shipping combined. Fashion, accessories, and jewellery, are made cheaply and often unethically in developing countries, allowing fast fashion giants to make a huge profit. In offering cheaper clothing and jewellery, we cultivate an attitude where clothing is disposable, not helped by the rapid trend cycle.

Choosing to buy recycled plastic jewellery made in the UK by designers and makers who are environmentally minded, is a much more sustainable fashion choice. From start to finish, these designers are creative, and environmentally conscious, and the found nature of their materials often means their jewellery is reasonably priced.

Jeweller making recycled plastic jewellery

An Interview with Sarah Drew, a Recycled Plastic Jewellery Designer

At Inspire Makers, we stock the ever evolving and always astounding jewellery of designer and maker Sarah Drew. We chatted to St Austell based Sarah about her creative process, and why creating recycled plastic jewellery in Cornwall is important to her…

Where does your love of jewellery design come from?

I think I’ve always been a maker: my mum taught me to sew when I was four, and I loved making odd props to play with from my Dad’s toolbox. I always wanted to be making, not so much drawing, just making, wigs, sci-fi weapons, and embroidering my jeans.

My love of jewellery came from my grandparents. My grandad used to go to the local antiques auctions in York where I’m from, and come back and tip whole boxes full of jewellery onto the kitchen table for me and my grandma to sort out. I set up my first jewellery business when I was 14 at school with my friend Ben, making bead earrings which we sold to kids and teachers at school out of a cassette case.

recycled plastic earrings
recycled jewellery

Why are you passionate about using found objects?

Primarily it comes from a curiosity about history and natural history; exploring and seeing little interesting things I want to look at and keep, that seem precious to me. It’s a way of trying to understand the world and nature’s processes, and having a little piece of evidence of it. A physical link to tether you to that place and time.

When we first moved to Cornwall 20 years ago, there was a lot of plastic on the beaches that obviously I knew shouldn’t be there, but I liked the shapes, colours and textures that had been formed by the processes the sea had inflicted on the plastic (and driftwood and sea-glass). The pieces reminded me of Matisse collages, and I wanted to make big colourful jewellery from them.

As time went on and we became more aware of the detrimental effect of plastic pollution in the sea, the pieces I made became more of a statement on that, a way to get people talking about environmental issues.

Where does your design inspiration come from?

It’s sometimes hard to pin down inspiration, but my beach finds collections are inspired by Matisse’s collages, Picasso’s paintings in the 30s and 40s, Margaret Mellis’ found collages and Barbara Hepworth’s fluid, organic and threaded sculptures. I love mid-century design: the sgraffito and soft, bright colours, and the sleek shapes of studio pottery from that era. I’m also inspired by my surroundings, seaside days out with blue skies and beach huts.

view of the Cornish coastline

I made a completely different sci-fi collection too, using dark and neutral beach finds. These were based on the film Dune and were on show at Truro Museum and Trebah Gardens. I loved the design in the film, and the beautiful shots, as well as the environmental message it carried.

Could you talk us through the creative process from concept to finished product? Do you have an idea in mind, and seek the materials, or are you inspired by your found objects?

I’m always collecting materials, and I’m very lucky that some kind people send me their finds. Alison Owens sends me fantastic packages of weathered plastic, metal and glass from Portknockie, near Inverness, so I have plenty of material when I make a new collection. 

If I’m preparing for a show or exhibition, I like to have a theme in mind. Then I sort out suitable found pieces and begin to lay them out on my studio table in possible necklace, brooch and ring designs. In this way the found pieces, begin the shape of the design piece, and I problem solve around them how to connect them together, often with cold-connection techniques, as most found materials can’t be heated up: they would either burn, melt or lose their lovely patina.

While I’m planning these designs, I consider incorporating recycled silver, brass, or copper components that I make separately. I then lay everything out together and begin connecting them into a piece, using threading, wirework, riveting and textile techniques.

Are you a sea swimmer or do you prefer dry land?

Definitely a sea swimmer! But I have to admit a bit of a fair weather one,  April to September I’d say. I don’t like wearing a wetsuit and I’m not as brave as some of these amazing people who go in all year round. But when it’s warm, I get twitchy if I can’t get in the sea every day. I’m lucky enough to live a few miles from quiet beaches so I can go for a dip after a busy day in my studio.

Finally, what’s the weirdest/best thing you’ve found whilst searching for jewellery materials?

If I’m honest, some of my favourite found pieces have been given to me by other people! Alison has sent some incredible Bakelite pieces and hobnail boot soles down from Inverness. My niece Scarlet found a beautifully weathered piece of copper on the beach off the promenade in Penzance. I’ve been given lovely, curved, sea-weathered broken buoys in a rainbow of colours from all over the Cornish coastline.

I did feel very lucky to find a big chunk of amethyst sitting in granite on my dog walk on the Clay trails near St Austell. I made that into a huge ring for our Terramater Art Strata exhibition. With all these found materials, it’s really fascinating to try and work out what they were, where they came from, how old they are and how far they’ve travelled. It’s great when I’ve made something out of them, and I can try and work it out with customers at a show or exhibition.

recycled plastic earrings
recycled jewellery

How to Care for Recycled Plastic Jewellery: Tips and Tricks

The brilliant thing about shopping small from independent makers, and the shops and galleries that support them, is that you can chat to them directly. If it hasn’t been made clear, ask them how best to look after your recycled plastic jewellery.

Generally, clean your plastic jewellery with a damp cloth, mild soap and warm water. To shine them, buff with a little wax to bring their rich colours back to life. Using an old toothbrush can be great for getting into the tiny nooks and crannies. Avoid high temperatures, humidity and direct sunlight, as the plastic could warp and discolour.  

Choosing to make your money matter, and purchasing recycled plastic jewellery from independent jewellers has so many benefits. You’ll be supporting plastic pollution initiatives, taking plastic out of an endangering cycle, championing local creatives, and have your own beautiful piece of unique jewellery. You’ll also be supporting designers and makers pioneering much needed innovation and variety in a tired and environmentally destructive jewellery industry. So many fantastic reasons to shop small and support your local Cornish jewellery designers.

Want To Hear More? We Would Love To Hear From You.

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