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LAST UPDATED JANUARY 9, 2024    |   5 MIN READ

AN ICONIC DESIGN GOING TO WASTE.

WHERE THE FLOWERS GROW | EP. 002 | MADE BETTER  -  WRITTEN BY TOM GILLIGAN

A popular little fish from Japan, perfectly designed and fit for use
in every way except its environmental impact.

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Photos of Colombo Social taken by Jungle House, June 2023.

We try to cast our net pretty wide when looking for people who are trying to change their corner of the world for the better, so how fitting that on this occasion we managed to catch a fish. Angus Ware and Jeffrey Simpson make up Heliograf, an award-winning Sydney-based design collaboration whose debut product is the Light Soy Lamp: a recycled plastic lamp in the image of the shoyu-tai, aka. the 'soy sauce snapper' that happily accompanies your takeaway sushi (only recognised in a handful of countries as we've now learnt!). We had a chat with Angus Ware, and he was super great to shed some light, so to speak, on the intention behind the lamp.

"... basically we had this sort of idea of creating a kind of artistic statement on these little fish, because I was obsessed with them and found it such a funny symbol of waste and how our society and culture works... he [Jeffrey] had the idea like "Why don't we just make it really big and light up?" and we call that the light bulb moment. And yeah, that was about six years ago."

ANGUS WARE, CO-FOUNDER OF HELIOGRAF

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Angus and Jeffrey were running a small creative agency at the time when they thought of the soy lamp, and saw it as an opportunity for an art project/communication project as much as anything - they wanted to make a good statement on how design can both change people's ways of thinking about things, and to be an example of sustainable design. 

"You know, I think that's the thing about the little fish that I find really interesting is it's not really about the plastic in a lot of ways, it's about the disposable culture... it's really [more about] an idea and a pattern of behaviour than it is about materials."

ANGUS WARE, CO-FOUNDER OF HELIOGRAF

Light Soy as an object, much like the soy sauce fish that it's made in the image of, works great for what it's designed for. It gives off a satisfying quality of light; it's charming; and it's a striking piece that people want to own and show off. It's delightful. Likewise, the shoyu-tai does an amazing job at delivering soy sauce for a serving and looking good while doing it. A timeless design that, once you notice it, makes you wish that you didn't have to throw it away — an intricate little artwork that comes into your life and leaves like any other piece of single-use plastic.

When we spoke to Angus he elaborated on the concept that drove the design:
"The funny thing about the little soy fish is they're actually a really great design in every way, except for their environmental impact... They're fit for purpose to a tee and people love them, they're very iconic and have this sort of joyful association about them. So it's like, let's take that small thing and blow it up and foreground in some way what it is and how it impacts our lives, and then how it impacts the environment."

 

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"We're quite upfront that, you know, we're not perfect. And I guess there's always this tension between, well, the most sustainable thing we could have done is to do nothing. But you know, how can you communicate an idea and get people to really engage with it and I guess we thought that the benefit of that outweighed the potential downside."

ANGUS WARE, CO-FOUNDER OF HELIOGRAF

With both Light Soy and the shoyu-tai, the thing that's interesting, and perhaps the thing that drew Angus to the idea, is the inherent contradiction when you start to think about the lifecycle of the items that you're purchasing. Sushi is often viewed as a depiction of elegance and restraint, an embodiment of the Japanese culture of minimalism and the elevation of craft. It has two ingredients: rice and fish. Contrast this purity of expression through food with what we'll call the 'food-court' experience: eaten out of a flimsy disposable box, one bite, and it's gone. The beautifully designed soy sauce capsule is one squirt, and it's in the bin. We can try to savour the experience, but ultimately you'd be fighting against the reality that this is the intended way that we are encouraged to eat and the logical end point of reducing something down to fit into our lifestyle of immediate convenience. The Light Soy Lamp is interesting not only because of its design but also because of what it represents: an object made out of the same plastic that is so thoughtlessly discarded but remade in the image of single-use waste - this time not to be thrown away, but to be treasured and displayed.

All of us have a tendency to create trash simply by living our normal lives. Things that were once good and are now used, or even things that are still good but we simply don't need them anymore. There is an element of modern culture that permits us to not feel responsible for the waste that we create, although the blame cannot be laid entirely on us as consumers. Because even with the most noble and un-wasteful intentions, there are hundreds of things we use in an ordinary day that we have no choice but to throw away, because through a confluence of economic thinking, market analysis, and efficiency optimisation, that is exactly what they were designed to do. It's interesting to see how thinking about these societal problems through the lens of design can help fill in the picture of what a transition from a design brief of 'maximum convenience at lowest cost' to sustainable could look like and the innovations and opportunities that design can bring, rather than thinking about it as a hopeless dead end.

It's interesting to see how these social thinkings
 become more sustainable and innovative as we consider these single-use pieces as an open world full of opportunity for new design problems to be solved creatively, rather than a hopeless dead-end.

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"The funny thing about plastic is it is basically a recyclable product when it's virgin... and it's awesome. Like it's a really really great material for the things that should be made out of it... things that are designed to last, that need to be durable, that need to be light, that need to be safe or sanitary or what have you. It's a really silly thing to be wrapping food and carrying unnecessarily and so on. "

ANGUS WARE, CO-FOUNDER OF HELIOGRAF

The Light Soy lamp, being a playful take on the otherwise pretty depressing topic of pollution, is important because it is a real-world example of the forward progress that industries have made in the area of sustainable production. It encourages us to take the positives from the negatives and steer the conversation towards solutions that can be implemented immediately by anyone and everyone. It is also a reminder that businesses can (and hopefully will) trend towards sustainability if it is something people value. It also impresses upon us the role that we can play as individuals and the value of not being a passive consumer. The current outlook on plastic isn’t great, but who said the future of plastic has to be depressing as well. In fact, it’s worthwhile to remember that plastic is not the enemy at all, plastic is a fantastic material and when used properly is incredible for so many applications. But our relationship with plastic is what needs to change; we need to respect it, value it, and find ways to dispose or recycle in ways that actually result in it coming back into the world as new products. These aren’t things that as individuals we can change immediately, but it is something that we can be conscious of in every interaction we have. The value of something is how much we’re willing to pay for it, and the hidden fees on our addiction to throwing away plastic have been costing us a lot more than we’ve been calculating in our RRP.

 

The challenges are obvious, but when talking to Angus about the history of Light Soy and the direction of recycled materials, there was an optimistic picture being painted. 75% of the plastic used to create the lamp is ocean-bound and collected in Southeast Asia. It's processed and arrives at the factory in essentially the same format as its virgin-plastic counterpart would. It's difficult to see the difference between these post-recycled materials and virgin stock because, in reality, there isn't any.

We've well and truly moved into a world where recycled and recyclable materials are becoming the norm. The financial cost has disappeared, and consumers either don't mind or actively prefer it. Companies like Heliograf are pushing towards the next frontier, which is not just being able to find a new use for these otherwise wasted materials, but changing the mindset to buying and disposing of waste in the first place.

They’re made the same way that they make the little ones, blow-molded, or the same way you might make a coca-cola bottle or a milk bottle. The plastic is collected in Malaysia, and sorted. Processed until it’s in a state that’s very similar to the way that virgin plastic is basically distributed. Then you get a pellet and the pellet goes into a blow-molding machine that makes a little puck that gets heated and air blown through it until it fills out the form of the mold, which is a big metal negative of the soy fish shape. 

“It’s basically a drink bottle from an industrial design perspective, it’s just a fish shaped water bottle” Angus joked.

We're celebrating a story like Heliograf and Light Soy because, like the lamp itself, it's not just about being happy they exist and enjoying the product; it's about foregrounding what these issues are and trying to have a discussion about how and why we might need to change going forward.

“The funny thing about plastic is it is basically a recyclable product when it’s virgin. It’s a byproduct of oil and gas production and that is why it’s cheap because the fossil fuel industry is selling it as waste, basically. And it’s awesome. Like it’s a really really great material for the things that should be made out of it, and that’s things that are designed to last, that need to be durable, that need to be light, that need to be safe or sanitary or what have you. It’s a really really silly thing to be wrapping food and carrying unnecessarily and so on.

I've been lucky to work on a number of interesting documentary projects, and one of them involved a team of experts discussing the power of mindfulness in treating people with chronic pain. It demonstrated the ability that we have to affect our reality purely through the way that we think about the world and how we're experiencing it. Consider for a moment consciously placing every piece of rubbish that you create throughout the day and into the bin and understanding the place that it will end up, and the longevity of that waste. Knowing full well that it will not only outlast the lifespan of what it contained, but it will outlast you, your future generation, and potentially the facility that buries it as well. How profound that humanity has the ability to create a material so resilient that it borders on what we would consider immortality, yet we can create it so inexpensively that it somehow becomes worthless to us, so we throw it somewhere we don't have to look at anymore.

Big questions coming from the mouth of such a small plastic fish.


Larger companies can make the change to these closed loop systems, they just need to be convinced that it’s worth doing. You can’t detect a difference between virgin plastic products and recycled plastic, because there isn’t one. The way that plastic can be collected and reprocessed now means that for anyone looking to create any kind of plastic object there is no functional difference between the way you would go into manufacturing, because the recycled plastic stock material arrives in exactly the same format as it’s virgin counterpart would.
The little soy fish was invented in Japan, and is basically only recognised by people in Australia, NZ, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Germany, Netherlands, and the UK. So they’re working on another lamp, but something with a more global recognition so communicate the message they are looking to share.


Again a massive thanks to Angus for helping us out and listening to me chatting away, and in case anyone came here wanting a product review: the lamp is genuinely super great. Go out and order one here.

WORDS:  Tom Gilligan
PHOTOS:  Jungle House Creative

Let's celebrate good stories.

Stories from an ever-growing list of inspiring young engineers, designers, restaurateurs, architects, artists, start-ups, local heroes, activists, and innovators.

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Chapter One

WHERE THE FLOWERS GROW

We're pulling into focus all the bright bulbs who are making an impact with what they do, showing how it's done, and probably looking good while doing it.

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