The question of plastic in design splits into two attitudes: discarding it or looking at it as a recyclable material.

The 2019 Dezeen’s annual conference, opposed Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Richard Hutten, Industrial Designer.

“Plastic in and of itself is an amazing material,” said Andrew Morlet. “It’s light, it’s durable. If you’ve got a plastic bottle, you could keep that for 100 years and just keep reusing it.” Strong advocate of circular economy, he added that new chemical recycling techniques would make plastic an efficient reusable material.

Dutch designer Richard Hutten replied that “No matter what people are saying that you can recycle it, that’s bullshit. You cannot recycle it. There are 4000 different kinds of plastic. PET can be recycled a little bit all the other plastics cannot.”

Plastic is one of the most controversial materials of our time. Invented in the late 1800s, scientists agree on its dangers since 1970. Yet, plastic production has continued unabated since then and accelerated in the 2000s. Rooted in our daily life, it is widely used in all industries, from building construction to transports, clothing, packaging, just to name a few.

Plastic’s degradation takes more than four centuries but its microparticles remain forever, polluting the planet and its inhabitants. Its production requires a vast consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned. The increase in CO2 levels is directly related to global warming. Reducing fuel consumption won’t necessarily solve the plastic problem. Global plastic production is expected to double in the next 15 years even as demand for gasoline wanes.

That’s when plastic recycling came in as a miracle solution. But according to Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, “It’s really a complete myth when people say that we’re recycling our plastics”. While virtually all plastics can be recycled, many aren’t because the process is expensive, complicated and the resulting product is of lower quality than what you put in.

According to The Guardian, the carbon-reduction benefits are also less clear. “You ship it around, then you have to wash it, then you have to chop it up, then you have to re-melt it, so the collection and recycling itself has its own environmental impact,” - says Roland Geyer, a professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Synthetic compositions recycling is complex, uncertain, and still viewed as a second-choice material. But in recent years, many design studios started experimenting with recycled plastic as an innovative new material to create. In 2019, Rossana Orlandi launched the Ro Plastic Prize with the aim to encourage designers to work on the recycling of this unwanted material.

According to the United Nations, every year more than 400 million tons of plastic waste is produced in the world, of which only 9 percent is recycled. The Ro Plastic Prize is committed to increase the circular economy solutions. For the organization, recycling and reusing plastic waste is a way to stop it from accumulating in the environment.

Dirk van der Kooij is an advocate of plastic recycling. He introduces craft processes in the conception of furniture made from industrial waste. The Dutch designer gave a second life to everyday objects such as discarded CDs, kitchen appliances or chocolate molds. His “Chubby” chair is 3D printed from 10 kg of chipped, recycled fridge interiors.

Afterlife, a collection designed by the Dutch studio Odd Matter (Els Woldhek and Georgi Manassiev) in collaboration with Supernovas, is named in reference to the challenge: giving an afterlife to plastic waste. Composed of benches and crates, all the products are made from recycled plastic waste such as PE and PET and are 100% recyclable as 100% mono-material, with no use of glue.

RVR chairs by Dirk van der Kooij. Photo credit Dirk van der Kooij.

James Shaw focuses his work on everyday reality, he explores the mid-20th century, which he says was the time when things went wrong in terms of material habits and usage. The British designer crafts ordinary objects made from post-consumer plastic such as toilet paper holders, bowls, door handles and mirrors.

In the work of these designers, the will to pursue iterative processes prevails. Research is at the core of their approach: they handle the whole production chain and build their own tools to recycle plastic and reuse it in their creations. James Shaw uses a self-built plastic extruding gun whilst Dirk van der Kooij combines robotics with 3D printing techniques.

Given the vast amount of plastic waste, the development of circular production appears to be a smart alternative. Yet, this approach to waste recycling shouldn’t remain an excuse for the plastics industry.

In an interview for Sight Unseen, James Shaw explained, “My niche shouldn’t exist. We’re growing hopeful that my practice won’t be able to continue because that will mean we’re not, as a society, doing such crazy things with a valuable resource that also happens to be quite bad when it gets released into the environment. I hope that in the future my practices won’t exist.”

Plastic Baroque planter by James Shaw. Photo credit Paul Plews.

For another part of the design scene, using plastic waste means approving the overproduction of this polluting material. “Plastic is incompatible with the circular economy and new materials need to be developed instead” said Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans. Various biopolymers from natural raw materials exist and can replace plastic.

The Dutch designers, Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros, connect designers, architects, craftsmen, and engineers to explore alternatives to plastic. They initially cultivated algae plants, possessing the property of converting CO2 into oxygen and biomass, which they dry and turn into a material to produce 3D printed objects.

In 2017 they were invited for a residency at the Luma Lab, a research lab on bio-based materials in Arles, to work on regional algae. They have 3D scanned historical Roman glassware discovered in the Rhône region, part of the Departmental Museum of Arles collection, and reproduced them with locally grown algae. They also developed biopolymers from other organic feedstocks such as mycelium, potato starch and cocoa bean shells.

After five years of research, Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros have developed a material called “weed ware”, which is a natural alternative to plastic, degradable in the soil and in the sea. In 2020, for the exhibition The Breakdown Economy at Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, they showed the result of their research in “Seaweed Cycle” featuring a world without plastic.

The duo developed and stimulated a new closed carbon production chain, obtaining biocompatible and CO2-fixing materials that restore the ecology, stimulate biodiversity, and break the current destructive production cycle.

The choice of biopolymers is therefore an alternative to plastic, even on a larger scale. Last year Kartell launched the iconic Componibili in a biopolymer derived from agricultural waste. “After a series of processes to refine the composition, this biomass becomes a material of the highest quality,” says Lorenza Luti.

Recycling plastic waste is crucial to make the best of the huge amount of plastic already produced but it won’t be enough to save the planet without a radical cultural change in consumption.

Algae Lab, in Arles. Photo credit Victor Picon. Courtesy Atelier Luma
4.5 min

The future of plastic