Radical recycling:London designers get creative with plastics and other waste materialsMonday 19 March
London is starting to deal with its plastic waste, with commitments from the Mayor, charges on plastic cups, reductions in take-away food packaging, the shunning of plastic drinking straws and even a Foreign Office pledge to ban avoidable use by its staff of single-use plastics by the end of this year. Such measures can work — imposing a 5p charge for carrier bags has slashed their use by 85 per cent.
The way we care for the world is — literally — rubbish. At one end we are running out of materials and resources, yet at the other we are throwing them away. This is the stark warning contained in a just-published book called Radical Matter (Thames & Hudson, £32) by Kate Franklin and Caroline Till, co-founders of London trend and insight consultancy FranklinTill. “We must reject the take-make-discard model of consumption,” they say.
Manufacturers make recycling difficult and users can be profligate wasters and lazy recyclers. But here’s the hope: designers can and are creating “innovatory materials and alternative systems of production”. The book takes an optimistic global view, exploring experimental new material uses for newspaper, sawdust, corn husks, seaweed and even shit and house dust. It re-evaluates old crafts and spotlights new ways of production. Many ideas are on the fringe, but their practitioners are pioneer inventors, working often for very little reward.
The nation was appalled when Sir David Attenborough’s TV series Blue Planet revealed the destructive horrors of ocean waste. London-based designer Brodie Neill has been perfecting a robust “ocean terrazzo” from plastic waste washed up on beaches, showing his large pieces of furniture at the London Design Festival — “upscaling waste into wonder”. Now he’s tackling discarded “ghost” fishing nets adrift in our seas. Neill spoke recently at the UN’s International Marine Conference and at an event on Innovation for the Circular Economy hosted by the European Parliament.
In a south London workshop, furniture maker Sebastian Cox has a new material made from fresh wood waste bound together with fungus. He’s already “grown” lamp shades, and made a lightweight board for insulation, working with RCA graduate Ninela Ivanova, also London based. “It’s early days yet,” says Cox, “but we are passionate about new uses for wood, which is super-sustainable when harvested correctly.”
Also using waste wood is London designer Conor Taylor, to make Foresso, his composite timber terrazzo. Solomon & Wu, makers of contemporary architectural elements in Hertfordshire, are upping production, collecting Forest Stewardship Council-certified waste from local timber merchants.
Design duo Adam Fairweather and Rosalie McMillan of Smile Plastics turn plastic waste into boards for manufacturing. They make tabletops and storage boxes from a surprisingly beautiful, fragmented mix of plastic bottles and yoghurt and plant pots.
Opendesk is a new “on demand” way of making furniture, largely for offices at present, without a central factory and with no shipping needed. Instead, paid-for digital files for easy-assembly designs are sent directly to local fabricators. At about £400, an Opendesk is not the cheapest, but increasingly customers are buying into the sustainable message.
Opendesk has supplied mega brands including Greenpeace, Nike and Google, along with start-ups such as Camden Town Brewery and co-working hub WeWork. Joni Steiner, Opendesk co-founder and chief executive, says: “Local making has superfast lead times, sustainably sourced materials and bespoke design. Let’s replace factories with independent faces.”
Essays by prominent workers and campaigners feature in the book Radical Matter, with London colleges showing the way. Caroline Till cites the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, and the Centre for Circular Design at Chelsea College of Arts. At Central Saint Martins Maison/0, professor in design for sustainable futures Carole Collet nurtures “sustainable intelligence”.
Imaginative and passionate Daniel Charny, curator and co-founder of Fixperts, is Professor of Design at Kingston University, where he champions repairing rather than chucking away.
Outside of the book, there are many more Londoners making new materials out of waste, and/or creatively recycling existing materials and upcycling furniture.
Last week Ecobuild — the sustainability showcase — attracted 24,500 visitors at ExCeL, where Brixton’s Adam David Ge-Saelis, founder of Ongéan, built the registration and seating area from discarded fittings and materials in his railway arches depot. He plans a “waste open event” for World Earth Day on April 22, and hopes ultimately to build a waste village.
The mass market is getting the message, too. M&S launched Plan A for a sustainable future in 2007. Now comes Plan A 2025. Chief executive Steve Rowe says: “We will engage 32 million customers, 85,000 colleagues and 20,000 shareholders in a massive movement for sustainable change.”
Meanwhile, flat-pack furniture maker Ikea has manifestos for environmental and social change in its new catalogue, and is making kitchen unit fronts from reclaimed wood, with a foil made from discarded plastic bottles. If bottles are recycled responsibly, they can be put back into use.
Source: The Evening Standard