In a circular economy, recycled plastic could become a global commodity. Convincing enough product designers of its viability as a material would be a big step in that direction
Plastic is a durable material. For decades, this has been a considerable benefit, allowing for the creation of versatile, hard-wearing products that can reach the furthest corners of the Earth. But this, of course, has proved disastrous from an environmental perspective.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, about 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste were generated between 1950 and 2015, of which only 9% was recycled. The rest was burnt, put in landfill or left to litter land and sea.
If we want a world where consumer and industrial goods don’t end up as pollutants, businesses need to be smarter about how they use and, even more crucially, reuse plastics. That transformation starts at the corporate level, with product designers, engineers and executives agreeing to prioritise recycled and recyclable materials in their manufacturing processes.
Considering a product’s lifecycle
Adidas is one global brand that’s been reviewing its approach in this respect. Marwin Hoffmann, its senior director of brand sustainability, reports that more than 70% of all the polyester used by the company last year was recycled. From 2024 onwards, Adidas is aiming to use only recycled polyester.
Since 2015, the sportswear giant has collaborated with the Parley for the Oceans campaign to sell “millions of pairs of shoes” made using recycled plastic waste from coastal regions around the world. In 2020, the project was responsible for the retrieval of 7,000 tonnes of refuse.
Considerations about the end of a product’s life are increasingly informing the work of the company’s designers. For instance, the Ultraboost DNA Loop shoe, which Adidas marketed for the first time in October 2020, is made from one material, from the sole to the laces, and is welded without glue. “Once the shoe reaches the end of its life, it can be shredded to pieces and reused,” Hoffmann says.
As a major manufacturer, Adidas is aware of the impact that activities in its supply chain can have on the wider industry, he adds. “We have worked with suppliers to create structures that make it possible to process recycled materials on a large scale. Such commitment not only makes Adidas more sustainable; it also drives the whole industry’s development.”
For big companies to create products fit for the circular economy, they first need access to appropriate materials. The Good Plastic Company is a supplier of recycled plastic that has worked with Nike and Elle, among others. William Chizhovsky, its founder and CEO, refers to his business as an “R&D operation” – an important link in the chain between the recyclers that clean and shred, and the corporations that make and sell.
He foresees recycled plastic as a major commodity, one that can act as a viable substitute for virgin plastic and perhaps even wood. But first, costs need to be brought down and processes rendered more efficient. To this end, the company hired engineering experts to develop what Chizhovsky’s colleagues call “toastie machines”. These heat and press recycled plastic into sheeting of various sizes, collecting valuable information in the process.
“Based on data such as temperature, pressure, time and so on, we can develop the best recipe for the recycling of different plastic types,” he says.
At present, 1m2 of sheeting is equivalent to 7,000 plastic bags. The company can work with most plastics (PVC being one notable exception) and is understandably keen for manufacturers to review their choices of raw material.
“Can you help to recycle a few 100 million tons of plastic by selling sunglasses?” Chizhovsky says, suggesting that brands should be more ambitious with their designs. “Everything that you retail that’s produced from wood or virgin plastic you can produce from recycled plastic.”
Although companies are increasingly committing to sustainability targets, there is still some hesitation when it comes to recycled materials, he notes. Buyers often expect the materials to be cheaper, while some have even asked him to supply material that doesn’t look obviously recycled, as they “want people to think it’s virgin plastic”.
Changing perceptions, if not production
That difficult relationship between waste and aesthetics particularly interests product designer Joost Dingemans. At the start of his career he adopted a mantra – “I exist, therefore I pollute” – that sums up the dilemma facing many environmentally conscious creatives: they feel guilty about wanting to carve out the new in a world that’s already packed with products.
Dingemans realised that, unless he was working with waste and returning value to something unwanted, he “couldn’t be happy with designing and making”. Along with co-founder Marten van Middelkoop, he runs Plasticiet, a studio in Rotterdam that takes offcuts from industrial manufacturers and converts up to 2 tonnes of this material into sheets of recycled plastic each month.
Because these sheets have an aesthetic value, Plasticiet’s corporate customers often put them on display in their shops and offices, rather than using them as materials in manufacturing. The partners believe that this practice tends to make their product more of a virtue signal than an agent of real change.
“We’re basically helping a lot of these retailers in their greenwashing,” Dingemans admits, although he acknowledges that anyone visiting these firms’ premises “will see that recycled plastic exists – that it’s being used, it’s beautiful, it works”.
Tips on working with recycled plastics
Dingemans and van Middelkoop are consciously designing for designers. Like the material sold by the Good Plastic Company, their product has built-in versatility “so that people can use their creativity. There is freedom in the way you apply it,” Dingemans says. Indeed, it’s been used in products ranging from worktops to fountain pens.
He adds that one of the biggest challenges for Plasticiet has been to find a consistently reliable supply of plastic waste that’s sufficiently cost-effective to process. Scaling production up to a meaningful level can be hard if the waste needs a lot of “cleaning up”. Mixing plastic with other materials – no matter how aesthetically pleasing – is likely to make recycling far more arduous. On the other hand, an item made from only one type of plastic can easily be broken down and reassembled into something new.
Lastly, producers should look to educate users about alternatives to discarding what they no longer need. Plasticiet will take any offcuts sent back by customers and reuse them, for instance, while Adidas is piloting a rental service in France. Customers can use a range of sportswear, paying for clothes and shoes according to the duration of their use. Once an item has been returned, Adidas will clean and repair it before making it available again.
These changes are only the start. According to the UN, the world still produces 300 million tonnes of plastic a year. Nonetheless, designing with the circular economy in mind offers a radical new approach to the production-consumption paradigm. Adopting recycled plastic as a new commodity will eventually drive prices down and make customers more receptive to it. Rubbish can become treasure.