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These designers transform plastic waste into public furniture

The trash gets diverted from landfill, melted down, and 3D-printed into park benches.

In the Greek city of Thessaloniki, a park features citizen-designed street furniture made from an unlikely source: local plastic trash that’s been remade into 3D-printed furniture.

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[Photo: © Stefanos Tsakiris]
“We started from the observation that we live in a growing society, consuming a lot of resources and generating enormous amounts of plastic waste,” says Panos Sakkas, one of the founders of the Netherlands-based design studio The New Raw, the team that created Print Your City, the project behind the the Zero Waste Lab, which made the furniture. “We wanted to show a better way to use plastic in long-lasting and easy-to-trace applications. By using digital design and fabrication, it is possible to add value to the discarded material and make the circular concept feasible.”

[Photo: © Stefanos Tsakiris]
The project, which was demonstrated as a prototype in Amsterdam in 2018 before launching with the lab in Greece, aims to close the loop for plastic. When someone tosses plastic trash in a recycling bin in Thessaloniki, instead of sending the plastic on a long trip (which, in some European cities, sometimes ends up in illegal dumps in Southeast Asia), the city diverts some plastic to the lab, where it can be transformed and put to local use.

[Photo: © Stefanos Tsakiris]
At the lab, plastic is sorted by type–the purer the material, the easier it is to 3D print–and then washed and shredded. “Then we start ‘cooking’ it in the printer,” says The New Raw cofounder Foteini Setaki. A robotic arm squirts out toothpaste-like strands of the melted plastic, which harden as the furniture takes shape. On a website, anyone can customize their own preferred version of a rounded public bench, choosing the amount of seating to provide, whether they want to include a planter, bike rack, a dog bowl, or a bookcase. Citizens vote on their favorite designs.

[Photo: © Stefanos Tsakiris]
The first designs were put in a public square called Hanth Park in the center of the city this month. The project can’t fully solve the problem of what to do with plastic trash–over the duration of the yearlong project, it will recycle around four tons of plastic, or roughly as much as what’s produced by only 14 Greek households. But it can help make the problem more visible than it already is, and could help generate more support for recycling plastic locally–particularly with the tool of 3D printing. Because there’s a finite amount of street furniture that a city needs, the project might also spark questions about the limits of recycling. At some point, the world will also need to cut back on the amount of plastic it produces, not just try to give it a second life.

The lab was sponsored by the Greek arm of Coca-Cola, and the designers now hope to bring it to other cities.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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