While we’re busy toting our reusable bags to the grocery and desperately recycling takeout containers, plastic is hiding in plain sight in everything from our computer cords to remote controls. Every year, 10 million tonnes of plastic goes into electronic products, very little of which is recycled.
Industrial designers at Google are trying to reverse this trend. They’ve been incorporating recycled plastic into their suite of products, including Nest mini speakers and Pixel phones, and this week, they launched a new Pixel phone case with a knitted texture, made from 70% recycled plastic.
Miguel Harry, the lead designer for this case, says the team created the product to last a long time. They picked this jacquard fabric because the texture masks scuffs, grime, and everyday wear and tear. (Google has been making fabric cases since the Pixel 2.) “These cases get a lot of use, so it’s important to be able to keep it clean,” Harry says. The team was also judicious about how much material they used in each case. Two water bottles generated enough plastic to create fabric for five cases.
Sustainability aside, the phone cases are easy on the eyes. The case comes in black, gray, and red, all of which look a little like tweed, with a flecks of other colors mixed in. The interior, meanwhile, is made of a microfiber that helps protect the camera and screen. “We wanted to give the case a cozy feeling,” Harry says. “Like a handmade product that is imperfect, even though it is obviously made by machine.”
The amount of waste in our landfills is growing thanks, in part, to how quickly we replace our electronic devices. By 2050, the total amount of waste generated is expected to hit 110 million tonnes, 20% of which is expected to be plastic. Right now, there is very little infrastructure in place to recycle or recover the plastic in these devices the way we recycle other plastic products, like bottles and containers. Brands like Samsung, Whirlpool, and Philips are just beginning to develop products that can be recycled. Harry says that Google designers are also working on making products recyclable, and they hope to release other products soon.
Until this becomes the norm, products designed from recycled plastic are a way to mitigate the problem. Last year, the UN and the European Commission launched a two-year public awareness campaign called PolyCE (short for for Post-Consumer High-tech Recycled Polymers for a Circular Economy) to encourage brands to make products out of recycled plastic and inspire consumers to buy them.
Harry says it’s important for consumers to realize that sustainable products can also be beautiful. “We want people to know that [you] don’t have to compromise on great design for recycled plastic,” he says.