The Herman Miller Aeron is the world’s most iconic task chair, designed in 1994 for a world where people were spending increasing hours in front of their computer screens.
Nearly 20 years later, the Aeron is still Herman Miller’s best-selling chair. And now, each Aeron chair will contain the equivalent of up to 114 plastic water bottles, as the company is using as much as 2.5 pounds of recycled, ocean-bound plastics in the Aeron—diverting the various plastic waste that’s found in close proximity to ocean shores.
Specifically, the company is using these reclaimed plastics to build 100% of two major components of the chair: its nylon back frame, and its tilt covers beneath the seat (a box that houses adjustment mechanisms).
Admittedly, 2.5 pounds of plastic might not sound like all that much. And depending on the color of the chair, there may be as little as half a pound of ocean plastic inside. “The idea is that little things add up,” says Gabe Wing, director of sustainability at Herman Miller. Herman Miller projects these updates to the Aeron line can save 150 tons of plastic from ending up in oceans each year (the equivalent of 15 million plastic water bottles).
“We’re trying to create a market for waste materials . . . demonstrating you can use them, and put them in premium products,” says Wing.
Admittedly, Herman Miller isn’t the first company to incorporate ocean-bound plastics into premium performance products. Most notably, Adidas began experimenting with these plastics in its Parley running shoes, which debuted as an experiment in 2015. This year, Adidas will sell 17 million pairs of shoes with ocean-bound plastics inside, proving that the idea can scale.
Now, Herman Miller is pushing even further than $140 shoes with its $1,200 chair. The core challenge to incorporating recycled plastics into any product that needs to flex, bounce, and give—in particular—is that recycled plastics are less predictable than “virgin” plastics produced straight from refined oil. Herman Miller produces many components of its chair by melting down plastic pellets, and firing this goop into injection molds. All sorts of trace additives are present when these pellets are sourced from random bottles and caps, because there’s not one single formulation of plastic out there. And you can actually see these differences in reclaimed plastics with your own eyes on the production line in color, shape, and texture.
“There’s more variation, pellet to pellet. It’s not a matter of swapping out the pellets and going from recycled to virgin,” says Wing. “Understanding how to accommodate that wider variation is the art of doing this. It’s a nontrivial exercise.”
Even as Herman Miller melted down these reclaimed plastics, engineers at its Michigan plant found that the goop doesn’t flow at the same predictable rate they were used to. Mutant parts came off the line as a result. In some cases, tilt covers were half-formed out of injection molds. In other cases, parts actually got stuck in the molds, and the line had to be shut down while the problem was fixed.
These challenges lasted over a year. Herman Miller brought in its own plastic supplier to assess its assembly line and offer their technical knowledge of molding the material. In some cases, using this new plastic meant factory line tools needed to be rebuilt and redesigned. In others, it meant that the existing process simply needed to be tweaked—adjusting the precise timings of machinery built into the assembly line.
“If you think about it, we designed the entire manufacturing process around that virgin material we were using. To change that material, everything is connected. We’re force-fitting a material into a process it was never designed for,” says Wing. “Sometimes it works. We can turn some knobs and modify the tool. And sometimes you simply can’t do it.”
Now that Herman Miller has figured out how to build two critical components of its Aeron chair out of ocean plastics, the company will be copying these ideas across its portfolio, where possible.
“We had a project team reach out [inside Herman Miller], asking, ‘Do you think we can use this in these components [too]?” says Bob Teasley, director of supply management at Herman Miller. “My answer was, ‘Yes, I can connect you with the right people.'”