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Students turn plastic waste into everything from lamps to subway seat covers

Plastic waste is a massive problem. The next generation of designers has a solution.

Students turn plastic waste into everything from lamps to subway seat covers
Henrietta Dent, Recrafting Value. [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]

The skies may have temporarily cleared during the 2020 lockdowns, but single-use plastics have been reigning supreme. Bans on plastic bags were temporarily revoked, restaurants embraced takeaway (and plastic containers), and all those groceries we had delivered at home came wrapped in an inordinate amount of packaging.

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In London, 11 textile students from the Royal College of Art (RCA) were recently challenged to create new materials out of single-use plastic waste. One student found a way to mold expanded polystyrene (the spongy, bulky stuff your new computer monitor likely came slotted in) into a hard surface that could be used on walls. Another student unraveled plastic fruit nets and wove them into a mottled, hard surface that could be used to cover the seats of the London Underground.

The project, which took the shape of a competition, was the result of a yearly collaboration between London-based industrial design firm PriestmanGoode, and the Royal College of Art’s masters of arts in textiles program. The students’ work can be seen in an online exhibition as part of the London Design Festival taking place in the U.K. capital this month. Titled Precious Waste, Single Use Plastics Re-born, it’s a reminder that the next generation of designers can play a big role in the war against single-use plastics and climate change more broadly.

“There is a massive boom in terms of materialists cooking up new materials in their kitchens, but I was quite passionate to open up the students’ eyes and look at what resources they already have,” says Maria Kafel-Bentkowska, who heads PriestmanGoode’s color, material, and finish team, and who briefed the students on the task.

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Bethany Voak, Expanded Polystyrene [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]
Bethany Voak’s winning project reimagines the lifespan and potential use of expanded polystyrene (EPS)—a white foam plastic primarily used in packaging and insulation. To achieve the highly textured, hard material, Voak used an organic mixture (the exact formula remains a secret) to create a chemical reaction with the plastic, turning it into a moldable consistency. She then used natural pigments like beetroot powder to dye the newly formed surface.

Bethany Voak, Expanded Polystyrene [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]
Voak’s work turns an unwanted and underrated waste material into an esthetically pleasing solution, but it also shines a light on the U.K.’s recycling system. The truth is, EPS is 100% recyclable, but a lack of standardization means it isn’t commonly recycled in the U.K.

Voak wasn’t the only one to turn to EPS. Lianyi Chen found a way to process the material into filaments that she used for 3D printing. And Yuke Liu used expanded polyethylene foam—one of the most widely used plastics in production and with similar properties to EPS—to create a collection of painting tools like brushes and stamper markers. These could be used in museums, workshops and at home, all while teaching kids about the damage caused by plastics.

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Yuke Liu, Tracing [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]
The proposition here is simple: single-use plastics don’t have to end up in a landfill. To really make a change, of course, big corporations have to stop manufacturing plastic in the first place. But until this happens, and until we find ways to recycle these plastics in a standardized way, there are myriad creative ways to give them a second life.

Yuke Liu, Tracing [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]
Kafel-Bentkowska explains that the brief called for such creative solutions but also fabrication processes that use little to no energy. This was a necessary requirement because the students worked on the projects in lockdown, with no access to the RCA’s workshop facilities. “We were asking them to reinvent and reuse these plastics, but we didn’t want them to start melting and creating a lab within their kitchens,” she says. “We wanted them to think of low energy ways of recreating materials.”

Henrietta Dent, Recrafting Value [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]
Henrietta Dent’s project is a perfect example of this approach. She used polypropylene and polyethylene nets, both of which are used to wrap fruits and vegetables in supermarkets around the world. She detangled the nets and created an entirely new material that is stronger and more durable by virtue of its woven nature—with nothing but her hands (and a little bit of heat).

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The exhibition is a celebration of recycled plastic in its colorful, textured glory—and its potential as a viable new material. In many ways, it’s also an urgent reminder that the recycling industry needs a major overhaul. “With a lot of these plastics, we are misinformed that they are recyclables,” says Kafel-Bentkowska, “but commercially, it’s difficult.”

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