Students turn plastic waste into lamps, subway seat covers

The skies may have cleared temporarily during the 2020 lockdowns, but single-use plastics have gained the upper hand. Bans on plastic bags were temporarily lifted, restaurants were accepting take-out (and plastic containers), and all the groceries we had delivered home were being overpacked.

In London, 11 textile students from the Royal College of Art (RCA) were recently challenged to create new materials from single-use plastic waste. One college student found a way to shape expanded polystyrene (the spongy, bulky stuff your new computer monitor likely got stuck into) into a hard surface that could be used on walls. Another student is untangling plastic fruit nets and weaving them into a speckled, hard surface that can be used to cover the seats on the London Underground.

The project, which took the form of a competition, was the result of an annual collaboration between the London industrial design company PriestmanGoode and the Master of Arts in Textiles program at the Royal College of Art. taking place this month in the British capital can be seen in an online exhibition. With the title “Precious Waste, Single Use Plastics Reborn” it is a reminder that the next generation of designers can play a major role in the fight against single-use plastics and climate change in the broader sense.

“The materialists who prepare new materials in their kitchens are experiencing an enormous boom, but it was a great passion for me to open my pupils’ eyes and see what resources they already have,” says Maria Kafel-Bentkowska, head of PriestmanGoode color, material and finish team and who informed the students about the task.

Bethany Voak, expanded polystyrene [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]Bethany Voak’s winning project re-imagines 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 uses an organic mixture (the exact formula remains a secret) to chemically react with the plastic and turn it into a malleable consistency. She then used natural pigments such as beetroot powder to color the newly created surface.

 Bethany Voak, expanded polystyrene [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]Voak’s work turns an undesirable and underrated waste material into an aesthetically pleasing solution, but it also sheds light on the UK’s recycling system. The truth is that EPS is 100% recyclable but due to a lack of standardization it is not widely recycled in the UK

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

 Yuke Liu, tracing [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]The statement here is simple: single-use plastics do not have to end up in a landfill. Of course, in order to really change something, large corporations first have to stop producing plastic. But until that happens and we find ways to recycle these plastics in a standardized way, there are tons of creative ways to give them a second life.

 Yuke Liu, tracing [Photo: courtesy PriestmanGoode/Royal College of Art]Kafel-Bentkowska explains that the order required such creative solutions, but also manufacturing processes that use little or no energy. This was a necessary requirement as the students were working on the projects in lockdown and had no access to the RCA’s workshop facilities. “We asked them to reinvent and reuse these plastics, but we didn’t want them to start melting and creating a laboratory in their kitchen,” she says. “We wanted them to think of energy-saving ways to recreate 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, which are used for wrapping fruits and vegetables in supermarkets around the world. She untangled the nets and created a whole new material that is stronger and more durable due to its woven nature – using nothing but her hands (and a bit of heat).

The exhibition celebrates recycled plastic in its colorful, structured splendor – 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 many of these plastics we are misinformed that they are recyclable,” says Kafel-Bentkowska, “but commercially it is difficult.”

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