Weez & Merl transform plastic carrier bags into housewares, surfboard fins and more
UK-based manufacturers Weez & Merl melt and marble plastic waste like tote bags and turn them into 100% recycled housewares. They run a free polyethylene waste collection system from local companies in their hometowns of Brighton and Hove on the south coast of the UK and work with forward-thinking companies on sustainable solutions from bespoke tabletops to custom surfboard fins. I first discovered their work when I picked up a fascinating coaster at a restaurant and asked the waiter what it was made of, so I had to do more …
Tell me a little about your childhood, education and background, how you are interested in creativity, design and sustainability.
Our father is interested in design, architecture, art and engineering and our mother is interested in crafts and painting, so we had a pretty creative and practical upbringing. When we were young, moving to England was a really difficult transition, but ultimately it was a very good thing to grow up with a different cultural background. We grew up in Sweden and we have an intrinsic respect for nature and we did a lot of woodwork, sewing, growing food, gardening and cooking. We made things out of what we could be lying around like a test of your imagination – you can’t beat the satisfaction of making something new out of something old. So it makes a lot of sense that we used waste materials in our creative practice!
What are your products made of, how did you choose this particular material and how do you source it?
We use LDPE (low density polyethylene) and MDPE (medium density polyethylene) for different applications – lower density usually for smaller parts like our coasters and medium density for larger parts like table tops to take advantage of their different properties. Back in 2012 it was clear that plastic bags were being wasted on an epic scale – before they had to be paid for in the UK. They were all over the beach so I started collecting and experimenting with them. A few months later, when a friend who worked in a clothing store told me how much plastic he was throwing away with each shipment, I began to understand the scale of the problem and that the trash was mostly behind the scenes. After that, I started collecting in this shop on a regular basis. We built on that and now run a free polyethylene waste collection system for local companies here in Brighton & Hove that saves money and means that it is actually recycled in this country instead of traveling the world to be recycled or even landfilled or burned.
What inspired this project?
The use of unusual materials has always fascinated me throughout the training, but I was inspired and motivated by Prof. Johnathan Chapman, who at the time had just founded the MA in Sustainable Design at Brighton University. In our freshman year, he gave a talk explaining how he overcame the feeling that the world’s environmental problems are too overwhelming to do anything about, which is a common emotional stumbling block for many designers. I was in the middle of this feeling of hopelessness at the time, but he managed to completely change my mindset to want to make a difference and convince me not to run away to be a hermit in the woods!
When did you first become interested in the use of waste as a raw material and what motivated this decision?
Waste became a constant issue in 2012. I wanted to be a woodworker when I started studying, but I also wanted to recycle waste, so I often used scraps of wood in the scrap bins and the bark of tree trunks. I was then completely distracted with making materials from natural waste, which resulted in cafes collecting eggshells for me, hair from the barber shop, even wet leaves that need to be removed from clogged drains in the fall, so I combined with these materials experimented with natural glues, but while they were very beautiful they weren’t very useful! After avoiding plastic, I ended up trying to melt plastic bags that I found here in Brighton for my very first experiments with polyethylene on the beach and found that I really loved the way they would shrink when heated, like shrinking of crispy packets when we were little! I saw “natural” qualities in the material that were completely in contrast to what I had associated it with before. From then on, the mission was to see what it was capable of, and I began to use traditional craft techniques and tools in a variety of ways, from woodturning to wickerwork and blobs, strawwork like Orkney chair backs to rammed earth – the latter of the yourself eventually turned into compression molding, the main technique we use in our work.
Which processes does the material have to go through in order to become the finished product?
After collection, we remove contaminants such as paper labels and tape by hand. We then melt it down and use colored plastic bags as a “dye” to create colors that, like paint, can be mixed together to create any color we want. Then we press the plastic into molds or sheets of different thicknesses by compression molding. Then we cut the sheet metal into the desired shape with band saws and table saws and refine the products with grinding machines or hand planes. Polyethylene is very similar in density to pine, and it is flexible so there is no risk of splintering, and it cuts and grinds wonderfully – I realized early on that I could apply all of my woodworking skills to the material, and I did so many doors opened to the world of design and craftsmanship.
How did you first feel when you saw the transformation from waste material to product / prototype?
Full fascination! It looked natural, like marble, but the colors and weight made it obvious it wasn’t. However, working with the molten plastic was the first impressive moment – it moves so organically, which always surprises people when they see us working with it! It’s like a mixture of extremely hot bread dough and melted sugar – it’s strange but familiar.
There is so much to explore with this material in terms of colors and marbling styles that we usually create completely new color schemes every time that keep it really fresh and fun – that means we experience that fascination every time we do something new do. It’s important to keep that spark alive! There’s so much to learn, too – there’s no set of rules to follow, so we’ll have to figure it all out from scratch. Covid stopped our plans to re-engineer and rebuild our large hydraulic press last year, so this is the next big project that we can’t wait to finally get on with our large-scale work and furniture designs.
What happens to your products at the end of their life? Can they go back to the circular economy?
Polyethylene is not yet recycled by municipalities, but all of our products are fully recyclable through our take-back system. Recycling is really important, but ideally it should be a last resort, so we are also working on restoration, repair and replacement programs. Hopefully our customers will want to keep our products for a very long time, but as a manufacturer of plastic items we have a great responsibility to offer them options when they don’t. These types of services were very common not so long ago. The ability to extend the life of the product for as long as possible is such an important part of sustainable design that it sometimes pays to revive ideas from the past to solve current problems.
How did people react to this project?
Merl: People’s reactions over the years have always been so encouraging and sometimes quite funny. When you pick up one of our coasters for the first time without knowing what it is, your arm is blown up because you expected it to be heavier than natural stone. They’re usually quite baffled, and then pleasantly surprised when they find that it’s made of waste plastic!
Louise: The support from the companies we collect plastic from has been huge too – they get lumped together with so much plastic packaging when they get orders from their suppliers, so they’re glad it used it, not incinerated or landfilled becomes.
In your opinion, how is the opinion on waste as a raw material changing?
I’d say attitudes have changed dramatically in the past eight years since I started working with waste on a regular basis – people used to raise an eyebrow and not ask questions when I asked if they were collecting materials for me could, but now it seems to be celebrated and gets into conversation every time. Perhaps it’s because people are now more familiar with environmental issues and are therefore more willing to look into solutions. We hope we’ve changed some people’s minds too – that’s definitely our goal anyway. People are also becoming more demanding when it comes to the products they buy – handmade, durable instead of mass-produced disposable items are becoming more desirable again – objects with a history.
In your opinion, what does the future look like for waste as a raw material?
Things are looking pretty good – there are so many inspiring individuals and teams around the world working with new materials made from waste. With recycled plastics, it’s a medium like ceramic, wood, or metal – and we see a future full of plastic artisans. The “Precious Plastic” project initiated by Dave Hakkens has already inspired and mobilized hundreds, if not thousands of people around the world to recycle plastic in their own environment, often using homemade machines from the open source blueprints, which Hakkens published. Who knows how many people will be making recycled plastics in 10 years. Plastics are endlessly recyclable if they are treated with respect and if different types are not mixed together. And likewise, there seem to be endless ways to use and work with them – there is still so much to discover. The great thing about it is that if we do experiments that don’t work for some reason, we just put them back in the oven to melt them again and try again. This way, there is no waste, all our leftovers and even our grinding dust are caught and melted down again.