Every year, about 11 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans. That’s more than 30 Empire State Buildings of imperishable waste harming marine life, strangling sea birds, and washing up on the world’s beaches. Research shows that if no action is taken, this amount could triple by 2040. It's grim.
Luckily, some action is being taken, and it looks a lot like Pinterest's pattern du jour, terrazzo. Savvy designers have found a way to turn empty food containers, broken lawn chairs, and disposable cutlery into sturdy terrazzo-like slabs by shredding plastic waste into tiny pieces and compressing this waste confetti into flat tiles or sheets with a sheet press machine.
“It works a bit like a toaster plate,” explains Mattia Bernini, design and strategy director at Precious Plastic, an organization missioned to make plastic recycling more accessible. Before Precious Plastic's launch in 2014, plastic recycling machinery was mainly used on an industrial scale, making the process costly and leaving little room for creativity. By simplifying and open-sourcing technical blueprints, the organization reduced the cost of basic DIY recycling equipment to just $2,000. This enabled volunteers from Thailand to Kenya to set up recycling plants in their own communities, and designers to experiment with compressed plastics at a relatively low cost.
The possibilities are infinite. By combining different colors and types of plastic, designers can create everything from tiny speckles on a black base to kaleidoscopic granite-like patterns with dozens of colors. “Plastic is often considered waste, but that’s just a limitation of our imagination,” Mattia says. “We believe in adding value to plastic by introducing an element of craft to the recycling process, to really make it a precious material.”
U.K.-based Smile Plastics specializes in the production of recycled plastic panels and counts the likes of Dior, Selfridges, and Ford among their clients. “The panels have proved popular thanks to their versatility and easy maintenance,” says Adam Fairweather, Smile Plastics' cofounder. “They’re waterproof, and can be polished, planed and heat-formed into different shapes.” Thanks to this, they’re used as kitchen backdrops and countertops, bathroom cabinets and store displays. “There's an almost limitless number of ways to use our materials,” Adam adds.
And it’s not just terrazzo getting the eco treatment. Through trial and error, the studio mimicked marble with discarded packaging and plastic cutting boards and used multicolored household waste to create slabs of pressed plastic reminiscent of Marmoreal, terrazzo’s chunkier sibling. As each piece is hand-rendered and often made on commission, the team can work closely with clients to create colors and patterns according to the clients’ needs. The base material is a variable too, and previous productions include credit cards, Christmas decorations, fishing nets, and rubber boots. “We have even been commissioned to embed a material with cigarette butts,” Adam says.
The design world, on its path to becoming cleaner and greener, has also taken notice. From store interiors in Antwerp to Jaden Smith’s living room, plastic terrazzo has emerged from the realms of DIY projects and indie maker spaces and now pops up in design weeks and magazine spreads. British designer Max Lamb used compressed plastic waste to create a collection of chairs and desk accessories for zero-waste beach resort Desa Potato Head in Bali. Dutch designer Dirk van der Kooi uses everything from refrigerator interiors to CD cases in his conical meltingpot tables. In London, Michael Marriott turned recycled plastic sheets into smart barstools for the (former) Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. Belgian studio ecoBirdy grinds and melts no-longer-loved kids’ toys into toddler furniture, and Italian brand EcoPixel launched a line of bathroom fixtures from shredded plastic waste.
While plastic terrazzo might not yet be a direct solution for the ocean waste problem (“[Ocean waste] is often too degraded and the little triangular imprint indicating the plastic-type, essential info for effective recycling, is often washed away after years in the ocean,” Mattia says), it helps reduce the amount of plastic ending up in our water. Smile Plastics’ panels contain up to 58 kilograms of plastic waste, and Precious Plastic’s community recycles almost 400 metric tons of plastic each year. It’s still a tiny drop in the plastic-littered ocean, but a meaningful step in the right direction.
Back in 15th-century Venice, quarry workers invented terrazzo to use up oddly shaped bits of marble waste. Now, 21st-century designers are keeping the material’s resourceful spirit alive.
Feature Image: EcoPixel Italia/Instagram
This originally appeared on AD CLEVER | Chris Schalkx