Is plastic getting a facelift?

  • Publish On 15 October 2022
  • 8 minutes

The star of the stage of the recently concluded Design Week in Paris, plastic seems to have moved beyond the disdain it had been experiencing lately. Thanks to recycling, its environmental footprint is now better controlled, which has turned into a real selling point. But beyond the material itself, it is an entire production logic that should be “recycled” to extricate ourselves from the dogma of newness and disposability.

The Darling Child of Modernity and Accursed Material of the 21st Century

Since 1950, the global production of plastics has increased from 1.5 million metric tons per year to 368 million tons2019 calculation, according to the Guide ADEME : Le Paradoxe du plastique en 10 questions.. Manufactured from crude oil or natural gas, plastic exhibits extremely high malleability, enabling it to be easily molded into a large variety of forms by an industrial production chain. In the aftermath of the Second World War, plastics contributed to immense savings in time and money in the manufacturing of basic necessities. In fact, their contribution to the reconstruction efforts were far from negligible. Beyond its material aspect, post-war reconstruction was also intended to transform ideas and be resolutely forward-looking. In this respect, plastics represented the convergence and coalescence of disruptive processes in technology, economics and society. Easily manufactured, the new material became the symbol of thriving consumer society, which the fully equipped Formica kitchens, easily cleaned and available in a wide palette of colors that were then completely novel, perfectly captures.

But times have been changing with women’s emancipation and the reshaping of our collective imagination of the future. Rising ecological awareness has shifted our perception of plastics and they are now understood to be a major source of marine pollution and toxic waste and responsible for pumping 850 million tons of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere every yearEuropean Parliament, Plastic waste and recycling in the EU: facts and figures (2021). The environmental footprint of plastic is due to the petrochemical origin of the material, as well as the way its waste products are managed. Disposing of plastic waste in landfills (which is the case of some 40–60% of all plastic in France) results in the degradation of soil and natural habitats, incineration (13–30%) releases greenhouse gases, revealing that the most environmentally friendly approach to end of life, recycling, is also the less used (amount to 10–15% of plastic waste in France)Resource center on greenhouse gas balances, ADEME.. What is more, half of the plastic waste collected for recycling in Europe is, in fact, shipped outside the EU for processing, revealing enduring postcolonial relationships that are now rather hard to accept.

The Three Forms of Disconnect Associated With Plastics

Plastics thus cultivate several forms of disconnect.
— A disconnect from the territory and the environment: the material has no nationality, and no geographic or cultural identity. Plastic items have likely contributed to the offshoring of Europe’s industry, as European plastics bear little to no distinction from “Made in China” plastics in terms of aesthetics.
— A disconnect from the manufacturing process and the producer: the absence of any trace of transformation and marks of fabrication in plastic objects distances us from these objects. There is little concern for the conditions and the place in which the object has been manufactured. The only thing that matters is the finished product.
— A final disconnect, which is related to use and users, reflects the fact that plastic mobilizes the idea of a new and intact item. As the collective Rotor points out in its publication Usus/usuresRotor, Usus/Usures (2010) was presented in 2010 at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition held at the Venice Biennale, the price we pay for this outward appearance is the constant replacement of plastic objects. Each user claims the privilege of first alteration, in a way unique to them which can only happen after the unboxing stage. Plastic objects are devalued as soon as they bear the mark of their use by someone else. Plastics thus go hand in hand with disposability—in the form of packagingFour sectors account for 75% of Europe’s plastic demand—packaging is by far the largest user, representing 40% of plastic consumption, followed by construction (20.5%), the car industry (8.3%), and electronics (5.4%). Source: Oceaneye., but also of the wide range of everyday objects and pieces of furniture that are sold by low-cost retailers and thus made conveniently replaceable when moving.

Mirroring a consumer society disconnected from its environment, plastics are in perfect contrast with the Japanese concept of wabi sabi. This traditional aesthetic celebrates transience and imperfection, the alteration of objects with use, the deformations created by wear. Historically many work implements and religious objects appreciated in value over time as the wood, stone, metal, or ceramic that composed it was shaped with patina. Contrary to these materials that improve in quality with use, plastic bears the marks of time poorly as it loses color or turn yellow, just as it does with wear, which punches or deforms it. It therefore puts on an idealized form, the one coming after unboxing and that carries no trace of the way it was produced.

The re-use of plastic (conserving the form and use of an item without having to transform it again) is therefore hard to set up—though it would prevent having to produce new items, along with the associated greenhouse gases and waste. Recycling, therefore, appears like the only end-of-life disposal solution that is relatively sound, and that can be replicated at scale. Though it is much more energy intensive than re-use (as it involves shredding, melting, and remolding), recycling leads to a ten-fold reduction in CO2 emissions compared to the use of virgin plastic. However, in order to really achieve circularity, design houses must step up their commitments and transparencyFor example, Norma has furniture lines the names of which include the figure indicating the percentage of recycled material in the product. Their commitment has driven them to conduct detailed life cycle analyses for each of their products in order to assess their environmental impacts from collecting the raw materials up to the end of their service life. over the whole life cycle of their products.

The Paris Design Week, Trend Barometer: Yes to Recycling, But What About Repairing?

The Paris Design Week took place from September 8 to 17, 2022. Recycling appeared as a recurring theme, mostly based around plasticThis concerns both PIR (post-industrial recycled) plastic, which is the raw material made from waste generated in the industry, and PCR (post-consumer recycled) plastic, as is the case with Le Pavé®’s products for instance.. This week presented the opportunity of observing the growing commitment on behalf of design houses in favor of environmental considerations, with the likes of Kartell, Muuto, and Vitra presenting environmentally responsible lines of furniture often consisting in the reissue of one of their existing lines made from a recycled material.

Yet the merits of these objects, though made from recycled content, raise questions. Wouldn’t a chair made from single-use coffee capsules serve to justify generating this waste product in the first place if the responsibility for recycling the plastic is then transferred to the furniture manufacturer as a result? Design houses give little thought to the waste they recover and the production models that they complete. Even though the lines of furniture made from recycled plastic are theoretically recyclable, few brands offer to take back the product at the end of their service lifeCertain brands offer to assume responsibility for the end of the life of their products, as is the case of Komut (with its line of furniture in recycled plastic manufactured using a 3D printer) and Really (a branch of Kvadrat that offers a range of products made from recycled textile fibers), which have both committed to end-of-life product take-back to recycle them., revealing a lack of commitment over the long run. But the lack of interest in the future of these objects doesn’t stop at the end of their use and concerns their entire service life. Indeed, the manufacturer’s responsibility often stops at the very moment an item is unboxed, with no service being offered for repair or spare parts. However, the attention paid to fragility is deployed in a material ecology and shapes the awareness of the value of thingsCare ethics, together with consideration for things and objects—repair and maintenance—provide a new source of insights for guiding urban design. Maintenance and repair studies are thus a promising field in the sociology of technology. They look into the practices, trades, knowledge and devices that contribute together to ensure the durability of all that surrounds us. In France, Jérôme Denis and David Pontille are developing a research program on urban maintenance activities at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation des Mines.. This implies that items can be repaired and that they are designed and produced in a way that makes this possible, both in the selection of the materials they use and in the assembly of their partsFor instance, Tiptoe designs furniture for disassembly, so that any part can be replaced independently from the rest and so that each material (including the recycled plastic) and be conveniently reused or recycled..
Due to its poor image, plastic therefore emerged as the first material that instigated thinking about recycling for many brands. As recycling leaves only imperceptible traces, it allows design houses to stick to a conventional aesthetic, design process, and production chain. However, the recycling of plastic isn’t truly frugal as long as the transformation process doesn’t extricate itself from the logic of newness and the idea of perfection. Beyond materials, a paradigm shift in furniture design is needed, stemming from consideration of the entire production chain, from raw material supply to its transformation, transport, assembly, maintenance, renovation, and all the way through their end of life and the supposedly infinite “closed-loop” recycling of the material.


Laélia Vaulot, Environmental Strategy Manager at PCA-STREAM




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