More than 350 million tons of plastic were produced in 2019. Less than 20% of that was recycled. The more options we have for sustainable, elegant, and cost-effective ways to give all that plastic a second life, the better.
London studio Pearson Lloyd has created a set of playful desk accessories made from discarded food packaging. The collection of pen pots, trays, and a smartphone stand was 3D-printed by using 100% recycled PLA, a type of bioplastic that is made from fermented cornstarch and can be found in coffee-cup lids and other food packaging. The plastic itself was diverted from the landfill by the Amsterdam-based startup Reflow, which collects plastics from recyclers and transforms them into 3D-printing filaments—the stuff that 3D printers use in lieu of ink. The playful set of objects makes a compelling argument for using waste—and especially plastic—as a raw material.
The accessories—you can see the full line here—were designed for office furniture company Bene and made by BatchWorks, a 3D-printing startup based in London. The objects are available in 10 different colors, and range from 15 to 59 euros ($16.94 to $66.64). All of them come in wiggly, organic shapes. “They look frivolous, but they’re based on the technology,” says Luke Pearson, who cofounded Pearson Lloyd in 1997, together with Tom Lloyd.
Much like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube, a roll of PLA filament, about 1/16 of an inch in diameter, is heated and squeezed through the nozzle of a 3D printer. The entire process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours for one object, and it works without the printer stopping until the product is complete (a bit like those single-line drawings you’ve see on your IGTV).
Together with ABS, the kind of plastic your Legos are made of, PLA has grown into one of the most commonly used plastics for 3D printing. But with 75% less embodied carbon, PLA is much more sustainable than conventional plastics derived from fossil fuels. Pearson explains it can also be recycled up to five or six times before it loses some of its bonding properties when heated.
Some challenges remain. The products can’t be washed in the dishwasher because the heat would melt them, and Pearson says PLA doesn’t do well under UV light. It isn’t strong enough to be used structurally, either.
At a smaller scale, however, the objects are perfectly robust. And when they reach the end of their lifespan, they can be broken back down to a chip. In fact, the studio is now working on setting up a collection facility at Bene showrooms for people to simply return their products, which will then be picked up by Reflow and melted back down into filaments.
This closed-loop system already exists for materials like glass and aluminum, but only a select number of plastics can be recycled over and over again. “In the future, there will be many more recycling plants,” says Pearson. “We’re on the cusp of change.”