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A@W Newsletter

Embracing imperfect recycled plastics

29 July 2021

Why attitudes to recycled plastics have changed so much since 2005.


Originally written by Björn Florman
Adapted from the original text by Helen Parton


Fifteen years ago, those in charge of tooling at a big Swedish white goods company could not envisage using recycled plastics. They were then thought to damage the injection moulding. Fortunately for the planet, the designer of a particular vacuum was persistent, recycled plastics were used, the vacuum cleaner was put into production and no tools were damaged in the process. The only snag was the limited colour palette: a Henry Ford-esque choice of black.



Swedish company Trifilon has found a way to reinforce polypropylene with cotton fibres from used clothing used in hospitals. The result is an unexpectedly strange blue colour.
© Björn Florman / Materialbiblioteket



Everything else would have looked weird, a combination of random and murky colours you would get from mixing recycled plastic parts from thousands of different products. These unpredictable colours look like the fibres from a tumble dryer: a strange hue of brown/grey/purple. Then it was thought that the only way to control the colour was to use black, but that's about to change.



The Solaris organisation tracks interesting wastestreams, large enough to secure sourcing for plastics manufacturers. These beautiful ‘textile marble’ samples consist of a bio resin, combined with textile fibres from local clothing factories.
© Zehao Liu / Solaris



Back then it was about ‘iPod-white’; a crisp, glossy, space-age clean surface that summed up perfection in a well-designed surface. Apple, with their beautifully moulded parts of virgin polycarbonate, set the standard. If it couldn’t match that, then the Swedish vacuum cleaner made from recycled plastics would have to be black, the thinking then went.



A new colour palette, Sappi symbio. Cellulosic fibres in polypropylene. Cellulosic reinforcement in polypropylene is a strong trend in the world of plastics. Belgian Sappi is an early adopter, using high quality, long fibre cellulose from mills in Finland.
© Björn Florman / Materialbiblioteket



This attitude to surface perfection will no doubt have to change with a steadily growing global production of fossil based thermoplastics and where China is responsible for a quarter of all plastic materials being made. European countries will have to ramp up their systems for material recycling. And if we want to speed up our circular economies, materials will not always look as perfect as an iPod: we need to embrace the imperfect!



Hemp reinforced polypropylene, Trifilon biolite. Hemp fibres are not only very strong and ideal for reinforcement, they are also lightweight which is a property very sought after in the automotive industry.
© Björn Florman / Materialbiblioteke



As for that tumble dryer style mix of colours, well attitudes are changing there too. Black doesn’t need to be the only colour, something designers and consumers alike are embracing. Suddenly we are starting to see mass produced objects in odd colours and with gritty surfaces. This wouldn’t have been thought possible only a few years ago. Now Jordan toothbrushes and Cake electric motorbikes are two early examples where iPod-white as an ideal is regarded as ‘very 2005’ and a younger generation is already loving the imperfect. 

Embracing imperfect recycled plastics
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