A new industry standard emerges from recycled waste streams at Smile Plastics
What really draws you to a material? Is it visually appealing form and colors? Or is it patterns and textures that draw in your eyes and invite you to touch?
Or are you like us, attracted to materials that are loaded with a rich narrative, have distinct and unorthodox origins, and employ innovative fabrication methods for their making?
Perhaps, like us, you are obsessed with the concept of versatility; and it is materials with scalability, multiple applications, and immense potential for the future that excite you most.
Whatever your reason for selecting and being inspired by a material, you will likely find it in the ever growing palette at Smile Plastics.
The London-based material design studio creates myriad varieties of decorative panels entirely from recycled plastic and other waste streams while inspiring countless applications in the design and architecture industry today.
Having viewed the many types of panels created at Smile Plastics–Classic, Limited Edition, and Bespoke–and observed their transformation into furniture, accessories, and both interior and exterior surfaces, what we see is a set of materials and a method with no limit to their possibilities.
While innovation with waste streams, in particular, plastic, is happening all around us today; creating a scalable material and product that can be molded and adapted in so many different ways is still rare. It is this fact that builds a case for the materials at Smile Plastics to become a new industry standard, and a new household name for the ecologically-minded consumer today.
With their widespread and celebrated use, by designers, artists, makers, and clients such as Stella McCartney, Christian Dior, Selfridges, Liberty, KPMG and more, Smile Plastics' materials, it seems, are well on their way to becoming a new material standard. What makes this prospect even more exciting, to our minds, is the fact that these materials are waste-based, and are triggering awareness and systemic change through such applications.
Not content with generating a catalog of set material composites, Smile Plastics is always testing and working with different waste streams such as coffee grounds, paper, and textiles waste, as well as creating bespoke materials for clients, and digesting their internal waste streams to create usable surfaces.
The studio and company has a long and rich history before it was relaunched as ‘Smile Plastics' at the London Design Festival in 2015. Recently MaterialDriven spoke with one-half of the design duo that runs the studio today–Adam Fairweather and Rosalie McMillan. In conversation with Rosalie, we learned more about their sourcing of waste streams, their motivations as a studio, and the exciting closed-loop consultancy model within Smile Plastics.
MD: Smile Plastics has a rich history, from its origins in 'Made of Waste' to the launch of its recycled plastic panels at the London Design Festival in 2015, and the evolution of its materials in the last few years. As a designer, and now Director of Smile Plastics, how do you view the history you inherited?
Rosalie: Yes, Smile Plastics has such a rich history, and we’re very proud to be continuing a movement which essentially began in the early 90s–it was one of the first organizations globally to look at recycling plastics.
Adam Fairweather and I took on Smile Plastics a couple of years ago, after a period where the business was not trading. Adam is an industrial designer, with over a decade of experience making panels out of waste materials like coffee grounds and plastics, and I am a jewelry designer/maker and psychologist, so together we are bringing a mix of experiences to the company.
We started working on rebuilding the business almost three years ago and relaunched Smile Plastics around a year and a half ago. We’ve spent this time deep in art, engineering, and recycled plastics, locating and setting up great supplies of raw materials and perfecting our production processes.
MD: Smile Plastics works with a range of plastic wastes, resulting in different varieties of panels. Can you tell us about the waste streams you tap into?
Rosalie: We work with a number of different waste streams at the moment. Our standard ‘CLASSICS’ panel range is made up of recycled bottles, yogurt pots, plant pots and other food packaging, and tends to come from post-industrial and commercial waste sources at the moment. We also use post-consumer plastics, as well as other organic and inorganic waste streams like paper, textiles and coffee grounds. We have worked on, and are about to start more bespoke projects focused on these materials, which we are really excited about.
MD: Among your services as a company, is ‘Closed-Loop Recycling Consultancy,' which involves working with clients and their internal waste streams. How does this model work, and what, if any, are the challenges?
Rosalie: Closed-loop consulting is a small but growing part of our business. There are many organizations that generate waste through their consumption and use of raw materials, but they are not always aware of the recycling possibilities of these waste streams. Our role is to help identify these waste streams and come up with creative solutions for reusing and recycling the waste, which may well include making new panel materials from them from these waste streams.
There are of course challenges, especially while working with larger organizations who have set processes that are hard to change, and existing waste management contracts, but the challenges are worth overcoming!
MD: How does the intent to educate consumers on recycling and ideas of a circular plastics economy represent itself in what Smile Plastics does?
Rosalie: At the heart of Smile Plastics is making inspirational materials that are beautiful in their own right, but, once their history and narrative are revealed, can engage people in a positive conversation about the value of waste. Hopefully, these materials can encourage people to value their own waste stream more, diverting it from landfills. As Smile Plastics grows, we really hope that we can create an educational arm of Smile Plastics that is solely focused on engaging people within schools, universities and local communities on these issues.
MD: Having explored a variety of waste streams, and creating panels from them, what is next for you–in terms of new product development and material experimentation?
Rosalie: As designers and makers, some of our happiest moments are experimenting with new ideas for materials – new plastics and other waste streams, colors, and textures. Moving forward, we’d like to focus on realizing our clients' ambitions for truly bespoke materials a lot more in the future.
MD: Finally, what is the biggest challenge you face today, working in the recycled plastics industry?
Rosalie: There are many challenges, but one of the biggest for us at the moment is being able to get hold of consistent, high quality and pure waste streams for our use.