A second life for food packaging- Polystyrene furniture
by Adele Orcajada
Approximately 30% of our landfill is taken up by polystyrene packaging cast-offs. This discarded material is creating an extremely negative impact on our environment, and yet contains an exciting range of capabilities within, for designers to experiment with.
Sam Lander is a one of a kind designer and material maker. Initially spurred by his fixation to not use conventional materials for furniture design, such as wood or metal, this designer ended up creating a material of his own. As Sam explains, he likes to work backward when he designs. He starts by researching and reading all he can about different materials and their qualities before he even begins to think of what the final product will look like. He was hooked when he saw, on an online video, that when polystyrene was recycled, it turned into a thick, dense, and gooey substance. Sam immediately began to devise all kinds of products that could be manufactured with this sticky paste. And so began a journey of material discovery, sourcing waste polystyrene from the mountains of food takeaways and packaging we use and discard daily.
Interestingly, recycled materials weren’t initially on Sam’s radar. He admits that sustainability wasn’t a predominant factor when he started out making furniture. However, now that he works with polystyrene waste, and he has become aware of the enormous amounts of this material that are thrown away, he considers it a must for all designers to use and create with waste. In Sam´s opinion, there should be no need for designers to buy new materials.
So with experimentation as the starting point of his design, he set off to challenge and push the potential of this hard-to-tame material. He has tried setting the material in molds and even created a device with an old washing machine where he spins the melted polystyrene in the drum to produce thin and translucent lampshades.
What is it like to work with recycled Polystyrene?
Sam soon discovered that polystyrene´s predominant property is how challenging it is to work with! Polystyrene does everything other than what you want it to do, particularly when it is liquefied into a paste. However, he did not give up with his testing and experimentation, determined to achieve his purpose. And the perseverance paid off as he was surprised to discover other properties that he didn’t think were possible.
‘The challenges of repurposing polystyrene is that it doesn’t do anything you think it’s going to do,’ Sam laughs. ‘However you think it’s going to go in your head, it doesn’t happen.’
For Sam, one of the greatest advantages of working with Polystyrene is that he is able to re-melt the material over and over again, offering the capacity of an endless lifecycle to the design of his furniture. Plus he was impressed to find out how hard the material sets, allowing for the creation of large pieces like tables.
How can this material be applied?
He has developed the capacity to tailor the material to suit different applications. It can be made more translucent to suit the applications of lights for example, or even coloured and assembled into patterns that look like stained glass. Once the polystyrene is made into the doughy substance, it is laid out on a sheet creating the desired design. Another board is placed on top, and compression is added until the boards are finally removed to uncover the resulting polystyrene sheet. In this form, it is delicate, brittle and lightweight.
On the other hand, Sam has been working on transforming the polystyrene into a strong and durable, structural materials through the process of layering the polystyrene much like plywood. The layers can be monochrome or multi-coloured, offering a wealth of aesthetic options.
So what are people´s reactions to this material?
Once it has gone through the transformation process it doesn’t resemble polystyrene anymore so initially, people don’t know how to take it- they either love it or hate it! Sam compares the reaction to his material to that which occurs with Marmite, and he confesses that he enjoys the gestures of shock and surprise when people engage with his colourful weird -looking furniture.
What are the next steps for Sam?
Despite the trials and tribulations of unpredictable polystyrene, that have sometimes brought Sam to tears of frustration, he is adamant that it’s a route of investigation he wants to continue pursuing. He doesn’t want to explore other materials as he finds that polystyrene has so much more scope to be discovered. However, he is looking into combining polystyrene with other materials, bringing both material qualities together to produce a unique piece of furniture. Finally, in the horizons of what he wants to test is vacuum-forming, a technique he wants to explore with Polystyrene.