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Plastic could be a resource – not a blight!

Leading furniture designer, Hilary Birkbeck, has a particular PET project that promises to have a major impact on how we approach material use.


2 min read

We’ve seen a huge movement in attitudes towards the use of plastics, both in and away from the workplace. From fast food outlets through to WELL certified working environments, the use of plastics have changed and are still constantly being questioned.

Plastic in the sea has caused a wave of ‘awareness’ or ‘buried guilt’ and is one of the many bruises and deep wounds we inflict on our world. We are at a crossroads where we either commit ourselves to a dystopian future or clean up our act!

Design innovation and technology could and must put the brakes on… take PET as an example. We are going into free-fall over plastic as an ‘Anti- Christ’, where a counter argument of the use of PLA (polylactide) and other biomass plastics (it is single use and increases the acid content of the composted mass) is to upcycle!

I have supported the use of PET for the last five years. This is a fibrous plastic felt that is soft to touch, good for thermal insulation and very effective for sound absorption. It can be cut, bent and moulded. PET felt is derived in part from re-cycled bottles and, some say, is collected from the ‘Canals of Amsterdam’ – some say!

PET felt is derived in part from recycled bottles and, some say, is collected from the ‘Canals of Amsterdam’ – some say!

PET provides the automotive industry with many parts – such as parcel shelves and boot liners – and is now being used in the furniture market. PET is also used extensively in the ‘drinks’ and packaging industry – some 13 billion bottles annually in the UK alone.

IKEA makes a chair called Balstar, and I designed a product for Nowy Styl in Poland, called Tepee, which features a series of sound absorbing enclosures for working.

There are now many sound absorbing ‘PET felt’ suppliers of wall and ceiling cladding, screens and chairs. New to the market is DeVorm in Holland, who are a great user of PET. I have also worked extensively with Connection, whose enlightened approach and support of PET helps them lead the way to a ‘Carbon Neutral’ position in the UK.

Over eight billion tons of plastic has apparently been created since its birth in 1907. It’s a resource that we have not tapped into… our recycling record is very poor. We have 100 million tons of recycled plastic in use today…1.25% against aluminium’s claim of 90%. There is change ahead, however.

Loop Industries has a zero energy process to depolymerize PET – turning bottles into bottles. Now that is worth a ‘WOW’! Evian and Coca Cola have taken up the process. Coca Cola use a fifth of the world’s PET – that is 108 billion bottles annually or 200,000 every minute, a very strong case for upcycling and it is now starting to happen! Ioniqa in Holland has just commissioned an upcycling PET plant, capable of processing 10 kilotons per year – but we’ll need 300 of these plants just for Coca Cola!

Man has been making ‘things and stuff’ for thousands of years – let’s start re-using them!

Hilary Birkbeck

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