The origins of plastics
In the beginning they were celluloid, Bakelite, PVC, Cellophane, then nylon, which spread throughout the world thanks to American soldiers.
Plastic as we know it, became popular after the Second World War, but the discovery of the polymers which led to the production of commercial plastic dates back to the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century.
The new plastics materials became increasingly widespread and faster in the second half of the twentieth century. First with melanin-formaldehyde resins, one of which is widely used under the trade name of Formica.
Also after the Second World War, polyethylene, PET, started to expand in the world, and has been used for food since 1973, mostly for food packaging and drink bottles.
Throughout the 1960s, the plastic furniture became popular worldwide. Italian brand Kartell is one of the main player of this important innovation.
With polypropylene, we get to the present day, with the development of many materials that go by the name of “technopolymers“. Technopolymers are plastics with such high mechanical and thermo resistance properties to make them often superior to special metals and ceramics.
The majority of plastics are still produced from fossil materials (gas, oil, coal), and for some years now, plastic pollution has become a major problem. In 2016, more than 8.4 million tonnes of plastic were recycled in the European Union only, compared to 60 million tonnes of plastic produced (335 million tonnes were produced worldwide).
During the last 10 years, plastic recycling has increased by almost 80%. Recycling is constantly increasing, and in 2018 the production of primary (non-recycled) plastics started to decrease.
The biodegradable plastic
However, it is clear that there is a growing demand for biodegradable plastics, resistant and durable enough for different applications, including furniture. There are now many different plastics made from natural materials already on the market. Among the most widely used materials for these plastics, there’s corn starch, beet, sugar cane, exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans.
According to some experts, such as Jan Boelen, the curator of the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial, the preferred material for biodegradable plastics is algae. Algae grow easily, they are all over the world, and do not impact on the food chain; combined with starches, they can be composed into plastics, and there are already interesting experiments in textiles.
As an example of this research on organic and bioplastic, the designer Nienke Hoogvliet designed a chair and a coffee table with materials made from algae, the Sea Me Collection. The fabric forming the seat and back of the deckchair is composite with algae fibres; the paint for the table top is obtained from the fabric waste.
Bioplastics and related
There are already some pieces of furniture in recycled plastic and bioplastic on the market, even if the materials are in continuous development and the research goes on.
Many manufacturers are already working on new products, by organic plastic. Italian brand Kartell, for expample, is actively involved in the research and development of plastics made from natural fibres, with a special attention to the reuse of waste, to not impact on the food chain. The first product resulting from this collaboration is the Biochair chair, designed by Antonio Citterio.
Bioplastic used for Biochair features the same mechanical and resistance characteristics as traditional plastic. With the same bio material, Kartell has revisited some other products, such as the Bourgie, Take and Cindy lamps by Ferruccio Laviani, the Jolly tables by Paolo Rizzatto and Tip Top by Philippe Starck.
Design # 1 by Revology is a contemporary version of the bistro chair, with legs and structure made from bioplastic material composed of fibres by flax and resin. The seat and backrest are also made of plastic of organic origin which becomes extremely resistant and scratch-resistant, thanks to a laser treatment.
It features a laser treatment, which also allows to have a chair with seat and backrest customizable, with decorations and designs on demand, or in limited edition. The visible joints come in recycled brass, with a static and decorative function at the same time.
Christien Meindertsma designed the Flax chair, the result of a collaboration with Enkev (for the material) and Label/Breed, which manufactures it. It is made of a composite of several flax layers, four layers of a currently available fibre, and five layers of a newly developed dry felted flax.
Flax fabric is hot pressed with a biodegradable plastic (PLA, Polylactic acid), resulting in a rigid and resistant material. The Flax chair, entirely organic, is produced from a single sheet of material, with very little waste.
One of the first chairs in bioplastic, is Kuskoa Bi, a project by the designers Iratzoki-Lizaso for Alki. The organic material is a composite based on natural fibers, extracted from beet, corn and sugar cane. The resultant polymer can be processed just like traditional plastic, and is 100% biodegradable and recyclable. The shell of the chair is made of bioplastic, the legs are made of wood.
Over the past year, the Swedish company Offecct also started producing a chair made of natural, 100% organic material. The Jin chair, designed by Jin Kuramoto, is available in a version made with layers of flax fibre and bioresin, which create a sort of “shell”, strong and structurally stable.
In addition, the Jin chair by Jin Kuramoto is also available in carbon fiber, very light, or with wooden frame and fabric padding.
Emeco, a US company, started its activity in the 1940s, recycling the aluminium of the old disused fuselages of planes to transform them into legs of tables and chairs. Afterwards, he started the production of the Navy chairs, in aluminium, built specifically for the submarines of the United States Navy. Thanks to the skills developed over the years, Emeco has developed technologies for processing recycled plastic and other composite materials.
Navy 111 chair is the result of a collaboration between Emeco and Coca-Cola, and is made from 111 PET bottles.
Philippe Starck designed for Emeco a chair in a composite material, 75% of which is polypropylene waste and 15% reclaimed wood fibre. The name Broom comes from the waste woodwork dust.
Designbythem is a collection of furniture products, made from 80% recycled plastic. The Butter furniture collection, designed by Sarah Gibson & Nicholas Karlovasitis, is suitable for both indoor and outdoor use and is available in various colours.
For designers who care about sustainability and appreciate plastic, Rossana Orlandi, Milanese design curator worldwide renowned, promotes a competition to discover the new opportunities that plastic offers, through its reuse and recycle. Information about the RO Plastic Prize can be found at Guiltessplastic.com.
Finally, something that comes from afar. In Malaysian Borneo, a group of women had the idea of using the techniques of weaving reeds to weave plastic strips coming from the envelopes for international deliveries. The material is used to make the Jari Indai bags, of various models and colors.