Flexible friend

The public perception of plastics is very negative. But, with the aid of good design this versatile material could increase its popularity, says Sylvia Katz.

The good news for plastics is that they are rising in popularity, and demand for plastic materials is outstripping the industry’s most optimistic predictions. The downside is that people still regard these man-made wonder substances as cheap, polluting, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable (according to a recent survey on consumers’ attitudes by the Association of Plastics Manufacturers of Europe).

A recent piece of Japanese research showed that guests at a buffet, confronted with plates made from various materials, chose the plastic ones the least often. “Is there something inherent in plastics that produces an irrational negative response?” asks Colin Williamson, director of recycled plastics company Made of Waste (in Materials World, December 1997).

This is where design comes in: it can play a fundamental role in changing public perception of the material. It is through products such as the colourful houseware produced by German company Authentics that this plastics prejudice can be countered.

Authentics founder, Hansjerg Maier-Aichen, trained as a sculptor and his visual and tactile products are as user-friendly as they come. Likewise, James Dyson’s colourful vacuum cleaners show a delight in plastics and demonstrate the advantages of sophisticated engineering thermoplastics. Product design consultancy Wharmby Associates shows too how plastics can triumph over other materials in offering extra appeal – vibrant all-through colour, translucent tints and textures that can vary from rock hard to satin-soft to rubbery.

Designers are driving new products forwards for two major reasons: performance and cost. The increase in high-performance plastics highlights a growing need for materials that function well at high temperatures, and plastics such as these have enabled the miniaturisation of electronic components and surface-mounted assembly processes.

A designer can even inject new life into technologies which have barely changed over the years. Design group Inflate has brought a freshness and humour to a concept that was first fashionable 30 years ago: it stretched the Sixties concept of blow-up PVC armchairs into the very Nineties inflatable egg cups.

In the automotive and aerospace industries too, engineering plastics are replacing metals. Victrex PEEK has replaced aluminium in the suction manifold in the Airbus where it has to withstand pressure thrusts of up to 30 bar and temperatures of up to 200 degrees centigrade. But how important is it for designers to be familiar with these specialised plastics materials?

Victrex PEEK, with its tongue-twisting chemical name polyetheretherketone, is considered the industry’s highest-performance engineering polymer. However, Winfried Scheuer, who designed the elastomeric door stop called James for Helix-Akantus – when asked if he knew what PEEK was, elicited a simple “No, but should I?” Scheuer understands polymer technology enough to design attractive and useful products.

But, ideally, the plastics processor, the designer and the materials supplier must work very closely together to ensure that new materials are appreciated by designers. GE Plastics was the first materials supplier to exploit this need and it presented concept cars and concept kitchens all designed using the properties of their newest engineering polymers.

A new and exciting development is the long-awaited injection-moulded automotive body panel suitable for production-line painting, which can be found on the Renault Megane Scenic, the new VW Beetle and the new Swatch Smart car. Further benefits of plastics in the automotive industry are a fuel-saving 50 per cent weight reduction, around 60 per cent savings on tooling costs, improved resistance to impact and denting, greater styling freedom and, of course, rust resistance.

Other design influencing developments, such as colourants which create a frosted effect on the surface of transparent plastics, avoid the need to treat the interior surface of a mould or to post-spray the moulding.

Plastic additives (without e numbers), have revolutionised food packaging by acting as oxygen scavengers, extending shelf-life and preventing food going off. Increasingly, sophisticated multilayer film, a high-barrier laminate in which each strata possesses a different property, produces a lighter, thinner film but with added strength.

An example is Courtaulds five-layer co-extruded film, typically used for squeezy sauce bottles. This type of film has given birth to packaging innovations such as the stand-up pouch, a relatively new product species, which has now developed spouts and integral handles.

In the quest for super plastics, one of the most significant of recent developments has been the realisation of metallocene catalysed resins, discovered in the Fifties but only now being applied successfully. They enable manufacturers to improve the properties and performance of their existing plastics. Even the tradenames of these enhanced materials appear to symbolise their superiority: Affinity (Dow) and Exceed and Achieve (Exxon).

As the adoption of the EU Directive on Packaging and Waste Packaging encroaches on European plastics manufacturers, who will be forced to pay for plastics recycling, the conflicts between lightweight, re-use, recycling and biodegradability will be even more pressing. One thing is certain: more and more plastics will need to be designed into more and more products, performing in more and more sophisticated ways.

Twelve Plastics landmarks

1) BIC ballpoint pen

Polystyrene

Laszlo Biro patent 1938

2) Velcro fastener

Nylon

Georges de Mestral, Senn & Co. 1950s

3) Chevrolet Corvette

GRP

General Motors Corp 1953

4) Lego brick

Cellulose acetate, 1958 ABS 1963

Ole and Godtfred Christiansen

5) Barbie doll

PVC

Ruth and Elliot Handler, Mattel 1959

6) Netlon polyethylene mesh

Brian Mercer, Netlon Ltd 1965

7) CP8 smart card

PVC

Roland Moreno, Innovation Group 1974

8) Braun Micron Plus shaver

Polycarbonate embossed with PU

Braun 1980

9) Envelope radio

PVC

Daniel Weil, Parenthesis 1981

10) Philips CD

Acrylic 1974

Polycarbonate 1983

11) Philips

Transformer seat

Polystyrene beads in PVC envelope

Ron Arad, One Off 1983

12) Guinness widget

Polypropylene

Guinness 1989

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