The last ten years have seen a near-universal sea change in attitudes toward plastic. Once considered the revolutionary “material of a thousand uses”, now designers and scientists alike are scrambling to find more eco-friendly alternatives.
But while new developments are being made, such as Lucy Hughes’ award-winning MarinaTex, or Robert Johnson’s waste fat-based material, the question remains: what do we do with all the plastic we’ve already got?
An initiative hailing from Eindhoven in the Netherlands is looking to address this. Precious Plastic was first launched by industrial designer Dave Hakkens in 2012, and presents an open source plastic recycling solution.
“Anything made with plastic can be made with recycled plastic”
“Dave was triggered into action by the statistic that only 9% of all plastic that has ever been created has been actually recycled,” says Katharina Elleke, a product designer from Germany who has worked with the organisation for the past three years. “Recycling facilities across the world are huge, but the average human has very little idea how to deal with plastic.”
In response to this, Hakkens looked to the large-scale recycling plants that operate across the world. Their huge industrial machines then formed the base of the Precious Plastic operation.
“He began recreating these machines on a small scale, putting the blueprints and assembly instructions online for others to use,” continues Elleke.
Once built, users can create with the waste plastic however they need, making anything from furniture and household goods, to bricks and other modular structures. The possibilities, she says, are endless: “Anything made with plastic, can be made with recycled plastic.”
According to Elleke, the whole idea was to “take a global problem, and find a community solution.” In giving a second, third or infinite number of lives to waste plastic, Hakkens and his team provide local designers, craftspeople and creatives with a new material and profit stream.
Constructing the machines
In its first wave, Precious Plastic shared four machine blueprints: a shredder, which provides the first step to most projects; an extrusion machine, which heats and forms plastic shreds into a continuous, mouldable line; an injection machine, which sets shreds into moulds; and a compression machine, which presses larger amounts of plastic into moulds via a carjack mechanism.
In the years that followed, more machines were added, including a sheet press and “pro” versions of first wave machines.
Blueprints are supplemented with step-by-step videos, as well as a component list and a cost estimate. Users are also given performance specs for each machine, demonstrating just how much plastic is needed for each.
The Shredder Pro, for example, is supposedly capable of dealing with up to 50 kilograms of plastic an hour – to put this into perspective, the average European’s annual plastic consumption sits around 31 kilograms.
“Getting people to connect with each other”
But even with step-by-step guides, industrial machine building and operation isn’t accessible to all.
“Our machines are basic in comparison to what larger recycling corporations are using, of course, that doesn’t mean they’re for everyone,” she says. To tackle this, the team created a “global community map”.
Users put pins on the map, offering their services, Elleke explains: “Some advertise their services in building the machines, some provide workspaces which already have the machines built.”
In the UK, a country that is slowly seeing an uptake on the site, there are 11 pins: two are “machine shops”, two are “community points”, and seven are mixed work spaces. More well-established countries boast more pins.
“Really, it’s about getting people to connect with each other, either by buying components or machines from each other, sharing workspaces or selling their recycled products,” says Elleke.
“Producing systematic change”
At its core, Elleke says, Precious Plastic’s power is in its open source platform. Indeed, open source platforms have been adopted by many in the fight against climate change, like the protest poster databases created by Glug and Extinction Rebellion.
“As a company, we simply cannot produce all the machines needed to make this a sustainable solution,” she says. “So it makes absolute sense to us to give the blueprints for this solution to everyone – this is how we will make the biggest difference.”
Because of their open source approach, tracing every machine built or product made is difficult, but nevertheless the team are able to gauge numbers from the amount of people interacting with the site. These figures suggest there are at least 500 collaborative working spaces worldwide, 500-600 machine builders and around 70,000 people in various forums, according to Elleke.
“The alternative to sharing everything open source is not sharing any knowledge, and then it would just be us doing this work,” says Elleke.
“We want to inspire locals, not only to recycle plastic waste, but also to work together as a community. The sum of all this is way more likely to produce systematic change.”