Melting plastic in the toast oven has gradually upgraded to the large capacity pizza oven – a story of the Rotterdam-based building company talking with Joost Dingemans
The creation of plastic: historical background
The first human-made plastic, celluloid, was created by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 as a replacement for ivory, an essential material for the balls used in snooker. The second innovation came with hard-wearing Bakelite, created by Leo Baekeland in 1909 that thrust plastics into their golden age. Since WWII, new plastics like polyethylene and nylon were developed to satisfy the urges for cheap, easily made materials that democratized the consumer market. In the seventies, studies published in Science showed the prevalence of plastic in marine life and its presence on the seafloor that brought attention to the negative effects of the material. Currently, industries are confronting the plastic waste issue, including the construction and design sectors. In the UK, the construction industry accounts for a quarter (23 percent) of the plastic consumed because most waste comes from plastic packaging and unused off-cuts. While the UK’s 40 percent of construction plastic goes to landfills, Germany’s 80 percent of construction plastic waste is recycled. This varied approach to recycling plastic has led the industry to different success levels in tackling their waste problem. One of the companies working towards eliminating plastic waste is Plasticiet, created in 2018 by Marten van Middelkoop and Joost Dingemans – two Rotterdam based designers with a focus on re-using waste without excess processing. «I started out studying product design at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, where I met Martin. We tried to find a way of recycling the household waste in Rotterdam and give something back to the people. Eventually, we understood that we would create more waste from their disposables, and that is how we decided on making a half-fabricated material that people can use to make something themselves», says Dingemans.
Plasticiet showcasing the way the future of recycled plastic
From their early days melting plastic in a toaster oven, inspired by the recycling cottage industry in Mumbai, to the large capacity pizza oven they use now, Plasticiet has come a long way in showcasing the way the future of recycled plastic will look like for the design and construction industries. Their terrazzo-inspired sheet plastic has now been used by sustainability-focused companies like Ace & Tate in their stores and exhibits around Europe. They hope that by reclaiming the plastic that ends up in recycling centers around the Netherlands, they will give it use that goes beyond single-use plastic and looks back to hard-wearing plastics like the Bakelite of the early Twentieth century. «Working with plastic is like working with a combination of wood and metal. It has the softness of wood, but it lacks grain, like metal, so cutting and drilling is easy. Sanding the material is hard, as it is difficult to get an even finish on a piece of plastic; it is not a zero-waste system», says Dingemans, continuing: «When we make a plastic sheet, which is five kilograms in weight, we add more plastic because when we compress the material, air bubbles form, and the extra material helps to push out the air bubbles. We put it in a box, and when the box is cool, we either shred it or find someone who wants to recycle it again. We hope to put this pile of imperfect material in our workshop towards smaller projects from other artists and designers, like Fantastic Trash, who makes jewelry from those off-cuts. The applications are increasing as people find new uses for it – everything from counters to fountain pens. We also do sanding by hand, which shaves off material’s top to reveal its pattern. We are now working with a company who is prototyping a new application with our sanding dust. We are also switching to a robust plastic to improve the longevity of the material».
Lampoon reporting: Plasticiet’s production process and terrazzo material
It involves scouring plastic recycling and waste disposal centers for different plastics. «All of our plastics are sourced in the Netherlands and sometimes in Belgium. We mostly work with a company called LC Plastics with a woman we call our ‘plastic Mama’. As a cooperative provider, it makes it easy for us to source material. We have parts from a chocolate factory, lids from baby milk powder bottles, some random industrial parts, and plastic from breathing apparatus produced to respond to the pandemic. We separate them by plastic-type, so plastics like PE go with PE, and then we make a color mix. Once we have the raw material in granule form that is about five to ten millimeters in size, we melt it down in a big pizza oven in aluminum molds. During melting the sheets are placed in an oven somewhere between 40 and 80 minutes, based on which material we are working on. The temperature also varies between 200C and 280C. The plastic is evenly placed in an aluminum mold with a corresponding timer. With every step in the process, the plastic is checked whether or not it is behaving the way it should be, and the next timer is set accordingly. When the material is melted, it enters our press, where it cools down, rendering it in the form we need to be finished by sanding. We have no say in the electricity we are using since it is part of our rental contract, but we are aware that there are some gases emitted during the production of our plastic sheets which are caught and neutralized with active carbon filters via our suction system. Each of the varieties of plastic has a unique recipe as to the temperature time and cooling time. There are no binders or glue because it is a thermoplastic, so it melts, and then when we press it, it compresses and hardens», states Dingemans. Terrazzo is a composite material used in construction with cement and plastic polymers, usually composed of marble chips and other aggregates. For Plasticiet, the terrazzo effect is created through the melted down combinations of waste plastic that are individually sorted by plastic-type, allowing it to be re-melted at a future date in the same composition. «We do not like to emulate existing stones – we take inspiration from the natural rock formation, but then make it look supernatural because, in the end, it is still human-made. We are looking at making it look like geological layers of rock to get a natural, less fabricated surface». Their range of color combinations is limited, giving an example of the kinds of materials they are able to create. For certain projects, they create new combinations following the consultations with their clients. «There are two different directions that we can take: something we already have and modify it or create something new. Sometimes a company has a certain amount of waste, which they would like to reuse, and then we develop a material from it so it can be directly repurposed in their office». One of the advantages of thermoplastics is their longevity and recyclability – most thermoplastics can be re-melted into something new, creating possibilities that have led to their monopoly of other materials worldwide. «There are plastics more prone to recycling than others. Some plastics you can only re-melt multiple times, while polycarbonate, for instance, is almost like glass – you can re-melt it many times before it starts to deteriorate. It is recyclable to a certain extent; however, it is not infinite».
Keeping designers interested in working with waste plastics in the future
Some designers believe that re-using fossil fuel plastics only perpetuates the industry’s reliance on plastics instead of investing more time into the development of bioplastics. The concept behind Plasticiet also focuses on another part of the industry that is less common – upkeep and maintenance. «As a company, do not spend all your efforts selling things, but also offer maintenance service and the means to do so. Designers who integrate this approach, like Peter Marigold, can go into a rant about a broken shovel he found in a sandpit, concerned that people are not maintaining it. He developed a plastic card product called the FORMcard that can be melted down to repair anything. His work inspired me to do the same – we sometimes get a call from someone who says that they have got some major scratches because they have been using the slab a lot, and they ask us how to finish it. We then send an email with the instructions – which materials they could use, which grit for the sandpaper, which wax finish they can use to make it shine again. We also focus on longevity in other ways – we are approaching companies that sell the wax coating on our slabs to get it for a retail price, which we can then sell affordably to our customers so they can maintain their work themselves». While the appeal of recyclable plastic design can come from a sustainability perspective, for Dingemans aesthetics is what will keep designers interested in working with waste plastics in the future. «I remember a quote that has led my design practice from Studio Swine – ‘sustainability without desirability is not sustainable.’ Our role is to make slick designs so that people do not want to dispose of them in the future. In the end, aesthetics is what will keep us connected to the objects we have and the longer they stay that way, the more effective the combination. We need to go back to a mindset from two or three generations back – before capitalism – where companies made long-lasting products. A lot of them went bankrupt because the quality was too good. Companies should produce a certain quality, and then offer the means and guidelines for maintaining the product».
Plasticiet is a Rotterdam based company producing building materials made from discarded plastics with the hard looks of natural stone applicable in furniture