The circular economy is a system capable of regenerating itself on its own, because all the activities – from extraction of energy sources to production – are structured in such a way that the waste of one enterprise can become a resource for another. The theories are not new, but there is a new focus on this idea, in a range of different disciplines.
Design can play a key role in the creation of new production processes and the application of post-consumer materials. Since 2016, the year of the first specific conference on this theme in Sweden, the so-called circular materials have become a particular field of study.
This is the focus of the recent book Neo-Materials in the Circular Economy, published by Material ConneXion, which explains how the use of circular patterns could influence economic growth in Europe.
But what are these materials? They are biobased, like the biopolymers, namely materials of vegetable or in any case biological origin, composed of organic and renewable components; they are materials from urban and industrial waste, extracted through established operative chains; they are types of scrap and waste not previously recyclable, destined to end up in dumps, such as disposable diapers or mixtures of plastics, which thanks to technological evolution can now be put back into the production cycle like raw materials.
The challenge in recycling processes is efficiency: reduction of timing and complexity, reduction of energy consumption and costs, the study of materials to augment life cycles and performance.
To learn more about the state of the art of this research in the furniture sector, we turned to Anna Pellizzari, executive director of Material ConneXion Italia: “The furniture sector is not yet an area in which recycled or biobased plastics are extensively used. Of the one million tons of pre- and post-consumer recycled plastic, only 9% goes into furniture.
There are difficulties on a production level, but the main problem, especially in Italy, is that the market is accustomed to innovation that mainly concerns style. Companies prefer to invest on the sustainability of processes, which objectively have more impact than products, if we are talking about durable goods. Nevertheless,” Pellizzari continues, “progress has been made in the use of recycled and biobased plastic in terms of processes of chemical recycling – those that take the material back to a monomer state – which at the moment are more costly and not very efficient in terms of energy use, but in any case are quite interesting.
And in the use of new compounds, like the WPC used for the Odger chair by IKEA, which are usually extruded to make planks or molded to make small objects. Today recycled or partially biobased materials are available that do not differ, in terms of looks, from their standard counterparts.”
In 2005 Sawaya & Moroni was one of the first brands to experiment, in collaboration with Corepla, with recycled PET for a seat made with a single injection mold, which also came in a version in recyclable transparent polycarbonate. The choice of using a single material facilitates post-production recycling.
The Dutch company Ecopixel makes it into an aesthetic feature, producing furnishings made with ‘confetti’ of post-consumer polypropylene of low density, which is 100% recyclable. An ecological version has also been developed for the famous Flow model by MDF Italia, made with a shell in biobased material laden with natural fibers that determine a different coloring: pale if beech fiber is used, dark in the case of coconut fiber.
A polypropylene 90% derived from industrial scrap, on the other hand, is used to produce the Alfi seat designed by Jasper Morrison for Emeco, which already in 2012 was making a chair created by Philippe Starck in PET from recycled plastic bottles.
The experience of Kartell, known for its aesthetic research on plastic, is significant, leading to the decision to produce a chair in Biodura, a material made from renewable botanical sources. “The creativity of our brand,” says Claudio Luti, president of Kartell, “has a thousand facets: transparency is one of the best known, but we have always invested in technological innovation to find creative solutions and different materials.
Through the use of renewable raw materials not involved in the production of foodstuffs we have approached the challenge of ecosustainability, becoming the first company to experiment with this type of material in the furnishings sector, specifically for injection molding and other kinds of molding. Our objective,” he continues, “is to make the possibility of sustainable furniture a concrete option in industrial terms.
The circular economy is a reality, and it is increasingly necessary to design products by thinking through their whole life cycle, creating a new approach of responsibility and care for the environment. In 2014 Kartell was granted Greenguard certification for its collections, a guarantee of a controlled, non-polluting and non-hazardous products.”
He concludes: “We will continue to work in this direction, trying to improve the performance of materials and their capacity to return to a second life after recycling.”
The main difficulties involved in making the use of circular materials efficient and profitable in furniture are explained by the expert on the circular economy Arthur Huang, founder of Miniwiz, a design and consulting studio with a furniture brand – Pentatonic – that uses only post-consumer materials: “We have to develop more efficient methods of collection and sorting of materials. The technology of biodegradable materials is still in its early phase.
And it does not correspond to the performance requirements of industry, because the biodegradable factor has a negative influence on the durability of products. In my view, the path is to use non-disposable materials and to transform them into something beautiful, so they can continue to be used in closed production cycles. A circular economy reduces the need for biodegradable materials. In any case, we are working on the use of biodegradable waste from the food industry, and even from insects. In terms of conceptualization of the circular economy, Europe is ahead of the rest of the world. Nevertheless, various passages still have to be ironed out: this can be seen in the fact that lots of trash is sent to Asia or to incinerators.
The United Kingdom and the Netherlands are the best countries in the proposal of solutions, but they lack the infrastructures required to follow up on those ideas.”
This is the direction taken by the Rotterdam-based studio The New Raw, which for the city of Amsterdam has created a prototype for benches using 3D printing and plastic pellets recycled from municipal waste.
“The material has good structural properties,” says John Löfgren, co-founder and creative director of FUWL. “Thanks to the support of a giant like IKEA, we have been able to conduct extensive research and testing, justified by the expected production volume. In economic terms,” he explains, “it is important for the company itself to be the source of the material.
To encourage the use of products made with post-consumer materials, while lowering production costs, it is necessary to work on their perception. The goal is to make people start to get interested in the origin and quality of things, just as they do with food. The use of circular materials is also a question of production and access to information.”