An innovative champion of sustainable design is turning plastic into the ultimate recyclable material
Newcastle upon Tyne, an industrial city in northeast Britain, isn't the kind of place you'd expect to find a pioneering designer. Yet that is where Richard Liddle set out to solve one of England's ugliest problems: plastic waste, or, as he would call it, "dead energy." Some 243,900 metric tons of HDPE plastic entered the British waste stream in 2001, according to a report by British environmental organization Waste Watch—207,200 of which were recoverable, but not recovered. Most of it simply ended up in landfills.
Meanwhile, a growing interest in sustainability was leading designers to use recycled materials, most of which were imported because Britain still lacks the recycling and processing infrastructure needed to reclaim plastic. In other words, the country was importing material of which it already had an abundant raw supply, and compounding a growing environmental problem in the process.
"When I first started looking into sustainable design as a student, I found recycled wood panels and plastic sheeting, but you're limited in what you can produce from them," says Liddle. "More importantly, they're all imported. Our waste was still being wasted."
Straw Into Gold
How, Liddle wanted to know, could all of that plastic waste be turned into something productive, its energy and value reclaimed? He spent two years at London's Royal College of Art studying the problem and developing a solution—a proprietary process that melds plastic recycling and manufacturing into a single, seamless process. Then he returned to Newcastle—where he'd earned his master's—in part because of the region's manufacturing history. "I could take advantage of the deep knowledge in this area and get access to industry," he says, and indeed, with some effort, he found a company willing to let him use its industrial machines for some early experiments and trials.
And so it is here, in a small studio that looks more like a tiny factory, that Liddle's Cohda Design refined its process of efficiently converting waste materials into new products. The studio is equipped with the modified industrial machines that can take bottles made of HDPE—a plastic used in the construction, housewares, automotive, and packaging industries—grind them into flakes, melt them, and form that molten plastic into chairs, lamps, and other products using a process he calls uncooled recycled extrude, or URE.
Production-ready prototypes, as well as more experimental geometric and woven forms, show the myriad possible designs. In most cases, those could be melted down and fed back through the process again and again—the opposite of what Liddle sees as the built-in obsolescence of most furniture today.
The Beauty of Green
Cohda's first commercial product, the RD4 (or "roughly drawn") chair, was shown at both the retailer Design Within Reach and the pop-up exhibition HauteGreen during New York's International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/23/07, "Tomorrow's Furniture Today").
Formed of woven strips of plastic, the chair is both 100% recycled and 100% recyclable, but it made an impact as much for its looks as for its green quotient. As HauteGreen co-producer Kimberly Oliver says: "The concept of making something new and beautiful from scrap materials is popular in green design, but the transformation of plastic waste into something as iconic and high-end as the RD4 is unique. Cohda takes recycled design into the realm of art."
That thought is echoed by Paul Donald, founder of Branch (branchhome.com), the Web retailer that was the first to carry the chair in the U.S. "The RD4 embodies the very best of both worlds: It's a gorgeous, iconic piece of furniture that happens to be made from waste material," he says.
Saving Energy, Too
To put the RD4's "green-ness" in context, the chair is eco-friendlier than Herman Miller's iconic Aeron, which is composed of 66% recycled materials and is 94% recyclable. That the furniture giant has achieved that degree of recyclability is itself a feat of sustainable engineering, and all the more impressive given the number of parts and the materials involved. Greening such a complex product isn't easy.
By contrast, Liddle's approach is impressive for its simplicity, which makes it extremely energy-efficient. The designer estimates that producing one RD4 chair using his process rather than virgin plastic saves enough energy to run a 60-watt light bulb for more than 1,400 hours. And, of course, in making "waste" plastics useful again, it is reclaiming lost energy in addition to saving valuable virgin materials.
Cohda will introduce several more products based on the URE process over the next six or seven months, including the Blood chair and GEO chandeliers. In addition, a patented interactive LED lighting system called Crypsis is in development, and its first products will be introduced this summer. Though not produced using URE (Liddle won't specify the technologies and manufacturing process involved), it is designed for easy disassembly and uses minimal materials, all of which can be recycled.
Cohda also works with clients. It produces a series of bicycle accessories for Toucan Engineering and limited-edition products for Fresh Fat—British designer Tom Dixon's collection of plastic housewares and furniture. Liddle hopes to collaborate with other companies in the future, and is especially interested in the possibilities of rapid-prototyping technologies. Often described as 3D printers, rapid prototyping machines produce physical objects based on digital designs in anywhere from 3 to 72 hours, depending on the machine and the size of the model.
Currently, such machines cost tens of thousands of dollars at the low end and are used by companies to produce design models and, more rarely, actual products. Liddle is among those who see the potential for home-based fabrication. "A home contains a certain percentage of plastic goods," he says. "Imagine if you could just use that plastic to create new goods. When you need a new product, you might actually just buy the design and use the material that you already have and form it."
More immediately, though, Liddle is working on a project he calls URE Live—a public recycling and production factory that will be shown this October at the annual Design Event festival, part of a yearlong series of sustainable design events and community projects in northeast England called Design of the Times 07. For the event, the public is invited to bring plastic trash that will be instantly recycled into a series of products.
"A lot of designers are exploring notions of sustainability in product design these days," says John Thackara, a design consultant, author, and organizer of DOTT 07 (and another of this year's Cutting-Edge Designers), "but Recycling Factory…combines technical, environmental, and cultural story lines in a unique way."
Indeed, few, if any, other products today directly tackle the challenges of existing plastic waste and sustainable manufacturing, let alone do it in a way that so elegantly makes the environmental point: There's no such thing as waste.
Click here to view a slide show of Richard Liddle's designs.