Category Archives: Recycling

new Emeco Navy Chair made of 111 recycled plastic bottles

Debuting at the Milan Furniture Fair this past spring was one very familiar looking chair.  The iconic Emeco aluminum Navy chair was developed back in 1944 and is a widely recognized symbol of mid-century American design.  However, this years fair saw a new Navy chair that despite all the familiar lines was something all together different.  Dubbed the 111 Navy chair, this chair is composed of a specially formulated composite containing 111 recycled plastic bottles.  The chair is part of a joint venture between Emeco and Coca-cola, and is over 4-years in the making. The result is a strikingly colorful plastic version of the original classic that carries a message to consumers that up-cycling our plastic waste can be both viable and beautiful.

The 111 Navy  is constructed from a hollow one-piece injection molding with a semi-gloss scratch resistant surface. It comes  in 6  bold colors including Coca-Cola red, snow, flint gray, grass, persimmon and charcoal.  The 111 recycled PET bottles make up about 60% of the chair which is reinforced with glass fiber to achieve the desired structural integrity.  Around 300 million recycled Coca-Cola bottles will go into 1 year of production for the chair.  This is just a fraction of the bottles Coke produces but regardless is an impressive example of upcycling use for soda bottles.

Coca-cola has long been involved in various large scale projects attempting to reinvest the company and it’s brand in better recycling strategies and awareness amongst consumers.  This particular venture is also unique in that it resulted in a product that is not immediately identifiable as being part of the Coca-cola brand.   In fact, the designers stayed quite true to the original Emeco chair. Rather than emblazoning the chair with Coke’s strong visual equities, as with other promotional objects, they restrained themselves to including just a small raised bottle detail on the top of the chair back.  Other than a familiar color scheme, what’s really left is a nice plastic version of the classic aluminum design, with the balanced visual appeal and heritage of the original Navy chair.  What I find most interesting is the way this product ties together two, previously unrelated, classic American design icons of such differing recognition.  This may be appealing merely for its irony, but regardless it creates an interesting narrative.

Recycling, and more specifically upcycling remains a challenging proposition to most companies.  The crux of the problem is that the business and infrastructure for collecting usable waste materials like plastic bottles remains  fragmented and under-serving to the volume created.  This is compounded by the fact that a growing global economy insures that inexpensive raw materials are always available.  Certain materials may have great potential for becoming more widely used manufacturing stocks, but there must be a greater effort to consolidate the collection, cleaning, and processing of such materials before the demand for producing mass market products can be met.  It will be expensive to implement, but has long term advantage to whomever captures ‘the stream’. Coke just took one step closer.

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turning garbage into green

Earlier this fall the Montgomery County Solid Waste Transfer Station in Derwood, Maryland was host to the first public performance of the Envion Oil Generator (EOG). What makes this new technology so intriguing is that the EOG can actually make usable oil product directly out of our own plastic garbage that would otherwise be buried it in a landfill or incinerated. Envion also claims that it can create this light to medium grade synthetic oil at an operational cost of around USD$10 per barrel. The concept of recapturing some of the energy that is trapped in the approximately 60 million tons of plastic waste produced each year could mean a whole new way of looking at the countries solid waste stream.

In my experience as a designer there has been hardly a single product or package I have dealt with that wasn’t composed of one or several types of plastic. Plastics have innumerable advantages in both manufacturing and performance which has led to their rise to become a truly ubiquitous aspect of our built environment and the objects that fill it.  It is therefore very frustrating that plastic also presents on of the greatest challenges to managing our solid waste reality.  Much of the problem has to do with plastic’s ability to far outlast the intended life of the products and packaging for which it is used. Not only does it degrade extremely slowly, but it can also release harmful chemicals in the process.  Even more troubling is the fact that most plastic is derived directly from the limited, costly, and non-renewable resource of oil and natural gas, two carbon-intensive fuels at the very core of the current fight for improved sustainability.

In my past posts I have addressed some of the issues concerning plastics by examining stories of improved or expanded recycling.  The last few years have seen an absolute explosion in consumer products containing recycled content.  Riding a tide of consumer demand, or at least expectation of “green”,  the use of recycled content has become a standard strategy for boosting a products’ green credentials.  However, designing something that is recyclable or made from some portion of recycled material remains a somewhat limited solution to improving overall sustainability.  This is because each time something plastic is recycled the performance and appearance attributes of the resulting material is significantly diminished, limiting the amount of times a given type of material can be reused and what types of new products it can be used for.

This conundrum surrounding how we handle our mounting reliance on plastic illustrates just how exciting the new Envion Oil Generator technology is for the future of plastic waste handling.  What Envion has created is a way to reconstitute bulk, unsorted plastic waste back into a usable petroleum product from which commercial fuels or even new plastic can be derived. This suggest that what was previously considered garbage can actually be turned into a source of renewable energy.  This is the type of solution that could actually shift consumers and producers’ perspectives on how we look at waste in general – as a potential resource.

The EOG works by using a reactor that converts waste plastic into oil through low temperature thermal cracking in a vacuum, extracting the hydrocarbons embedded in petroleum-based plastic waste. Each EOG unit is assembled on 47ft x 13ft mobile platform and can process up to 10,000 tons of plastic waste annually. The system converts roughly 62 percent of the plastic (by weight) into usable oil – three to five barrels of refined oil per ton of plastic waste.  The remaining by-product consists of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ash.  Envion even re-uses some of these by-products in the conversion process, utilizing vent gas to provide electricity and recirculating excess oil residue back into the system to improve efficiency.

Envion has been working on this technology for almost 15 years, and is now confidently promoting what they claim is a fully scalable, carbon negative oil production system.  They have already begun work on similar reactors to handle other forms of petroleum based waste, such as used tires.  Time will tell weather this new technology will prove a sustainable new boom amongst the world of waste. Regardless, seeing someone bold enough to snatch new sources of energy right out of the garbage bin sure is exciting.

Coke wants their garbage back

b2b_21Last month the Coca-Cola Company opened the doors on a brand new 60 million dollar bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in Spartanburg South Carolina.  The plant is designed to produce new PET containers directly from used bottles, and will have a projected capacity of around 100 million pounds of recycled PET, enough for about 20 billion 20-ounce bottles.  The significance of this story is in part due to the fact that the facility is reported to be the largest of its kind in the world. And it draws even more importance when viewed as a potential new model for the consumer packaged goods industry to support more sustainable consumption.

Though many have already lauded Coke for this and other efforts, an equal or greater amount have continued to criticize the organization as a whole, reciting a ‘too little too late’ mantra.  Granted, Coca-Cola must be held to a higher standard when it comes to the consumer waste they produce, but the current problem of more than two thirds of the PET  bottles produced ending up in landfills, is not theirs to shoulder alone.  It is also the responsibility of the consumer and their governments to support policies and behaviors that stem this growing mountain of wasted plastic.  What is most compelling about Coke’s new facility is that it seeks to establish a market-driven solution to the problem, something that if successful may be scalable to farther reaching programs.

To understand the significance of a true bottle-to-bottle system, one must first understand a little bit about the complexity of recycling PET.  Though we have seen bottles on the market in the past that claim to be 100% recycled, these examples are few and far between because achieving such a measure is extremely challenging.  Most consumer plastic recycling is handled by a broad and loosely organized network of private and municipal collectors spread across the country.  When it comes to recycled PET, it can only perform to higher standards if it comes form a clean and reliable waste stream.  The more non-PET material it comes in contact with along it’s journey, the less suitable it becomes for recycling directly back into a food-grade plastic.  This is why most PET is downcycled into things like park benches and other low-end plastic goods, rather than being put back into bottles.

While this may not be well known to the average consumer, who wholeheartedly puts their empty bottles in the recycling bin, it was recognized by Coke as a starting point to improve the system.  This is why the new facility was created in a joint venture with United Resource Recovery Corp, a leading authority in recycled PET.  URRC has a patented process called UnPET that allows them to chemically super clean used PET plastic making it safe for being recycled back into food-grade containers. Thus Coke, by understanding the limitations to recycling, actively found a technology partner who could work with them to create a model system to bring value back into their supplychain from the post-consumer waste stream.

Collecting all those used bottles is another issue.  This is where Coke has taken things a step further and invested through there bottling subsidiary, Coca-Cola enterprises, to create a new recycling organization, Coca-Cola Recycling LLC.  This new entity will recover PET along with other recyclable materials from a variety of sources, including government recycling centers, NASCAR events, college football stadiums, and even their own manufacturing network. This shows just how comprehensive of an initiative this is, that Coke is truly attempting to create a workable construct for reaching the eventual goal of recycling 100% of their packaging.

Whether or not the venture will be profitable is another question.  It is fair to assume that such a program would at least pay-off in the long-term, but the recent dive in the cost of virgin PET surely isn’t helping.  The cost of virgin plastic is at the core of the challange for most businesses interested in recycling. As long as the cost for virgin plastic is low, the business argument for recycling is on very weak footing.  However this passed year has shown us that commodity prices can sky rocket in the blink of an eye (consider the price of oil this past summer) and when that does happen, and it will, we will see if Coke’s bottle-to-bottle brainchild can step up to the plate.

I realize this is story has already been kicked around quite a bit over the last few months. But as a designer who has worked with many large CPGs it is inspiring to see a company rise to the challenges of a complex problem and take a broader look at what their situation could be rather than simply accepting what it is, or what it has been in the past.  On the announcment of the facility opening last month Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America best summerized things by saying “The opening of the Spartanburg plant, coupled with our investment in recycling businesses, programs and a new marketing effort, underscores our belief that our packaging has value and we want it back – both for our own supply chain and to support the myriad of other uses for recycled aluminum and plastic.”

dark days for recyclers

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I hate open things up on such a down note but I just finished reading a series of articles dating back a few weeks that discuss the dismal state of the recycling industry, and I can’t help but reiterate a bit.  The recycling industry is in the midst of an economic ‘perfect storm’ which is being driven by two significant shifts in the global marketplace.  The principle cause is, not surprisingly, the current economic slow-down which has drastically reduced consumer demand for manufactured goods, including those made from recycled materials.  The situation is further compounded by the extreme drop in prices for many raw material commodities over the last few months which have made virgin materials far cheaper than they where just a few months ago.    This has been especially visible in the market for plastics which because they are derived from petroleum have been subject to the steep dive in oil prices from nearly $140 a barrel over the summer to around $40 today.

So just another victim of the bad economy – why is this significant? Because such a severe drop in demand for recycled materials means that the many thousands of tons of material that are being collected and separated on a daily basis, stand the chance of being sent to the landfill if their vendors and handlers can’t find something to do with them.  Furthermore some of these recyclers my look to scale down the amount of material they collect in order to stem rising inventories. That is if they don’t close down all together. The current situation seems almost hard to believe considering the nearly opposite state of affairs a year ago.

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In 2008 we saw one of the greatest booms in the recycling industry in decades, mid-2008 marking an all time high for many material markets.  This was paralleled by an even more extreme spike in the cost of virgin materials, which made recycled materials a competitive alternative for many manufacturers.  This resulted in the added bonus of such manufacturers seeking out new and improved ways to incorporate recycled material into their products, pushing better technology, efficiency, and even improving consumer education.  Now it looks like a lot of that progress is under threat, as many producers scale back production, revert back to virgin material, and leave recyclers to retreat the industry due to a simple lack of solvency.

Recycling has always had its skeptics, so it’s painful for many ardent supporters to see things in such a desperate state.  But it should be recognized that the market for recycled materials must be willing to withstand the same volatility as any other commodity-based market, a point well taken by most of the surviving large-scale recyclers.  In other words, this is merely a cyclical phase for recycling, from which it will undoubtedly rebound. Regardless, one would still hope that this could be achieved without adversely affecting the existing recycling infrastructure, which is already being diminished.  Maintaining pure and reliable ‘streams’ or sources of recycled materials has always been the greatest challenge for the industry, because such infrastructure is clearly expensive to establish where it does not already exist.  Virgin materials are produced from well established supply chains, all the way down the the extraction of raw materials they are refined from.  Sure, these industries are also affected by the same economic turmoil that is hurting recycling, but the main difference is one of perception.  If the demand for virgin paper or plastic slows, the surplus created is not automatically considered waste.  It is a lot easier to ignore the potential value of something considered ‘garbage’ than it is to disregard a newly produced, not yet utilized commodity product.

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This stands to some reason.  After all most recycled materials do lack in quality and performance characteristics when compared to they’re virgin counterparts.  However this does not mean that there are not still innumerable potential uses for these materials that have yet to be developed.  The success of new products that incorporate recycled sources is the greatest testament to the validity of the industry, and is even more important in the face of current adversity.  Additionally there are new business models emerging that may also hold value in preserving the future of the industry. One of the more interesting examples is demonstrated by Coca-Cola Company’s recent construction of the largest bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in the world.  This shows an unprecedented amount of investment by an actual manufacturer into the waste-stream, reaffirming the long-term strategy of viewing consumer waste as a valuable resource.  While this is a seemingly straight forward approach, there are still other models that illustrate more innovative strategy.  TerraCycle the NJ-based company that first began by re-using discarded plastic bottles to package their eco-friendly gardening products, has now expanded there business to include numerous products, upcycled directly from post-consumer packaging collected out of the waste stream.  This innovative approach capitalizes on the standardized attributes of much consumer packaging by repurposing as new products without spending the energy and capital that would be necessary to reprocess it into all together new forms.

There is of course no one solution to the current challenges facing the recycling industry.  It will undoubtedly be a combination of approaches that will endure the current problems and keep the industry going forward.  Hopefully some of these new, and reinvented companies will inspire others to take on the challenge of capturing the value inherit to our consumer waste-stream.  It is there for the taking, economy permiting.