According to an alarming number of young designers, the future is plastic — but not the type of plastic that comes to mind when we think of soda bottles and food packaging. These designers are lauding the endless possibilities that have been given to the design community by a more sustainable form of the material: recycled plastic.

Recycled Plastic

Sustainability has become much more than just a buzzword in the 21st century, and it is so ingrained in some societies that it is now a part of everyday life, whether it be in the form of waste treatment or design. But there’s still a long way to go globally, and the United Nations predicts that the world’s plastic waste will still surpass 12 billion tonnes by 2050 thanks to the exponential growth of the manufacture and use of plastic internationally. Luckily, this high rate of production has also created new opportunities for plastic, since it’s a material that’s relatively easily to recycle into new durable and flexible substances that can be used across a range of industries. If all the world’s governments and designers melted down all the plastic already in existence, they would find themselves with enough raw material to make second-use plastic for many, many years to come.

Plastic Recycling Machine - Dave Hakkens

Many designers and design schools in the Netherlands (a country always at the forefront of design innovation) are taking this idea of plastic as a raw material quite seriously. Dutch designer Dave Hakkens has created an open-source plastic recycling machine and put the plans online for free so that anyone can copy his creation and start recycling plastic for themselves. The project, which also served as his design thesis, has been adapted by as many as 200 designers around the world, most of whom use the machine to create jewelry and household objects and then sell them online. In another instance, Jessica den Hartog from the Maastricht School of Art and Design conducted research into the possibilities of color in recycled plastic. She found that many of Holland’s local councils already had the facilities to process plastic in a more streamlined way so that it could more easily be made use of afterwards. Unfortunately, most of those municipalities are not yet exploiting these possibilities.

Recycled Plastic

It’s not just design students who are taking the possibilities of recycled plastic seriously. Big name brands like Adidas and Stella McCartney have already used the material in their collections, with Adidas in particular relying solely on ocean plastic to create a range of unique clothing and swimwear.

Bob Vos and Alessandro Iadarola of the sustainable design brand Polimeer say: “Working with recycled plastic offers unlimited design opportunities, because of the variety of polymer compounds and processing techniques that can be used. In most cases, plastic can be found on the streets, or you can partner with businesses [and have them] donate their leftovers for free. This abundance of plastic in the environment creates an opportunity for young designers to start thinking.”