How a Plastic Water Bottle Becomes a Sofa (Hint: It’s Complicated)
Let’s examine, shall we?
Published Apr 22, 2019 7:00 AM
One million: That’s how many plastic water bottles are purchased around the world every minute. Hearing that staggering number, you can understand why there’s been such a push in recent years for reusable options. It’s not just about saving an extra dollar or two every time you get thirsty. Plastic waste is at an all-time high, but thankfully, there are some unlikely innovators hoping to solve that problem, and their solutions are guaranteed to look pretty in your home.
Furniture and home decor makers have turned to the plastic bottle as a material with massive potential, and it might just make a compelling solution to abate at least some of the world’s recycled plastic that has nowhere to go. With companies making everything from dining chairs to garden walls with the help of recycled H20 containers, there’s hope for the manmade material to find life beyond the landfill.
Recycled plastic bottles have become an often-used material in the fashion industry in recent years (hello, Everlane, Patagonia, and Norden), and now, the single-use containers are finding new modes of existence. The Citizenry’s new recycled rugs are made with a fiber spun from plastic bottles—each rug uses 3,000 bottles. Sofa brand Lovesac repurposed 11 million plastic bottles in 2018 alone, thanks to its use of recycled yarn. Large retailers like World Market have begun including throw pillows and outdoor furniture made from recycled bottles, and Dutch brand De Vorm has launched chairs upholstered in felt composed of the material. Even IKEA has made a commitment to using all recycled or renewable materials by 2030.
For makers big and small, the possibilities are great, but those possibilities are a little more complicated than they seem.
How exactly does a plastic bottle become… something else?
When you see a sofa, pillow, or even a table made from recycled plastic bottles, it’s natural to feel hesitant. That bottle of Poland Spring doesn’t seem like it could make a comfy floor covering or even a structurally sound surface. Plastic bottles, however, have to undergo a pretty thorough process of downcycling—breaking down something into its most material components—before they can find new life in your home.
Though the process varies depending on what you’re planning on creating, it generally follows this path: Recycled plastics are sorted, collected, and thoroughly cleaned—bottle caps removed. They’re then shredded into flakes, cleaned again, and melted to create fibers that are stretched and heated a few times. These fibers can then be compressed into felt or carded and spun into yarn. The plastic flakes, alternatively, can also be melted into larger plastic panels that can be used to create, say, a kitchen chair.
After this process, a whole lot of bottles are repurposed into something that boasts pretty impressive properties. “Each of our booths repurpose 1,088 plastic bottles; to date we’ve saved over three million plastic bottles from ending up in landfills,” says Alejandra Albarrán, Director of Design & Innovation at ROOM, a company that creates contemporary phone booths that you’ve undoubtedly seen in some coworking space or another. “Pre-processed PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is a commonly used raw material made out of broken-down plastic bottles and it’s known for being sound-absorbent. It’s a malleable material with a multitude of benefits, meaning the design possibilities are endless. It can be compacted and molded into different shapes, depending on how it’s heated, and it can be dyed any color.”
Some brands may handle recycled plastic sourcing on their own, but many choose to outsource to a collector company like Repreve, the leading recycled fiber supplier for many fashion brands and a few home retailers. To date, Repreve alone has recycled close to 15 billion bottles. But annual plastic bottle consumption is expected to top a whopping half a trillion by 2021. Yikes, indeed. The need for increased recycling and downcycling is apparent, but the road to get there isn’t totally smooth.
So what’s the problem?
Recycling, for many, may feel like second nature, but that doesn’t mean that’s quite so simple. Because recycling problems worldwide aren’t always regulated, sourcing recycled materials for downcycling can be tricky. “The challenges begin with the lack of available material yet in Mexico we produce and throw away huge amounts of plastics every day. We don’t have the laws and regulations necessary to optimize recycling processes,” says Paola Calzada Prats, founder of Luken Furniture, which produces outdoor furniture made from HDPE plastic, which is often used to make bottles for detergent, shampoo, and other personal care products. “This problem means there aren’t enough plastic colors available for our furniture, and it can delay production times and limit us to small quantities of panels produced per day.”
That’s not to mention the difficulty of sorting waste that has been recycled—but recycled incorrectly—alongside other trash that can complicate the process. “In terms of challenges, it is very difficult for the mill to find PET waste that is properly sorted and free of other kinds of waste,” Akella adds, referencing The Citizenry’s rug production process. “It becomes quite cumbersome and expensive to sift through mixed waste to find useful plastic.” That’s why recycled plastic is even more expensive than virgin plastic—which is also why some companies simply might not feel compelled to opt for the eco-friendly option. It also explains why some shoppers might choose to save a few bucks on something totally new.
It’s worth pointing out that plastics are made from petroleum and natural gas, which, by now, you probably already know aren’t the greatest resources to be relying on in a climate crisis. Though recycled plastics do come with some challenges (and ultimately, sometimes, a higher price point), that’s not to say they’re not worth investing in. In fact, they might just have the greatest potential of any material when it comes to outfitting your home.
Why use recycled plastics anyway?
Sure, recycled plastic may be more expensive, but its benefits far outweigh anything that can be judged on a monetary scale. Plastic takes 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill, and while virgin plastic is cheaper to produce, downcycling plastic into raw materials takes 88 percent less energy. There’s plenty of math to be done with those figures, but you get the point.
Recycling your plastic also doesn’t necessarily mean it will get recycled because of a relatively recent issue. China, which previously accepted seven million tons of recycled plastic from the United States each year (and 70 percent of the world’s recycled plastic) stopped accepting plastic recycling from other countries just last year, leaving global recycling systems with a problem: Where do we put all this waste? For some countries, the answer lies in burying trash. For others, landfills are an option. Neither of them are environmentally sound choices, so that means alternatives are necessary. If that’s not reason enough to appreciate the ingenuity of brands that find something productive to do with the plastic that’s just been piling up, we don’t know what is.
“Since plastic is practically an indestructible material, using recycled plastic materials to create goods that are meant to last would benefit the environment in two ways: First, it would take existing plastics out of the environment and turn them into permanent objects we need,” says Gay Browne, environmental health advisor and author of Living With a Green Heart. “Second, we would consume less natural resources because we would already have these long-lasting goods.” Simple, right?
For many designers, architects, and other inventors, those benefits are motivation enough to get innovating: “It’s incredible when you consider the amount of plastic garbage we produce and the fact that a simple bottle of Mexican detergent can cross the seas and end up on a beach on the other side of the world,” Ibarra notes. “This is the main reason we started the hunt for a material that could work for our prototypes.”
That’s not to say that the benefits end there, though. Yes, recycled plastic may come at a higher cost for the consumer, but if they’re willing to pay it, that means that smaller-scale makers don’t have to branch out to acquire totally new resources. They can create business models that are sustainable, both in practice and environmentally. “For developing countries, such as India, finding alternative and sustainable uses for the overwhelming plastic waste that litters streets, towns, rivers, beaches, and beyond is critical,” Akella says of The Citizenry’s rugs. “The fact that we are able to ameliorate a very modern problem (plastic waste heading for landfills) through a time-honored traditional craft (handweaving heirloom-quality rugs that are made to last) is beautiful.”
Well, what can you do to help?
First, up: stop using plastic water bottles. When there are so many beautiful reusable bottles and you have access to safe, drinkable water, there’s simply no excuse. “Plastic bottles are bad for the environment because, although they are recyclable, not all consumers recycle their water bottles. Further, not all recycling actually gets recycled,” says Browne. “According to analyst Nate Gelman of IBISWorld, only 30% of the six billion pounds of plastic bottles that get thrown away are recycled.” Yes, you have permission to shame your friends, family, roommates, and coworkers the next time you seen them throw a bottle in the trash.
When you do recycle—like we know you definitely do—be mindful of a few things: Recyclables should be clean when you place them in the recycling (yes, you should rinse that jar of pasta sauce before putting it in there), and you shouldn’t put your recyclables in a tied plastic bag (which can lead to them just being sent to a landfill) unless your town or city has specific laws (like, for instance, New York City). And speaking of bags, don’t put your plastic shopping bags in the recycling either. Those can go in bins you can easily find in your local grocery store or Target. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to look up your local recycling rules.
Sustainability, of course, should be centered on making the most with what you have, buying vintage or used goods whenever possible, and, essentially, not spending your money on things you know you’re going to toss anyway. Consider a rug made from recycled plastic bottles or a sofa stuffed with their fiber and don’t allow the hard facts about environmental conditions to simply fade into your rearview.
“I think to be mindful of the environment, the first step is to surround ourselves with environments that promote an emotional connection to the natural world,” says David Brenner, founder and principal of Habitat Horticulture, which you may know for its famed plant-filled living walls (made with the help of felt made from recycled bottles). “As urban density increases, it’s easy to lose sight of ourselves as belonging to a delicate ecosystem that can thrive or fail, depending on our choices and actions. This is the premise behind biophilic design [read: design that centers attention on our greater global ecosystem] in architecture and interiors, with proven benefits to our health and wellness, as well as the environment.”
Put a plant on your bedside table. Sort your recyclables. And if you feel compelled to get a plastic bottle of water, consider saving your money up for a recycled plastic statement chair instead. The earth will thank you, and honestly, your home will look even cooler because of it.
See more on sustainability: Want to Cut Down Your Plastic Use? These 3 Startups Can Help I Made a Conscious Effort to Be More Sustainable for a Week How One Person Finds Home Decor Treasures in Other People’s Trash