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Plastic is everywhere. It is prized in industry for its versatility, affordability, formability, lightness and bio- inertness, and it is now the material of choice for products, packaging and infrastructure around the world. The broad appeal of plastic as a ‘miracle material’, combined with successful lobbying from global petroleum organisations throughout the 20th century has resulted in an exponential growth in the production of plastic items worldwide, with the 2.3 million tonnes of plastic produced in 1950 ballooning to 448 million tonnes in 2015, and set to double again by 2050. Plastic is now so ubiquitous, that contemporary societies would be nearly unrecognizable without it. However, the very same qualities that make plastic so desirable, also make the material particularly challenging to dispose of. Most plastics today contain additives to augment their performance and appearance, but also alter their chemical composition, making them difficult to purify and recycle.
The durability of plastics also means that they are resistant to almost all forms of organic decomposition. Finally, plastics are highly disposable, with over 40% of all plastics produced today being single use, and not conventionally recyclable.The exponential growth of plastic production, coupled with the material’s problematic afterlife has resulted in a pressing environmental and societal crisis.

We are now drowning in plastic!

This statement is not hyperbole, as plastic waste has now been identified around the world, from uninhabited atolls to the Marianas trench,and in our air and water.


So, what can we do to solve the plastic crisis?
The obvious solution would be to stop using plastic altogether, or at least slowly wean societies away from plastic dependence. And while this would pull the plug on plastic production, it would still leave our world entrenched in the billions of tonnes of plastic already produced. To address this problem, governmental and independent agencies across the world offer one comprehensive solution. Recycle! Superficially, the concept of recycling makes a lot of sense for plastics, giving wasted items a new lease of life while the world transitions away from plastics to more sustainable substitutes. However, the reality of plastic recycling is deeply nuanced and fraught with a myriad of challenges that make it far from a perfect solution.

Firstly, there is the nature of plastic itself. Unlike metal or paper, the integrity of plastic drastically degrades every time it is recycled, with most plastic items only able to undergo recycling 2-3 times before being deemed ‘unfit for use’. Secondly, there is the complex nature of plastic recycling itself. For an item to be recycled, it must be sorted from other waste, then sorted into it’s plastic type, then sorted based on various other criteria including colour, density and shape, then shredded, melted and reformed into plastic pellets for reuse.




Many plastic items fail to be sorted into recyclable categories, meaning that only small fractions of ‘recycled’ plastics make the cut to actually be repurposed. And to top it all off, there is the notion that recycling plastics only encourages the production of new plastics. With the general public content with buying plastic under the belief of its recyclability, few make the effort to alter their consumer patterns to avoid plastics altogether. This is something that plastic industrialists are acutely aware of, with the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry reportedly stating to NPR in the 1980’s that “selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn't true”.

It is likely that even if commitments to plastic recycling are dramatically increased, it will not substantially reduce the amount of plastic waste present globally, and may even act to support continued virgin plastic production. It is evident therefore, that a more radical approach needs to be taken to address plastic waste that lies outside of the paradigm of conventional recycling. This does not mean that we should abandon the concept of plastic recycling, but rather that we should be critical in how we appraise plastic as a resource, and how we choose to process it. Doing so may hold the key to making plastics a lot more manageable.

Elongating Lifespan of Plastic


One step to reducing the strain on recycling infrastructure would be to develop mechanisms for elongating the functional lifespans of recycled plastics. As plastic items can only be recycled a couple of times before being disposed of, items with longer applications will inevitably impact how much plastic eventually ends up in landfill or becoming pollutants. Plastic bags, for example, are particularly problematic as they have an average lifespan of 12 minutes, with nearly 200,000 committed to landfill every hour. Similar life spans account for most plastic packaging items. Consumables like nylon clothing, toys, plastic products and furniture fare better, but still usually have life spans of 4-6 years long in the US. By far and away the most sustainable application of plastics is as architectural components, with construction plastics having an average lifespan of 35 years and many items like PVC piping being capable of operating effectively for well over 100 years. Converting plastics into architectural components is of course not a new idea by any means, with plastics already having widespread applications in the construction industry, from fiber reinforced panelling systems and ETFE enclosures, to screw anchors and insulation foam. However, it is notable that these applications are typically made from virgin plastic pellets due to their structural integrity and their ability to be easily augmented with performance enhancing additives like fiberglass. This means that typical applications of plastic in architecture still serve to support the petrochemical industrial complex, rather than act as a method to consolidate plastic waste. For architecture to play an effective role in engaging plastic waste, it may need to shift away from traditional plastic applications.




Recycling for Retirement, Not Reuse


Current recycling processes rely on the supposition that recycled plastics need to be highly performative in order to compete with virgin plastics as consumer items. However, there are definitely merits for recycling plastics to be less performative and refined.


Less processed recycled plastics require less sorting, shredding, and compressing in recycling facilities, which in turn, greatly streamlines the time, energy and waste produced when compared to conventional recycling. Fewer recycling processes also drastically reduces the size of recycling facilities, creating an opportunity for smaller, urban recycling facilities to be affordably established.


The material qualities of less processed recycled plastic may also play a vital role in shifting the public opinion of plastic away from its perception as an endlessly consumable resource. Architectural facade elements like compressed recycled panels can be intentionally designed to be inefficient in their use of material, with singular 2x50x100cm panels consuming the equivalent of  200 milk bottles of plastic to produce. While this may appear to be wasteful, dense applications of plastic like this can serve to consolidate vast quantities of plastic waste that would otherwise be spread across vast geographies and environments into items with relatively long functional lifespans.

If applied at an urban scale, cities could effectively function as an architectural landfill for plastic waste, wherein plastics are recycled not for purely reuse, but instead for long term managed consolidation and storage within building elements while societies transition away from plastic production. 
Post Plastic Ecologies

A post plastic ecology is a network of infrastructure and industries that focus on the decommissioning and eventual replacement of plastic, rather than to perpetuate its continued production and reuse as rapidly consumable items. This does not necessarily rule out the production of plastic consumables, but limits the use of plastics towards items with long functional lifespans, ideally made via less selective and wasteful recycling processes.


Startups across the world are now beginning to embrace long lifespan recycling, with many developing essential products and technologies to foster the foundation of a post plastic ecology. Companies like  ThingThing and Smile Plastics are championing the aesthetic of raw recycled plastics, producing furniture items and panels out of compressed shredded HDPE. Unlike conventional  recycling companies that aim to precisely sort  HDPE shreddings, these companies embrace  the different colors and textures produced  through the curated mixing of different shreddings. This in turn, produces recycled plastic  components with diverse material qualities  and aesthetic sensibilities, with many resembling marble or terrazzo surfaces, ideal for  furniture, interior finishes, and facade panels.  Other companies, like Precious Plastic, have  taken things a step further, creating modular connectors and interlocking bricks out of  compressed HDPE, designed specifically to  be used directly in construction. Companies  like precious plastic, are also promoting the  proliferation of grassroots plastic recycling by  designing and selling equipment like shredders, compressors and injection molders so  that members of the public can get involved  in plastic recycling directly. With the emerging aesthetic of raw plastic gaining popularity  coupled with the affordability and pervasiveness of plastic waste, it is likely that new plastic recycling industries will continue to evolve and thrive in the years to come.

With post plastic industries organically developing, the responsibility for the  next step in the creation of post plastic ecologies rests on architecture. If widely supported within the design industry, cities could  be transformed into nodes for the managed  consolidation of plastics while simultaneously functioning as sites of exploration for recycled plastic architecture.

Recent projects like the People’s  Pavilion by Bureau SLA are beginning to  leverage the aesthetic qualities of recycled  plastics through their application of colored  recycled shingles. However, there is definitely more that architects can do to explore the  formability, texture and structural qualities of  the material. 

Furthermore, with over 380 million  tonnes of plastic being produced globally every year, only by embracing the material on a  massive scale, can an impact be realistically  made to our consumer waste production. If  taken to its logical conclusion, buildings in a  post plastic ecology have the potential to be  almost entirely constructed from recycled  plastics, as a means to entrap plastic waste  within dense urban fabrics for centuries to  come. While not a perfect solution to the impending plastic crisis, this consolidation can  serve to make the problem more addressable  both geographically and temporally. The al ternative is to continue rapidly consuming  and disposing of plastics, and with so much  ending up in landfill and the environment,  plastic will continue doing what it was made  to do – endure.



Endnotes

1 Gay Hawkins (2021) Detaching from plastic packaging: reconfiguring material responsibilities, Consumption  Markets & Culture, 24:4, 405-418, DOI: 10.1080/10253866.2020.1803069

2 Laura Parker (2019) The world’s plastic pollution crisis explained, National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/plastic-pollution

3 Ibid.

4 Sarah Gibbens (2019) Plastic proliferates at the bottom of world’s deepest ocean trench, National Geographic
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/plastic-bag-mariana-trench-pollution-science-spd

5 Matt Wilkins (2018) More Recycling Won’t Solve Plastic Pollution, Scientific American https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/more-recycling-wont-solve-plastic-pollution/

6 Author Unknown (2019) How is Plastic Recycled? A Step by Step Guide to Recycling, British Plastics Federation
https://www.bpf.co.uk/plastipedia/sustainability/how-is-plastic-recycled-a-step-by-step-guide-to-recycling.aspx

7 Laura Sullivan (2020) How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled, NPR https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/897692090/how-big-oil-misled-the-public-into-believing-plastic-would-be-recycled

8 Sutton, J., & Turner, B. (2012) Plastic Bags: Hazards and Mitigation https://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1082&context=socssp

9 Laitala K. and Klepp I.G. (2015) Age and Active Life of Clothing, Plate Conference https://www.plateconference.org/age-active-life-clothing/

10 Author Unknown (2018) Does PVC Pipe Have A Long Life Expectancy, JM Eagle https://www.jmeagle.com/does-pvc-pipe-have-long-life-expectancy