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Designers are pushing boundaries to regenerate by-products into objects of function and décor

Picking from a palette of discarded material that is no longer in use, Fairweather and McMillan convert trash from industrial waste streams into handcrafted panels of decoration

Swansea, UK. February 20th 2021. A reexamination of used coffee grounds led to the creation of a recyclable coffee cup and jewelry articles for the partners at Smile Plastics. Designer duo Adam Fairweather and Rosalie McMillan have explored the transformation of used plastic and lent it renewability that attracts the industries of retail design, interior decoration, and architecture. The versatility of material in designs that Fairweather and McMillan draw inspiration from varies from Christmas decorations to banknotes. Their company, Smile Plastics, sources a gamut of materials comprising disposable food packaging such as yogurt pots, medical and cosmetic packaging, ocean and beach plastic garbage, leaves, CDs, wellington boots, and leftover tinsel from store decoration. These 100 percent recycled and recyclable forms find a place in homes, offices, bars, restaurants, outdoor recreation settings along with store, exhibition, product, and furniture designing. «Our materials have inspired designers around the world and have been used in wide-ranging applications from small products to large-scale installations in both residential and commercial premises. Materials we have worked with are thermoplastics, paper, textiles and organic materials like tea, spices and coffee grounds».

The ambition to revisit what scrap can offer could elevate it to its maximum potential not just for form and function, but also for what it offers as an experience to the viewer or user and as a motivation for the minds behind Smile Plastics. Fairweather and Mcmillan share an interest in the narrative of the daily-use plastic spoon or fork that carries a chain of evolution and preparation from hydrocarbons. While the invention of plastic was welcomed in the early twentieth century as a lightweight replacement for metals, its usefulness has run its course and its contribution as a pollutant is now an issue to focus on, on a global scale. By renewing and redefining plastic as a material in their panels, Smile Plastics brings a shift in the paradigm of awareness around the impact of recyclability for the consumer. «Our mission is to change people’s perceptions around waste via innovation – to use art and technology to unlock the hidden potential in recycling and open their eyes to the unexpected beauty of scrap. In doing so, we hope to inspire people and educate them on sustainability and recycling». Through a studied methodology of material, product design and production, Smile Plastics has structured an ecosystem to foster the metamorphosis of plastics with an approach of originality and inventiveness. «Our Smile Plastics panels are a springboard for the creativity and imagination of designers and architects across the world. The versatility of the materials means that our plastics have been employed in a wide spectrum of applications, from art installations through to furniture and jewelry».

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Selfridges Christmas Tinsel White Detail, Smile Plastics

The process of understanding how things are made and how they can be transformed guides both Fairweather and McMillan’s thinking processes since early childhood. «There’s a balance to be achieved between moving in a particular aesthetic direction for the material being created and managing the practicality of the outcome as envisaged. Both creativity and creative problem solving reboost us», McMillan explains. Every pattern emerges from a methodical creation deriving an individuality and personality during its fabrication process, drawing from the nuances of the raw material, an understanding of the craft, and the blueprint of experience. Ideation for new panels can come from waste streams that pique the interest of the designer duo or from stores and brands that seek bespoke designs. For a Selfridges Christmas store display, Smile Plastics was commissioned to reuse tinsel from decorations to custom-make panels for retail display counters. A series of flexible sheets were created from the casings of electric cables for Electricity – The Sparks of Life, an exhibition hosted at the Wellcome Trust in London. Retail display material for Sneakerstore in Los Angeles was inspired by the Venetian sunset, blending a gradient of colors in ombré, and manufactured as an undulating table display surface in continuity.The mottled imperfection and irregularity of the materials weave the stories of their panels, each of which bears a distinction in its properties for design and application. From conception to the realization of a new panel, it requires a few weeks or up to a few months or even more to reach the final stages. «Developing a new material can take several months, though it sometimes takes significantly longer» as Smile Plastics explains, which was the case for their coffee grounds project for the Sanremo Verde Coffee Machine, where the exterior and parts of the coffee maker were layered in recycled coffee material. «The coffee material used in our Sanremo Verde project took us years to perfect and is part of a bigger coffee recycling project which started in 2002». As their pieces find their way in the leisure and hospitality industries, recent clients that Smile Plastics have worked with are Stella McCartney, Christian Dior, Liberty, Paul Smith, Droog, LUSH, Heals, Acne Studios, Ace Hotel, Anthropologie, Lofbergs, Surfdome, Greencup, Ford, Urban Outfitters, Sanremo, KPMG, National Trust, YardSale Pizza, Hej, Havas and Space10.

In the microfactory of Smile Plastics located in South Wales, multiple processes are employed for the fusion of plastic wastes which include heat and pressure application. Besides sourcing, cleaning and preparing the plastics, the waste streams are also hand-treated to evolve patterns and textures. «Our process begins with us exploring the possibilities of waste materials on a pilot scale. We experiment with different waste streams, colors and patterns before trialing our production on a larger scale». The finished materials possess properties such as durability, sustainability, and rot and water resistance that makes them user-friendly and befitted with practicality for surface design projects. «We frequently combine different waste streams into a single material. Most of the time the combinations of waste streams are of the same plastic-type, but we have also found a way of combining different material types such as coffee grounds with plastic». As partners reviving Smile Plastics from scratch, the duo has shared a common mission of using recyclable material for their respective design journeys. Rosalie McMillan comes from a background in jewelry designing with sustainable and ethical materials and Adam Fairweather is an industrial designer having spent over a decade building hand-crafted panels within an ecosystem that reimagines waste. In developing their brand, both blend their skills to balance materials expertise with aesthetic exploration. With Smile Plastics, they envisage expanding their vision of distributed manufacturing to collaborate with designers and projects across the world. 

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Electicity – The spark of life, Wellcome Collection, 2017, Ph Michael Bowles

By extending plastics microfactories in diverse locations, Smile Plastics can tap indigenous waste streams and provide their expertise for small-scale and domestic suitability. They aim to decentralize manufacturing by working with local communities while helping to create a conscious footprint. «By collecting and recycling waste plastic, we can preserve the natural world whilst creating something lasting and beautiful for ourselves». 

Plastic panels as eco-materials were introduced by Yemm & Hart (USA) in 1989. Their pioneering compression-molded and multicolored material was created from recycled milk jugs and detergent bottles. Since then, Yemm & Hart have produced ecologically suitable surfaces that have a nature of resilience and durability for usage in commercial and residential projects. Another example of their work in refurbishing natural resources for renewability is how cork from wine bottles is blended with granulated cork to replace ceramic tile flooring and wall surfaces. Conversations around transforming plastics as upcycled material are helping society transition to a circular economy around the world. Ventures like Pretty Plastic based in Amsterdam, Netherlands are using PVC waste sourced from the building industry to produce tiles for construction and infrastructure. They aim to reduce waste with their cladding products that can be reused for longevity alongside contributing towards bringing an end to the linear economy cycle. With responsible recycling, residual waste which increments the negative impact on the environment can slowly become a thing of the past. 

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Smile Plastics is a circular economy business run by designers Adam Fairweather and Rosalie McMillan. Adam Fairweather has been an advisor for a broad range of companies around designing ways to reuse and recycle waste products. He is also the Innovations Director at Greencup UK, a coffee company. Rosalie McMillan became a finalist for an Observer Ethical Award for sustainable style in 2015 for her sustainable jewelry line with a focus on recycled materials.

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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