At UBC, in a lab near the nudist beach on campus, there’s a small group of environmentalists, artists, designers and engineers melting plastic waste from the University and their own waste into new products: pendants, keychains, desk organizers and clipboards.
This called for an interview with MELT Collective's mastermind, Pat Wilkie, to find out more about his inspiration and upcoming involvement at EDIT Toronto; where Design Exchange will unite the globe with a 10-day immersive festival, expo and interactive experience that showcases how design can help change the world.
Fig 1: one of the first keychains I made as gifts for the speakers at TEDxECUAD back in March. Keychains aren’t the most necessary product, but these are a great reminder of the possibilities in plastic waste.
This is fancy! How did you make this out of plastic waste?
With simple machines – we used a toaster oven and Arduino setup last year – a heavy dose of ingenuity, we are able to melt plastics into new forms, with staggering colour combinations that convey the process.
What's your view on recycling these days?
Transparency in recycling is the biggest problem: people don’t understand what is happening to materials after they throw them ‘away’. Honestly, institutions, businesses and entire cities often do not have a clear understanding of waste material flows, making it impossible to know whether our recycling infrastructure is working at all….
I’ll illustrate this with a simple example:
You get an aloe water to drink
It comes in a green plastic bottle
You drink the aloe water
You recycle the bottle, like a responsible Canadian does, in a blue bin and continue on your way
That bin is emptied by a recycling company and brought to their facility
It will be grouped with likeminded bottles
Then sent overseas,
Where it might get recycled
SO MUCH TRANSPORT ENERGY. Is it even worth it? Maybe the bottle ended up in a landfill after all those truck and boat rides.
The only way to guarantee transparency is with a clear Chain of Custody, or to actually transform the waste into value locally. That’s what I’m doing with Melt Collective, morphing plastic waste into new objects that will be useful for generations (and then recyclable again after that).
What message are you trying to share with your audience through this installation at EDIT?
Waste can be beautiful. Designing with recycled plastic has challenges, for sure, and it shows visibly in the products – not in their build quality, but in their material makeup. In our pendants, you might see a skewed word, “Vitamin C” or “Glucose”, from the nutritional information on what was once a package for food. It’s a wonderful reminder that these materials have had a previous life. The second part of this message is that plastics should be upcycled into long-lasting products: furniture, glasses frames, desk organizers and so much more. The kinds of things that last many lifetimes, because plastics last for hundreds and thousands of years, that’s what we should be designing the lifetime of the product to be.
What are some figures that inspire you to do what you do?
Dave Hakkens – Dutch designer of Precious Plastic, the open source plastic recycling machines and concept which catalyzed my creation of Melt Collective here in Vancouver. I’d been long interested in recycling and worried about waste, but Dave’s work really inspires me that it’s possible to use
Ellen MacArthur – circular economy proponent, and total badass. She sailed around the world, and now advocates for new business models that reduce waste and harmful byproducts, while saving tons of money. It’s hype.
Felix Bock – a local entrepreneur and engineer who founded ChopValue to turn the 300,000 chopsticks that sushi restaurants go through each week into decor materials.
Where do you seem room for improvement in the PNW?
I’d love to see design and specifically localized product design take hold here. The Pacific Northwest is in a cultural period of urban environmentalism. People in the city are caring about the planet and earth’s ecosystems in a bold way.
Sure there’s lots of ‘recycling programs’ here, but the reality is that we’re sending everything on cargo ships to China and HK, and when that’s not economically favourable, the recycling programs crash and burn, and we landfill everything.
I want to see more local re-manufacturing from waste: reclaimed wood furniture, chopsticks turned shelving, and plastic products from waste containers.
Visit our website meltcollective.com for more news and updates, and come see our Shredder in the Prosperity for All exhibit at EDIT this week (Sept 28th)